Culture

The (Un)Activist Generation

A 19 year old takes a hard look at her peer group's commitment to creating change

The World Is Still Turning - what’s the problem?

We’ve made headlines. The petitions, the marches, the impassioned speeches, the demands for action. In terms of the environment, “the youth” (essentially those under 25) are considered the activist generation. There have been think-pieces and op-eds galore on why this is, and whether our actions will actually make a difference, and I’m immensely proud to be part of (arguably) the first generation where significant numbers are making noise about the destruction of our planet. However, as a 19 year old with many friends who do little to combat their impact on the environment, it is important not to take these generalisations at face value.

The majority of us know about the climate crisis - in a survey I sent to 250 young people, 95% said they believed in the climate crisis - and acknowledge that it’s a negative phenomenon, but for many, little action is taken beyond that. It’s something that really frustrates me, as many of these people are principled and caring, yet seem ambivalent about the destruction that they know is occurring. We are still a generation seemingly much more invested in stopping the climate crisis than our predecessors, but, perhaps naively, I struggle to understand why more young people aren’t doing more. We’ve been told our actions are destroying the world, and will impact our lives, so why don’t more people care?

It may seem antithetical to the environmental movement that I am criticising the one generation that cares the most, but having millions of teenagers involved, although brilliant progress, is not enough. We are the generation who will live through the first stages of a major climate crisis, both experiencing it, and, in our political lives, perhaps become involved in its mitigation. So it has always puzzled me why more young people don’t care - there are many who do, but an equally large amount that don't. The reason is not just selfishness, although that does play a role. As a movement, environmentalists and climate activists must keep encouraging everyone to take action: our power is in mass movements. So why are so many ignoring the looming crisis ahead? What is making activism and a changing lifestyle seem inaccessible and ineffective? And what can we do to change this?

San Francisco Youth Climate Strike - March 15, 2019, Wiki Commons

Whose Life is it Anyway?

Selfishness does play some role, especially in the West, where (so far) we have seen fewer of the immediate impacts of climate change, therefore the climate crisis can be seen as a problem for tomorrow, or for someone else. This is the same damaging attitude that has led to where we are today, creating urgent and fatal problems for those in the Global South. But many don’t really care, unless it will directly affect them. People have money problems, families, relationships, all the minor and major issues that make up daily life, so why should they care about the earth as well? I am an optimist on the subject of humanity, but I still think we are intrinsically selfish, and, I hate to say this, but often younger people are even more focussed on their own needs. When I asked some of my peers why they weren’t trying to reduce their impact on the planet, a literal (if tongue-in-cheek) response was -

can’t be bothered mate.

Especially in the West, where our lives and liberty will not be immediately at stake from climate change, we choose to ignore it. Activists tend to fight for what they are most invested in, and, at the moment, many are more invested in retaining our materialistic way of life than mitigating the dangers of the climate crisis.

The remedy to this, aside from convincing people to be selfless, which would be both delicate and difficult, is to persuade people that limiting the climate crisis is in their own interest. Although it may seem obvious that the literal degradation of the planet we live on isn’t great for our future plans, this must be made more clear. As Leo Barasi argues, in his book ‘The Climate Majority’, most mainstream coverage of the climate crisis in the West focuses on it’s impact on ‘distant places and animals’. Although they will be least affected, even young, rich Westerners will be impacted by the climate crisis, and once they realise this, maybe then they will find the motivation to take action? An example to follow is that of the divestment movement - although continuing capitalism isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the planet, activists have convinced banks and investment funds that it is in their interest to remove investment from fossil fuels, radically changing the economic consensus. It is not the perfect solution, but it's making a difference.

However, it is not solely selfishness. In the survey I sent out, the vast majority expressed a desire to reduce their impact on the environment, but felt they weren’t doing enough, for many reasons. Firstly, the part selfish, part helpless excuse of what I call “why should I-ism”. This is one of the most common phrases trotted out when questioned on environmental action, a lazy rejoinder to genuine questions.

Why should I give up travel and an exciting life when billionaires still fly their private jets?

Why should I switch to more expensive clean energy options when oil companies continue to drill? Why should I go vegan, when meat demand is rising in developing countries? The gist of it boils down to ‘why should I reduce my quality of life, when those who really matter won’t be doing the same?’. It may be lazy, but it's a good question. It is easy to feel action is useless just comparing yourself to all the people you know who are doing nothing, let alone when facing the steadfast lobby of governments, billionaires, oil companies and more. When questioned in my survey, one young person responded with ‘if oil companies are still drilling for oil why shouldn’t I be able to take an airplane?’.

