Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old activist from Sweden, has inspired tens of thousands of students across the world to join her in protesting climate inaction. Hundreds of protests are planned for Friday, March 15th, including one in Hong Kong.
It is no exaggeration to say that climate change is life-changing. It is happening now and it is escalating.
I am relieved and proud that Greta has gained the attention she has. I am relieved and proud that many other young people are joining her in stepping beyond their routines and gamely putting on activist hats, even though it is likely a new role for a lot of them. I am relieved and proud that some parents are visibly backing their children and encouraging participation.
However, I am deeply disappointed in the approach we are seeing from educational institutions and authorities locally. On Friday, the HKFP learned that West Island School had emailed parents to dissuade them from supporting their children attending the march. “A rallying cry and the ‘fear of missing out’ has a powerful effect on young people,” says the email.
It goes on to say that they plan to “speak to students about the difference between protest and meaningful action” and then appears to encourage students to consider “equipping themselves with their own cutlery set to save on disposable items in the dining areas” as the more sensible, safe, sanctioned action, “less attractive than a day from school but perhaps more enduring in the longer term.”
South Island School expressed support for the campaign “in principle” earlier, but cited safety as their overarching responsibility, and held back on stronger sentiments. Sha Tin College has said it would not permit it, and would count skipping school to attend it as an unauthorised absence.
The Education Bureau told HKFP that it opposed the action “since any form of boycott of classes will disrupt the order in schools and interfere with the normal learning of students and operation of schools.”
These are all dangerous stances to take. To imply that young people want to attend the march to avoid missing out on something trendy, or simply to skip school as West Island School as done, is grossly condescending.
To suggest that bringing one’s own reusable cutlery is the right alternative to protest, or implying that protest itself cannot be meaningful action, would be risible were it not so misinformed and poisonous.
What will interfere with the order in schools and normal learning of students and operation (the purported concerns of the Education Bureau), is rising water levels and increased temperatures, not students flexing their voices for their future.
Schools and authorities should actively support the rally, rather than risk dampening the energy we are seeing from the students towards this important issue. Even expressing support “in principle” isn’t going to cut it.
They should see this new momentum as an opportunity to include more in their curricula about climate change, and should look to hosting more discussions on their premises tied to the event, to create more conversation and awareness, and strongly back the futures of their students.
Their very existence is predicated on caring about the future of the youth, so it would be a sad and Pyrrhic victory if they manage to dissuade even one student from participating in something that may just lead to a better future for them, to learn how to use their voices in a community setting, to step beyond comfort zones, to push back. What is not safe is to encourage a student or parent to tone down their zeal on this huge issue and take refuge in small-scale individual actions.
There is currently no wondrous technology that will play deus ex machina in the story of our species when it comes to climate change, nor should we hinge our futures on that expectation.
Few adults have the wherewithal to dramatically alter their lives, and it is clear that individual or small group actions will be inadequate to the scale of change that is needed. Change on that scale can happen if the bigger powers that be, in the form of governments and large companies, act.
But time and again, despite the endless palaver, there does not seem to be a big enough, credible enough, or serious enough plan in place that would give a present-day teenager any reason to hope that the adults are behaving responsibly. Leadership will have to come from many angles to tackle this existential crisis we are living through.
It is very logical for them to elevate their voices and try to do something about the crumbling environment around them, because the alternative is grim. It feels natural that we are now seeing it come from people whose lives are going to be far more affected by it than the “leaders” of traditional institutions whose lifespans, to put it bluntly, are bound to be shorter.
It also appears rational for a teenager to want to put a personal voice to this, given how obvious it is that older generations have been, at least in some measure, part of the problem due to inactivity, ignorance, or at worse, wilful exploitation of our environment.
There are bound to be detractors to movements like these, people who snidely point out that the protestors are not adequately informed, don’t know the real world, or that they are not unified in their goals.
To that I say: if they aren’t informed they will be, and let’s not presume to underestimate what they know and see about their own lives and world; that this is very much a demonstration of knowing the real world, far more than quoting support in principle and acting in the interest of order in the face of life-changing issues; and, that a lot of strong change-making movements are a result of divergent people coming together in common cause despite their differences.
To invoke Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s theories, these activists have enough temporary essentialism they share to create unified action.
Let us support them wholeheartedly and take inspiration to call for more action on climate change ourselves.