Written by: Philip Horster
Imagine standing on a stage in front of a couple thousand protesters on a Friday. You are not a politician, you are not a pop star. Instead, you are a sixteen-year old teenager missing the afternoon classes of your last school day of the week to raise awareness for climate change and the detrimental effects it will have on your generation.
You are also not Greta Thunberg. You are a teenager from Florianópolis, a Brazilian city of roughly 500.000 inhabitants and were amongst the first ones to protest on Fridays in front of your city’s mayoral office. When you first heard of Fridays For Future (FFF) you were both surprised and motivated by the age of most protesters, so you started organising protests in your city as well. Your local branch of FFF, starting from a handful of people, is now a demonstration of a size that is unusual for your city, particularly when noticing the average age of the protesters and the regularity of the protests. What astonishes you the most, is that you, a sixteen-year old, are now standing on stage with people listening. Something that two months earlier would have been unthinkable.
However, you don’t have to be from Florianópolis, you could also be from a suburb of Paris, from Manchester, Frankfurt, Bologna, Cape Town, Seoul, Mumbai, Bangkok, Melbourne, Portland, Montreal or Moscow. In fact, you can be a schoolgirl or schoolboy from any one of the 150 countries that participated in the global climate change protests in March, May and September 2019. The striking public awareness raised by Greta Thunberg has led both the media and heads of states to overlook the formation of activists from the youngest generations of all types of nations around one goal: fighting climate change. Whilst Greta has without doubt catalysed, given name and – probably more than she likes – a face to this youthful international uprising, it is not all thanks to her that worldwide student climate strikes, which reached 4 and 7.6 million protesters, were organised. Instead, the fact that every thousandth world citizen went to the streets in a joint protest is thanks to a new generation of activists, who constitute a social movement which brings back memories of the hippies, the anti-Vietnam War protesters and the social unrests in communist countries during the sixties and seventies.
Yet, the Fridays For Future movement is incomparable to previous internationally synched protests in several aspects. It is not constrained to a certain region such as Western democracies or the communist block but rather the movement maintains global communication with surprising organisational precision. It is run by children, teenagers and young adults as opposed to university students or elder generations. What current heads of states are witnessing is not just an immensely brave teenager voicing her personal concerns, but the foundation of the best internationally coordinated, most widely spread and youngest social movement the world has ever witnessed. Notably, FFF has the potential to provide the foundation for much more. It isn’t just the foundation of the world’s youth rise in global awareness, but more significantly of their world identity.
To put this in perspective: in the United Kingdom, the number of those vegan has increased sevenfold from half a million in 2016 to 3.5 million this year, which accounts for seven percent of the population. In Italy, Austria and Germany, around ten per cent of the population is vegetarian. In Germany during the EU elections, a simulation amongst almost 3.000 schools showed that 34% of all students would have voted for the Greens, whilst the social democrats would have received 12% of the vote share as runner-ups. Although these numbers are far from being serious indicators of a worldwide paradigm shift amongst the life choices of the world’s youth (there obviously is no World Bank or UN statistic for the share of vegans per country), they can account for the impact that growing awareness of climate change has had on these countries’ civil societies and it can be assumed that these effects will increase, not just in the countries listed above.
With a rising necessity – or ‘emergency’ to use the protesters’ vocabulary – for effective policies to fight climate change worldwide, the FFF protests can be expected to gain more traction in the upcoming years. Combined, the surging awareness of the negative repercussions of climate change and the ability to organise demonstrated by the youth in 2019, will likely come to constitute an unstoppable force. The respective chapters of FFF may well turn into the principal watchdog over their countries’ and the wider international community’s compliance to today’s Paris Agreement and prospective future legislations. As they unite in their call for a stronger protection of the earth’s environment, they will undoubtedly exert public pressures on their governments. It is not too bold to assume that their members will identify with each other as global climate activists and will put aside intercultural differences such as language or religion, in favour of a globally coherent movement to make the fight against climate change the top priority of international politics. Thus, the sense of belonging to a world youth, which is inherently and equally dependent on a functioning planet for a decent future, may well become stronger than the identification with a specific national background and will at the least become a core part of their collective identity.
The FFF movement, with its already established unique communication channels and cohesive public actions, is thus not a movement dependent on Greta Thunberg but rather the social representation of a global social group – a global youth – that has now indicated the importance that the fight against climate change will play in their lives. This will most certainly affect their choices of professional careers, life habits and their political activism. Hence, it is equally likely that a sense of belonging to a like-minded generation spread over the world will become more important to their identity and thus weaken the importance of identities of smaller scales, less effective for the fight against this critical issue transcending national boundaries that is climate change.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.