Guest Post: How Can We Learn When We Have No Future?: Schools Strikes, Social Transformations, and the Possibility of Good Relations during Climate Emergency [Embodying Reciprocity Series]

[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Susannah Crockford. This post is a part of the Embodying Reciprocity series. Susannah Crockford is a post-doctoral researcher at Ghent University, Belgium, working on the European Research Council funded NARMESH project. Her first monograph, Ripples of the Universe: Seeking Spirituality in Sedona, Arizona, will be published in Spring 2021 in the Class 200 list by the University of Chicago Press. With a PhD in anthropology from the London School of Economics, her research interests focus on questions of religion and ecology, science and spirituality. On Twitter: @SusCrockford. Please cite accordingly.]

Climate change is no longer a future threat, as it seemed when I was a child. Children and young people today are growing up in a world in which climate change is an ongoing atmospheric and social reality. One that not only changes but degrades and destroys the land, air, and water on which they rely. Yet they also see clearly the lack of political action on climate change. They perceive adults as underestimating the risk, in part because the future dates of climate impacts are beyond older generations but within younger generations’ lifetimes. Whether this skepticism toward the motivation of older generations is deserved or not, the lack of coordinated political action on climate change threatens to undermine intergenerational bonds of reciprocity and relationality. Yet at the same time joining in cooperative movements to advocate for change opens up the potential for new forms of sociality and intergenerational reciprocity. 

Starting in January 2019, school strikes for climate action took place in cities around Belgium. Thousands of school and university students refused to go to their educational institutions once a week to march for action on climate instead. Every Thursday students would gather in a different city in Belgium, including Leuven, Brussels, Gent, and Namur. The strikes began with two students, Anuna de Wever and Kyra Gantois, inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who protested outside parliament in Stockholm from August 2018. They were part of a worldwide movement of school children, called Fridays for Future. In Belgium, the strikes were organized by a network of groups including Youth for Climate and Climate Express, working with other climate groups such as Grootouders voor het Klimaat (Grandparents for the Climate) and trade unions. Using Facebook to communicate plans, tens of thousands joined every week. It was a symbolic mass action of young people refusing to follow social and legal expectations because they viewed the actions of their society illegitimate. 

I attended the climate strikes every week during the winter and spring of 2019, as part of my ethnographic fieldwork for the European Research Council-funded NARMESH project on narrative and the Anthropocene. Students made placards, banners and signs referencing popular culture, slogans, and artwork. Signs called for system change, more public transport, nationalization of energy companies, and making the main polluters pay (decorated with a Shell logo). Yet signs were also often funny, witty or wry, utilizing sexual innuendo and raw emotive appeals: “fuck me, not the planet” or simply “I don’t want global warming.” In their signs and in their conversation, they expressed a deep sense of rage and injustice. 

Intergenerational justice is an idea within the larger discourse on climate justice, one that speaks to the understanding that current generations are not leaving a habitable planet for future generations. Many of the themes expressed in the school strikes for climate action revolved around this notion of justice. They felt betrayed by the political class, sold a future that did not exist, told to study for degrees to lead to jobs while the world is dying. And in response they asked, why? They said, no. They were being asked to train to participate in a society that is rapidly destroying its own resources. They asked, what point is there in education when there is no future?

Students made efforts not to miss out on the work expected of them, however. The well-connected and affordable rail network in the small and densely populated country supported the strikes. Students from the smaller towns and cities of Belgium would gather together and get the train to the city where the strike was being held that week. On the trains they finished homework, reading texts and discussing answers. Younger children would come with their classes, surrounded by teachers supervising and protecting them. Parents brought young babies in pushchairs and carriers. Much of the organizing was by young people themselves and took place via social media and messaging apps. Each march started in the main square of the city and usually looped one or two miles through the center back to the starting point. There was usually a stage with speakers at the main square at the start of each march. Young people marched with drumming, chanting, whistling, some wore costumes or painted their faces. Certain chants were perennial such as “what do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!” and “plus chaud que le climat” (hotter than the climate). Sometimes, they chanted The Internationale. 

The strikes were described with the Dutch term ‘spijbelen’ in the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders. Spijbelen means truancy or to skip class. They were condemned by some Flemish politicians, one of whom had to resign because of the backlash over her remarks. It was a structureless, leaderless movement, despite the media focus on figures like Thunberg and de Wever. Many came through fear of climate change and passion for social change but they were still teenagers and children. Playfighting, smoking, drinking were still happening at the edges. Teenagers often walked with speakers playing music, dancing as they marched. For the majority the commitment was real, however, indicated by the image of the sign “wij spijbelen ook op zondag” (we even skip class on Sundays). This image was taken in the city of Gent at a weekend climate march that was not part of the Fridays for Future movement. It suggests the cross-pollination of strikes with climate marches organized by adults, as did the presence at the same march of those associated with civil disobedience groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Code Rood. The school strikes were part of a new climate activism, one that rejected the incremental change within the current system advocated by mainstream environmental groups and NGOs. There is a new force in activism, with a powerful sense of urgency. 

This sense of urgency often undermined relationality with older people. Many young strikers felt older people did not feel the same urgency, they were too concerned with money and the economy, they saw their financial present as more important than young people’s future. This sentiment is represented in the image of the sign asking “hoeveel mag dat kosten?” (how much will it cost?) with a hand-drawn picture that depicts the brutal stabbing of an anthropomorphized Planet Earth for money as a “climate crime.” Even if they agreed climate action was necessary, some strikers conceded, they weren’t doing anything about it quick enough, or they were saying they supported action, called the strikers brave, but carried on with business as usual. It was this commitment to carrying on business as usual that the strikers felt as an injustice because business as usual was destroying the planet’s ecosystem and their ability to grow and thrive on it. 

Yet adults did join and support the school strikes. Every strike I saw members of Grootouders voor het Klimaat in their bright yellow hi-viz vests, often giving out water on the sidelines and calling out encouragement. Such adult presence complicates the idea that the old are selling out the young for their own economic gain. There was another presence alluded to, for example on the sign depicting the slogan: “Capitalism is eating our children.” While some in power were undermining intergenerational justice, being bad relations by leaving the environment uninhabitable for future generations, others were joining with them and creating new bonds of sociality in common cause. New forms of sociality became even more acute with the introduction of social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which moved the strikes to an entirely digital existence as announced by a tweet posted by Greta Thunberg in March 2020. 

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