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.
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.
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.
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.