Schools Schools strike back for climate change

School kids make their voice heard on climate inaction. Photo: Martine Murray.

Around the world, school students are taking strike action to demand political action on climate change, demonstrating the power of protest, writes novelist MARTINE MURRAY.

Swedish student Greta Thunberg’s strike for action on climate change has inspired and catalysed student actions all over the world, with Australia leading the charge. Last November, thousands walked out of school, taking to the streets in major cities and some regional centres across Australia to demand an end to political inaction on climate change.

On 15 February, more than 10,000 students joined a UK-wide climate strike and, before that, 35,000 students in Brussels protested and thousands more in Berlin. The school strikes have spread to at least 270 towns and cities in countries across the world, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, the US and Japan.

At the time of Australia’s inaugural ‘Student Strike 4 Climate’, a leading paper published an article written by a Sydney student in which she objected to the action, claiming that instead of striking, students would be more effective if they worked at an individual level to reduce their consumption and waste.

As well as depending on the presumption that one rules out the other – as if protesting somehow precludes taking personal responsibility – the article contained that familiar tone of righteousness and censure that wafts out of public debate every time a groundswell of action and opinion threatens to disrupt the status quo.

Seeing the strikes as an “excuse to miss school”, her disproval stemmed from a clear distaste for disobedience and defiance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s sanctimonious calls for kids to “stay at school” because “what we want is more learning … and less activism”.

Climate change is taking us to the brink of exactly what this student most fears. A world threatened with chaos, a world that is sleepwalking into catastrophe.

Morrison was joined in this call by resources minister Matt Canavan, who (apparently without irony) argued that instead of protesting – which “only leads to the dole queue” – he supported children learning science – by which he means “how you build a mine, how you do geology, how you drill for oil and gas, which is one of the most remarkable scientific exploits of anywhere in the world that we do”.

In her article, the student advocated buying less pens, less fashion and recycling soft plastics. While all this is worth advocating for, her argument expresses what many choose to believe – that simply by recycling, they are absolved and business as usual can be preserved. Even the business of voting for governments who continue to prioritise economic growth and profits at the expense of all ecological systems.

At a time when we are still adding carbon to the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, a broiling mass of students whose boisterous and declamatory refusal to submit to the daily routine – and, by implication, the industries which profit from it – makes sense precisely because it doesn’t submit, it isn’t quiet, it isn’t personal, and it is disruptive.

It would be nice to share the student’s belief that change happens without disorder, and it would be convenient to also accept that individual actions will be the most effective mode of saving the environment. Our current economic system thrives on a world of atomised, disconnected individuals and, without disruption, that system will prevail.

Climate change is taking us to the brink of exactly what this student most fears. A world threatened with chaos, a world that is sleepwalking into catastrophe. At the very least, protests raise consciousness in a way that recycling your own tin cans doesn’t.

Had the article-writing student actually joined the march, she would have experienced something else. Call it the accumulative power of solidarity, which, like a wave, wells up in an inestimable but mysteriously palpable way. It evokes something deeply human – the joy of being borne up by a fellowship, by togetherness, by a mutuality that stretches across class, gender, race and every other kind of difference. To be united by a profound belief in a common good is to feel an immediate and direct sort of companionship.

School kids make their voice heard on climate inaction. Photo: Martine Murray

Despite protest in the digital age often meaning endless online petitions and hashtag campaigns, youth across the world appear to be recognising the traditional power of strike action when demanding real change. “In Australia, education is viewed as so important. By not going to school we’re showing how important action on climate change is to us. It’s the only power we have as kids in the society that we are in,” says Castlemaine Secondary College student Milou Albrecht.

In these times, where reality has become virtual and news has become fake, this matters. Presence matters, embodied responses matter. What surged forward at the march, catalysed in this instance by the energy of youth, was heartening, moving, rousing. It was also astoundingly clever – everywhere you looked, another handmade sign answering politicians’ disapproval with a cut-through statement of heartbreaking simplicity or biting wit. “We’ll be less activist if you’ll be less shit.” Could you say it better?

It was a kinship of strangers, an accumulation of voices and bodies moving and chanting in unison, held together by a belief in a good that needs to rise up, in defiance, to shape a future for those who otherwise face a world of chaos and loss.

Students rebut Scott Morrison's claim they should say in school. Photo: Martine Murray

I wish that disapproving student could have stood on the steps, as students flooded in, erupting out of the train stations like lava, crowding onto the Parliament House steps until they were overflowing onto the street. As each train delivered yet another surge of students, a roar went up and another roar answered, as if in finding each other, they formed something with a natural cohesion and order. Out of the chaos of a threatened future, they had made something that stood firm, that unified and gave hope.

This solidarity lifts that possibility out of the dark. It is given voices, faces, bodies, a beating heart. It gives direction and momentum to what can’t be faced alone and will not be faced by the self-interested institutions that created and continue to profit from the problem: the ones who require us to carry on, in isolation, with the daily routine.

As we prepare for the next school strike on March 15, it is the federal education minister Dan Tehan’s turn to disinform and discredit, calling the march “an appalling political manipulation”. Given that the current federal government excels in such manipulations, it is striking that they can’t tell the difference. Perhaps they, too, should join the march and risk the impact of experiencing something genuinely authentic.

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