Recently, I was talking to a close relative of mine who was less than amused by the spectacle of striking school children protesting against our collective failure to respond effectively to the environmental time bomb posed by climate change. She tended to view these youngsters as cynical opportunists with little more on their minds than the desire to bunk off school for the day. Furthermore, she was quick to point out that the rubbish that they reportedly left strewn in their wake was primarily comprised of turtle slaughtering plastic. The seeming hypocrisy of it all irritated and baffled her and she failed to see how any of this petulant posturing could make one shred of real difference. I am sure that these views are commonplace and, in part, they are legitimate fears.
Personally, I have been fascinated by the spectacle of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year old Swedish climate change activist whose star is undoubtedly in the ascendant. The daughter of a well-known opera singer, Greta was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Selective Mutism when aged 11. On 20th August, 2018, Greta announced that she would not attend School until the Swedish government reduced carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Her strike (later limited to Fridays) spread like wildfire throughout Europe and as of December 2018, more than 20,000 students had held strikes in at least 280 cities across the world. Suddenly, she was being lauded as some modern day Cassandra-like prophet and feted by sheepish presidents and remorseful celebrities alike. The UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, has endorsed the strikes initiated by Thunberg, lamenting that ‘My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.’
As Greta travels around the world (by train) admonishing middle-aged politicians with her withering rebukes and desperate exhortations, her fan base keeps on growing. She has become a vegan and ceased flying in order to lower her family’s carbon footprint. She has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Without doubt, she is now the most famous eco-warrior of our time.
Interestingly, Chris Packham argues that Greta’s autism allows her advocacy to assume a directness and clarity that ‘frightens the life out of a particular middle-aged and middle-class establishment type of person….and that reaction to her is driven by the fear of knowing that losing their place to her and those like her (in political conversation) is inevitable’.
Greta is a deeply divisive figure and it is difficult to see where this movement would have led had it not received an adrenaline shot in the arm from David Attenborough’s Netflix Series, Our Planet which charts the ruthless destruction of our natural landscape. With sublime synchronicity, this series considers the fragility and interconnectedness of all of our species and eco-systems and the hugely destructive impact that humanity has exerted in such a short space of time. Ninety three year old Attenborough observes in clarion tones that ‘ In one human lifetime, wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 60%. The stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted.’
So what can we make of all this doom and gloom?
Firstly, I am convinced that, as educators, it is our responsibility to encourage young people to speak out and engage in meaningful activism. We should applaud and support those young people who commit themselves to making the world a better place even if that includes (perhaps especially when it includes) addressing the folly and complacency of our own generation. We should work with youngsters to forge a better future for this endangered planet of ours.
I am a headmaster so the thought of children skipping School is naturally enough an anathema to me but I will willingly provide a platform for any of our pupils who would like to speak out about a subject close to their own hearts. Furthermore, Dragon House’s profoundly moving Chapel Service last week does make me think that we should do much much more to lessen our carbon footprint here at Rossall. I am delighted that several pupils have come to see me to discuss the importance of ensuring that environmental issues feature within our School Development Plan and I do intend for us to listen and act. Whether or not strikes themselves are impactful is perhaps a moot point but there is no doubting that activism challenges those like myself to act and, ultimately, to decide whether or not we want to be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem.
Now that those like Greta have successfully raised awareness and given voice to the concerns of a generation, activism and good intentions need to translate into definable outcomes. Here at Rossall, I look forward to working with staff and pupils to ensure that we become an evermore environmentally friendly school. This is the beginning of a journey but one which must constitute an important dimension of our community in the future. We encourage children at Rossall to speak out against those things that trouble them and stand up for what they believe in.
Nothing much of value in this world has been achieved without the courage of those who have been prepared to defy convention and challenge the authority of those who would suppress or deny inconvenient truths or commit acts of injustice. Without such actions, the Berlin Wall would still stand, homosexuality would still be illegal in the UK and Apartheid would doubtless still be in existence in South Africa. It seems apposite to finish with the words of the Lutheran minister, Martin Niemoller who opposed Hitler and was imprisoned by the Nazi regime. His famous poem ‘First they came’ attacked the cowardice of those German intellectuals and clerics who remained silent as different groups in society were systematically purged.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Do not fear our children’s impulse to act but actively embrace it. We are the custodians of the world which they will inherit and it is right that they should hold us to account. Acknowledging this right is the first step towards working together to ensure a better and more sustainable future.