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It's the End of the World as We Know It

Illustration for article titled Its the End of the World as We Know It
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NEW YORK—At a certain point in Lower Manhattan on Friday afternoon, you were part of the global climate strike whether or not you wanted to be. By noon, the crowds assembled around City Hall had swelled to the point that walking became difficult. The mayor’s office would later project participation at 60,000 while organizers put it closer to 250,000, but from where I stood on the corner of Chambers and Center, pinned against a halal cart as a chant of “save our planet” gained and lost momentum, it felt like the entire city had emptied itself onto the streets. Tourists coming up the subway stairs turned back around at the sight of the gridlock. A woman with a pushcart tried to make her way further down the block but found herself at the same standstill as everyone else. You could try to ignore the strike, but it would swallow you anyway.

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The protest turned out an estimated 4 million people globally, and took its inspiration from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, whose lonely project of sitting outside the Swedish parliament instead of going to school on Fridays soon grew into a global pattern of strikes and student organizing across hundreds of countries. The protests are anchored in a series of demands for radical action to mitigate the very worst impacts of our climate crisis, and you could see that framework reflected in the messaging that floated above the crowds. As the march began moving toward Battery Park, where a stage was set up for a concluding rally, there were signs that concisely articulated policy objectives (“Just transition—now”) and others that embraced the darkness of the current moment and the general insanity of being in high school (“I know senior year is going to kill me, but not like this”). It’s a powerful thing to witness, that combination of moral clarity and gallows irreverence, which is probably why student strikes and youth-led organizations like the Sunrise Movement are currently at the center of global climate activism.

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Being a teenager has always involved a degree of heady existentialism, but right now that sense of expanse and uncertainty about the future is charted on a timeline that leaves us just 11 years to limit climate catastrophe. Prevention is no longer an option; all there’s left to do is maintenance on what is now a fundamentally compromised planet. As the teenage organizers I spoke with in the days leading up to the strike explained, the climate crisis is already here. Most of them, even those who have lived in the city for their entire lives, had seen some version of it up close. There are asthma hospitalizations in the South Bronx, flooding in the Rockaways, and a ballooning rat population. On the horizon, there are rising sea levels and the attendant displacement that will follow, the disruption of global food chains and famine, mass suffering and death.

The message of the march was that adults in general, and certainly the adults with their hands on the levers of power right now, don’t fully grasp this or don’t really care. So while talking to strike organizers, I found myself compelled to ask, again and again, if they could tell when a lawmaker or ambassador was bullshitting them. The answer was obviously yes, but I wanted to hear them talk about confronting that kind of smug condescension in the face of a crisis. One of those organizers, a 17-year-old named Xiye Bastida, told me: “I know they’re thinking: This is not politically possible. I know they’re thinking: They don’t understand the complexities of the system.” The same politicians telling her how much they admire her are also thinking “we don’t understand, and that we’re being naive,” she said.

Thunberg herself, in her speech at the end of the strike, pointed to the same pattern. In the stark, simple prose that has become familiar in her speeches, Thunberg said:

Everywhere I have been the situation is more or less same. The people in power, their beautiful words are the same. The number of politicians and celebrities who want to take selfies with us are the same. The empty promises are the same. The lies are the same, and the inaction is the same. Nowhere have I found anyone in power who dares to tell it like it is, because no matter where you are, even that burden they leave to us, us teenagers, us children.

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Bastida and Thunberg both understand that what is often treated in media and political narratives as smiling admiration of young climate activists is in fact a kind of contempt. The teens will not actually save us if we will not save ourselves, which was as much the message of the strike as anything. All you had to do was read the signs.

Jezebel is participating in Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis. You can find more details about the effort and other participants here.

Senior editor, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

mortal-dictata
Mortal Dictata

So while talking to strike organizers, I found myself compelled to ask, again and again, if they could tell when a lawmaker or ambassador was bullshitting them. The answer was obviously yes, but I wanted to hear them talk about confronting that kind of smug condescension in the face of a crisis.

In London yesterday the kids chanted the name of a man who only four years ago mused the idea of significantly increasing coal mining in the UK because of the forever talked about but non-existent tech of “clean coal” and whose own industrial strategy and manifesto failed to do what the protesters are calling for (it would only achieve 60% low-carbon energy by 2030) and has no commitment beyond vague words about “doing more”.

Unite, the biggest trade union funder of that man sent solidarity to strikers while at the same time backs the third runway for Heathrow which will be one of the biggest increasers of emissions in the UK for some time.

I feel sorry for Greta, being someone who’s neurodivergent to some degree I know what it’s like when you know the reality of a situation yet no matter what you do and say nothing changes and until you get that resolution to the problem you see you can never get your mind off of it.

This is a teenager who lives what she preaches, even got her parents to fundamentally change their lives as well to drastically cut their carbon emissions, yet it seems everyone else (inc. many marchers quite frankly) still deludes themselves that somehow we’ll fix or mitigate climate change while not having to sacrifice on quality of life, that there’s this “them” or “system” who have sole power to fix this that won’t affect “us”, when unfortunately that’s required.

There is no solution that won’t require everyone having to give up quite a bit they took for granted while also having to pay more in tax. There’s so many basic things people could do but they don’t. Things like holidaying at home (which would also help relieve poverty and degradation of seaside towns) rather than cheap flying holidays abroad, switching to renewables despite them being pricier atm, making things last longer than before such as clothes and tech items, buying local produce even if it’s not as exciting as more “exotic” items, and cutting down on red meat in particular but grazing animals in general.

I’ve attempted to cut my carbon footprint as much as possible and what I’ve found is that in many ways it’s shockingly easy (by rough estimation I’m now only emitting ~150% of the target of 2 tonnes per person of CO2 now when the average is close to 350% of it but that can’t account for third party items like emissions during production of television shows or games for example), problem is it’s incredibly “unsexy” and doesn’t have the “feel good” factor of marching.

What we need is some way of linking actions to results in the same way that Fairtrade, organic, and recycling campaigns have succeeded at doing.