Swedish student Greta Thunberg’s strike for action on climate change has inspired and catalyzed student actions all over the world, with Australia leading the charge. The school strikes have spread to at least 1300 locations in countries across the world, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland the US and Japan.
At the time of the Australian student climate strike a leading paper published an article, written by a Sydney student in which she objected to the strike, claiming that instead of striking, students would be more effective if they were working at an individual level to reduce their consumption and personal waste.
As well as depending on the erroneous presumption that taking action through protest precluded taking responsibility personally, there was in the article the familiar tone of righteousness and censure that wafts out of public debate when a groundswell of action and opinion threaten to disrupt any status quo.
The student saw the strikes as an “excuse to miss school, ” her disproval stemming from a distaste for disobedience, disruption and defiance of the prime ministers sanctimonious admonitions to stay at school or the Resources minister’s warning that protest will lead to the dole queue. Instead she advocates buying less pens, less fashion and recycling soft plastics. While all this is worth advocating for, her argument expresses what many choose to believe, that their virtuous adoption of recycling is enough, that this somehow absolves them, and that therefore business as usual can be preserved, even the business of voting for governments who still prioritise economic growth and gain at the expense of all ecological systems. In a time when we are still adding carbon to the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, a broiling mass of students whose boisterous and declamatory refusal to submit to the daily routine and by implication, the industries that profit from it, makes sense if only because it doesn’t submit, it isn’t quiet, it isn’t personal and precisely because it is disruptive. It would be nice to share the student’s belief that change happens without disruption and it would be convenient to also accept that working as an individual will be the most effective mode of saving the environment. The current economic system, thrives on a world of atomized, disconnected individuals and without disruption, that system will prevail.
Climate change is taking us to the brink of exactly what this student most fears. A world threatened with chaos, a world that is sleepwalking into catastrophe. At the very least, protests raise consciousness in a way that recycling your own tin cans doesn’t. And the global rise of the alt-right, belligerent identity politics and other manufactured hostilities suggests that consciousness raising is needed. A large portion of the world’s population seem to be blithely disinformed by media-disseminated propaganda or mindlessly entertained by cultural vapidity and rampant consumption. It is hard not to suspect that we are fiddling, with our keep cups and other virtuous articles, while Rome burns.
Had she actually joined the march, she would have experienced something else. Call it the accumulative power of solidarity, which, like a wave, wells up gloriously, in an inestimable, but mysteriously palpable way. It draws up something deeply human, the joy of being borne up by a fellowship, by togetherness, by a mutuality that stretches across class, gender, race and every other kind of difference. To be united by a profound and cohering belief in a common good, is to feel an immediate and direct sort of companionship. In these times, where reality has become virtual, and news has become fake, this matters. Presence matters, embodied responses matter. What surged forward at the march, catalyzed in this instance, by the energy of youth, was heartening, moving, rousing. A kinship of strangers, an accumulation of voices and bodies moving and chanting in unison, held together by a belief in a good that needs to rise up, in defiance, to shape a future for those who otherwise face a world of chaos and loss. This solidarity lifted that possibility out of the dark and offered it voices, faces, bodies, a beating heart. The march gave form to belief. It provided direction, momentum and unity to what can’t be faced alone and what will not be faced by the institutions who created the problem, who continue to profit from it, and who require us to carry on, as individuals, with the daily routine.
I wish she could have stood on the steps, as students flooded in, erupting out of train station, crowding onto those steps until they were overflowing and spilling onto the street. And as each train delivered yet another surge of students to join, there was a roar that went up and a roar that answered, as if in finding each other, they had formed something that had a natural cohesion and order. Out of the chaos of a threatened future, they had made something that stood firm, that unified and that gave hope.
As we prepare for the next school strike, it is the federal education minister’s turn to disinform and discredit. He calls the march “an appalling political manipulation.” Given that the current federal government excel in such manipulations it is striking that they can’t tell the difference. Perhaps they too should join the march and experience something that is actually authentic.
Global school strike. https://www.schoolstrike4climate
Words and pictures by Martine Murray