I often feel that as environmentalists, we can take for granted the significant sacrifices that will have to be made by all of us if we want to reach our climate targets. When you ask people to sacrifice their quality of life for a cause, there is an expectation of positive results. For privileged young people, and even less privileged as air fares have dropped, travel is a rite of passage, a passion to many. However in the environmental movement, success is simply not guaranteed, especially without many more people changing their lifestyles. There is also the feeling, unique to younger generations, that we did not cause the climate crisis, so my peer group feels as if they are being punished for their parents’ mistakes.

Antipathy or apathy?

This ‘why should I’ism’ is symptomatic of a sense of helplessness, which I can empathise with. The truth of climate action, and one propagated by many environmental groups (to promote urgency), is that individual action will not achieve its aims without some form of systemic change, by governments and corporations. However this is often misinterpreted to mean that individual action is useless, therefore we feel helpless in the face of the climate crisis, especially considering it’s immense scale. Many young people, especially in the survey I sent out, are questioning whether individual actions can genuinely make a difference. If it doesn’t, then what's the point? Another teenager I asked is passionate about the climate crisis, but argues that ‘ the only real, workable solution will come from governments...or firms’, cementing the idea that individual action is, if not useless, then at least not worth the effort. It doesn’t help that campaigning against the climate crisis is not an action with immediate results- we will have to wait many years to see if our efforts make a difference. In our increasingly patience-deprived society, where attention spans decrease with each passing year, this is not a recipe for action.

In demonstrating how major and endemic the drivers of the climate crisis are, we sometimes miss an essential step - showing that collective and individual action is what is needed to make a difference, and can actually make a difference, if implemented in time. Of course activists are making a good point when they argue that individual action cannot do it all (such as in this article), but it can be incredibly off-putting to those considering getting involved in climate action, who interpret the nuanced point into ‘my action is useless’. Systemic change is essential, but that in itself is impossible without individual action. Individual action creates collective action, which creates change at higher levels of government and business . Almost every major environmental success over the last few decades was due to individual actions, be that protests, boycotts, marches, or petitions. Environmental organisations must take steps to demonstrate to the public that there is still some time left in which to mitigate the effects of climate crises, and that we all do have resources to contribute towards the effort. (Article describing how NGOs are failing to mobilise youth generation)

There are also more basic barriers to activism - young people today have lived through a devastating recession, and are now facing the prospect of a global economic downturn following coronavirus. They are the least established in the workforce, often saddled with large student debt and are reliant on service jobs. It is important to recognise that having the economic means to limit what you eat and give up fast fashion, are a privilege, as is being able to skip a day's work, or risk arrest for a protest. This is hard to rectify, and movements must commit to being more inclusive.

Finally, many people are in denial. These are not climate deniers like the old men who ignore science and pontificate on Fox News, but those in denial as to what impact the changing climate will have on us all. They believe in climate change, but can’t face thinking about it. The climate crisis is terrifying. Just looking at facts can easily send you into a downward spiral at the depressing prospects of our world- every aspect of life will be impacted. As one of my peers said, in my survey -

the sense of crisis is overwhelming.

When faced with an overwhelming crisis, many choose to simply ignore it, and carry on with business as usual. The easier life, bliss in voluntary ignorance.

From Reflection to Action...

So, for those who are climate activists, we have a difficult path to navigate. Of course these reasons are not unique to the youth, but I find them especially striking for us, firstly because we are touted as a generation of activists, but also because environmental helplessness has a particular twist for our generation compared to previous generations - we did not cause the climate crisis, but we are unmistakably those who not only have to make sacrifices to limit it, and yet will still see many of its impacts in our lifetime. The solution is to try and balance the message between showing the devastating consequences of the climate crisis if we fail to take action, whilst reminding people that it is not too late yet, and that our actions can and do have an impact. As activists, we need to change the way we talk about climate change, so people will not only listen, but also act. The devastation of a ruined planet is approaching, but is not yet inevitable. As the generation that will grow up in a world being changed by the climate, it is, unfortunately, ultimately our responsibility to be the change, and believe that what we do will make a difference. This article may seem a pessimistic view, relegating thousands of youth activists, but for efficient action we need more. This burden is unfortunately ours to face, and we need all young people to rethink their reasons for passivity. Instead of asking ‘why should I’, and claiming helplessness, the only way to stave off dread about our future is to take action to change it - no system will ever change unless we are ready to change with it.

More information on the topic:

Related articles
Culture
Tragedy or scandal? How to reframe the climate emergency to achieve the best outcomes

Tragedy or scandal? How to reframe the climate emergency to achieve the best outcomes

Meta-analysis of the strategies of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the New Climate Movement

Technology
Airline bailouts: save people, not planes

Airline bailouts: save people, not planes

It is unacceptable that aviation’s profits are privatised, while it expects its losses to be covered by the public

Nature
Atlantic circulation collapse could cut British crop farming

Atlantic circulation collapse could cut British crop farming

Climate change “tipping point” – would leave Britain cooler, drier and unsuitable for many crops