We have just come to the end of a week that has seen unprecedented mobilisation across our cities and towns over the issue of climate change and environmental justice.
On September 23rd, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg came up with yet another passionate and angry outburst against global leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit 2019.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
On the days before and after Greta’s stinging speech, students and youth in India hit the streets, joining their peers in 2000 cities across the world. Their aim: to make themselves heard as they protest global inaction and apathy on the issue of climate change.
From the metros to smaller cities or towns like Durgapur, McLeodgunj, Gudur and many more, youth and students, heeding the call of the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement, marched to demand immediate and appropriate action to mitigate local and global climate risks.
While ‘climate strike’ as a phenomenon has evidently found global resonance, the protests and rallies in India are interesting for various reasons and leave room for some serious analysis and introspection.
#1 Let ‘em fly
The first time we heard of Greta was when, as a ninth grader, she staged a strike for two weeks outside the Swedish parliament in 2018, demanding concrete action from the government on reducing emissions. Since then she has spent every Friday on strike and has rallied against leaders of stature, powerful governments and corporates for their failure to take meaningful climate action with the urgency that it demands.
One question that this brought to the lips of many adults (never mind the few detractors prone to shooting the messenger): Really, what were we doing when we were 16?
Well, responses of most adults would be far from inspiring. Our whole system was about preparing for board exams, getting into colleges or whatever pressure fell upon our heads by default. Few of us consciously tried to make a difference to our communities, let alone the world at large. In fact, very few of us were even conscious that the world needed improving.
What is unfortunate is that while the world is no longer the same, we have continued to burden our children with the same kind of expectations, pressure and goals set by others. Even when we can afford to, we are scared of letting them go, have them explore the world and figure out what they want and need to do. Speaking of the children themselves, very few in India have the freedom to unlearn what their parents have known as ‘normal’ and raise their voices against it. They would be labelled disobedient, precocious, rebellious if they did so.
Among the urban, relatively privileged classes, children are often ‘protected,’ asked to concentrate on ‘careers’ and rarely ever encouraged to engage in practical or community problem-solving, unless it is something overtly needed for their résumés.
In such a scenario, the recent climate strikes have been a welcome beginning. It has given them a platform for exposure to the larger problems of the real world as well as an outlet to engage in these debates and seek solutions to problems that are going to be critical to their future.
#2 Learn more, think more
Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future have been a tour de force indeed, steering the awakening of an entire generation on a burning issue that has historically been neglected. But let that be just the starting point, the inspiration.
There are two things that India’s youth brigade must pay attention to. One, we must find our own approach that works here, instead of merely aping what is happening across the continents. Ask yourself, are the means adopted the best ones to achieve the all-important end?
There has been serious criticism of climate strikers over the violation of due political process. They have, in places, allegedly broken laws and even incited violence using the “existential threat” of climate change as an excuse. As Greta says, our house is indeed on fire but we need to introspect on the right ways to douse that. In the end, this should not be reduced to the frenzied rabble of a short-lived uprising.
Second, and most important, use this awakening to know more about the environmental movement in our country. We have had a long history of people’s campaigns. From the Chipko movement to the Silent Valley protests, from the Jungle Bachao Andolan of the 80s to the recent ongoing movement to save trees in Mumbai’s Aarey — read about these struggles, their causes and how the people organised themselves to make an impact. Know more about what threatens the environment in your part of the world and how you can make a difference.
#3 Hold on to the momentum
Climate change is real. Climate change is here and now. But generating awareness and building action agenda cannot be a week-long or even a year-long exercise. It has to be built into everyday discourse. The youth should insist that environmental justice be incorporated into formal and informal education at every level, and very importantly, for every strata — as much for municipal schools and government schools as in elite international schools.
The ones who feel the threat of climate change most acutely and will be the first to bear the brunt are often those at the grassroots. It is important to take the dialogue to them. Educate, empower and embolden them to think, to question and to press for action.
Let every young individual in this country, irrespective of their class and place in society, be empowered and informed enough to echo Greta’s words: “I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.”
(Co-authored by Meera K)