Twelve days ago, on March 1st, 150 students with the School Strike for Climate movement, aka #FridaysForFuture, signed a joint letter to the world demand action from their elders — us —to prevent further degradation to the global environment. The movement formed a number of years ago, but it wasn’t until 15-year-old Swedish ninth grader Greta Thunberg staged a one-person protest outside the Swedish Riksdag parliament in late August after a summer of heat waves and wildfires across the Nordic country that the movement gained traction. Thunberg vowed not to return to school until the Swedish general election on Sept. 9. Perhaps it says something about the Swedish education system that schools there were in session long before end end of summer holidays across North America, but that’s the Nordic mindset for you.
As it happened, her protest, while easy to dismiss — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously huffed that these kids today need “more learning in schools and less activism,” thus proving Thunberg’s point about Herberts being completely tone deaf, not just on climate but on any number of other issues — spread like autumn mushrooms in an old-growth forest. By December, student strikes had expanded to nearly 300 cities around the globe, from Australia, Austria and Belgium to Switzerland, Uganda, the UK and the US.
Thunberg herself points to an unlikely source of inspiration for her What-Do-Kids-Know-Anyway protest: the student activists at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who staged their own protest march, March for Our Lives, in the wake of a deadly school shooting earlier that year that claimed 17 lives.
Thunberg, whose bright yellow rainjacket and hand-drawn sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate) became impossible to overlook outside the Swedish parliament, galvanized school students around the world to take part in student strikes each Friday, and make their voices heard.
Last month, the movement claimed its first political scalp, a regional environment minister in Belgium, just days before winning endorsements from climate scientists and environmental groups across the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Flanders politician and then-environment minister Joke Schauvliege resigned on Feb. 5, days after falsely claiming that Belgium’s state security agency had evidence that the school strikes were “a set-up.” Days later, more than 300 Dutch scientists signed an open letter in support of the school strikes, writing, “On the basis of the facts supplied by climate science, the campaigners are right. That is why we, as scientists, support them.”
Not to be outdone, on Feb. 13, more than 200 academics across the UK signed a letter in support of the advocacy group Extinction Rebellion, writing that they were giving their “full support to the students” backing the School Strike for Climate movement.
All this is pointing toward Friday’s moment of truth, the most widespread strike yet, endorsed by some of the world’s most pro-active, high-profile environmental groups, with 450 events planned in 54 countries — this, according to the website FridaysForFuture.org.
Thunberg was among 150 co-signers of an open letter in The Guardian on March 1st, which read in part, “We finally need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It is the biggest threat in human history and we will not accept the world's decision-makers’ inaction that threatens our entire civilization . . . . Climate change is already happening. People did die, are dying and will die because of it, but we can and will stop this madness. . . . We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing us in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves. . .”
It’s easy to pull a Scott Morrison and be cynical about this — what the hell does a 16-year-old know? — but, simply by looking around us with our eyes open and taking in the big picture, it’s easy to see that the environment is ailing and that climate change, while a terrible scourge in itself, may be a symptom of an even wider, more serious malaise. At best, colder winters and hotter summers are an inconvenience — an inconvenient truth, if you will. At worst, they could signal a looming mass extinction — the end of the Anthropocene era, in a blink-of-an-eye compared with how long it took the dinosaurs to die out.
Seeing the starry-eyed idealism of “the climate kids” and watching the way adult cynics, duplicitous politicians and the slick, self-styled Saurons of the fossil-fuel industry round on Thunberg, Xiuhytexcatl Martinez and others — just as the NRA gun lobby and Republican politicians rounded on the Parkland students before them — it’s hard not to be reminded of historical accounts of the Children’s Crusade in the early 13th century. That was a crusade that ended in catastrophe for the children involved, remember, with many of them sold into slavery after being tricked by merchants along the way who promised them safe passage to the Holy Land.
A revisionist version published in 1977, by the Dutch historian Peter Raedts, has it that the children were not children at all but rather bands of “wandering poor” from Germany and France who had little intention of ever reaching the Holy Land.
One thing about climate change, though, if it’s real — and few can now doubt that is, not given the recent paroxysms of climate extremes — is that it won’t be subject to interpretation or revisionism. The effects won’t be limited to a small corner of the globe, or even continental Europe, for that matter. They will be worldwide, global, from pole to pole and from Asia to Australia, taking in Africa and the Americas along the way.
That’s why this particular Children’s Crusade is meaningful. It matters.
Banner image ©Michael Campanella for The Guardian, 2019.