Young Climate Activists Have More Power Than They Know
Students and young people standing up for the Earth have more power and influence than they realize!
In the past few years there has been a groundswell of young people expressing their anger, fear, grief about the climate crisis — and their demands on how to tackle it. For me, seeing their actions has been both harrowing (that they should even be needing to do it) and admirable. I don't think I found my own political voice until I was at least 30.
Hope among young climate activists
Many young activists will be ramping up their efforts and expecting — as many of us are — to see, finally, some concrete actions from our political leaders. Activists must celebrate the wins, and also brace themselves for the disappointments that the UN climate conference COP26 entails.
But disappointment on the world stage does not mean that change isn't coming. Indeed, as the writer Rebecca Solnit reminds us in her beautiful book Hope in the Dark, the fate of the world is not only decided on the spotlit stages of international conferences. Far from it.
Perhaps youth activists, too young to have lived through many climate summits, can be bolstered by Solnit's central theory, which is that change comes in convoluted ways. There is rarely a linear cause and effect. More often, victories come as subtle, complex, slow (and sometimes sudden) changes instead.
Following Solnit's thesis, the most important work that activists are engaged in is not lobbying international climate conferences (although this is also vital), it is in the spread of ideas and shaping of imaginations. As she puts it: "The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter."
Imaginations have already revolted
Regardless of the outcomes of COP26, the youth movement has shown that their imaginations have already revolted, and that this spirit of revolution can be infectious. The phenomenal wave of action and awareness that was set in motion by Greta Thunberg's first lonesome "School Strike for Climate" in 2018 is only the most visible part. Elsewhere, youth activism has been going on for years without media attention.
That young people's demands to tell the truth and to take the climate crisis as seriously as it deserves appear not yet to have been met by political leaders, does not mean that the world has not been changed, or that it won't.
You matter more than you think
This is the argument put forward by Professor Karen O'Brien and others, who suggest that the conscious, intentional actions of individuals have much more power to shift entrenched systems than is commonly assumed. In other words, and to quote the title of O'Brien's book on the subject, you matter more than you think.
Although there is a danger here of playing in to the hands of those who would love to offload their responsibility for the climate crisis onto the lifestyle choices of individuals, it is also empowering to recognise that our individual actions exert much greater power on the larger system than just what can be counted or measured.
Even the most ordinary of our daily routines can be symbolic acts that send ripples through the imaginations of others. These ripples inspire other people to act, generating more ripples. By the end, the lines of influence are virtually impossible to trace or predict.
Like a pebble being skimmed across a lake, it is not always possible to envisage the outcomes of activism, or when and how they will come, but this is part of the joy and the thrill: the hope in the dark.
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