A backpacked middle-aged man stood staring at a high school girl while she waited for her train to pull into Footscray station. ‘You know there’s more ice in Antarctica now than there was ten years ago, don’t you?’ he barked.
The girl was on her way to Melbourne’s climate strike and carrying a placard that read: ‘CONVERSATION STARTED: CLIMATE CHANGE — IT’S A REAL ICEBREAKER.’
She responded, saying something about climate change being real; another commuter intervened to tell the guy to ‘get lost’ and he stormed away — visibly angry — muttering to himself about (I assume) young people these days.
Anyone at Friday’s climate strike couldn’t help but notice just how much the terms of the debate have shifted in recent years. The crisis is one of being. That’s why any opposition to the strike — complaints about the inconvenience caused or that kids ought to be in school, for example — seems petty. Climate change denialism isn’t simply a political position anymore. To deny the science is to embrace nihilism; it is to be complicit in one’s own extinction.
Never before has social-movement politics had to confront such a crisis. Indeed, the overwhelming, totalising scale of the current situation can, for obvious reasons, provoke a sense of paralysis.
In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen wrote:
‘If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.’
But the climate strike presented a third option: the reality of the situation is not being denied or downplayed, but, whereas Franzen maps out a series of individual responses, those who marched recognise that any effort to avert disaster must be collective.
When I told some friends at dinner on Friday night that I found the strike life-affirming in a way that I’d never experienced at any other demonstration they accused me of sentimentality. I was, they said, still caught up in the moment. But it’s a feeling that’s stayed with me days later. For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled to think, talk and act in a constructive way when it comes to climate change. For those of us inclined to pessimism and cynical about the limits of individual action, the climate strike provided a much-needed antidote.
It will also be an important event in many of the students’ political formation. One of the criticisms often leveled at young people is that they’re too focused on single issues. But, in a sense, there can be no other issue beyond climate change — the crisis is existential. Because of this, today’s youth will be shaped by profoundly different political and cultural forces than those of previous generations.
Unsurprisingly, growing up in the shadow of an impending apocalypse can be anxiety-inducing. Indeed, such a response seems perfectly rational. The idea that this anxiety is, in the eyes of some conservative commentators, a result of ‘alarmist rhetoric’ and not the threat itself is absurd.
The risk is that this anxiety becomes so debilitating that it leads to a sense of resignation — that the struggle is futile. The challenge is turning this anxiety into a productive force that acknowledges the urgency of the crisis without becoming overwhelmed by it.
There is always an inevitable lull after an event of such impact and scale; frustration can quickly set in when change doesn’t happen as quickly and radically as many hoped. But the singularity of the issue in the minds of many young people — the fact that it is not just one issue among others — will ensure the momentum created by Friday’s strike will continue to build.
(This was originally published in Eureka Street on 20th September, 2019.)