By Dr Tony Whitbread
Friday 15 February was the day that school students around the world took to the streets to demand that world leaders start some serious action to address our environmental crisis. We had our own excellent examples, for instance here in Brighton.
You could feel various emotions on hearing this.
First should be shame. While we might point to all sorts of things that we feel we’ve done, the basic fact is that we have failed. For instance, in 1992 the UK, along with most countries in the world, signed both the Climate Change Convention, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. A generation ago we committed to really doing something about the environmental crisis. Since then, however, we have emitted more carbon dioxide than in the previous 200 years and the world has slipped into its 6th mass extinction. Extinction rates now are between 1,000 and 10,000 times the background rate. Our situation is about as serious as the mass extinction that saw off the dinosaurs.
Our generation has failed, and we’ve failed spectacularly.
Second, we might feel enthusiasm. The kids are revolting, they have got some buzz about them and it doesn’t look like they are going to accept any nonsense. This is perhaps the brightest ray of hope that has emerged for a very long time. A failed generation has woken a justifiable anger in young people.
Third is our own anger. The students raise obvious issues – the climate and environmental crises are the most serious issues of our time, yet they are given a pathetic level of attention by both the media and world leaders. The contract between one generation and the next has been broken – we are taking their future from them and not even talking about it. They know it and are not going to put up with it. The past generation of environmentalists should feel anger for battering our heads against a brick wall trying to raise the concerns, and give positive solutions, yet we’ve been constantly marginalised.
The clarity of the arguments put forward by those on school strike was impressive.
We may claim that we done a great deal to address the most important issues of our time. All these kids need do, however, is point to the results – feeble.
Some criticised them for campaigning on a school day - they should do it on their day off. A weekend demo, however, would simply not have been reported by the media. Quiet complaint has been tried – it failed.
They should be at school working. “We’ll do our homework when you do yours” was one great response. “Why improve our knowledge of science when governments do not act on the science they already have?” – a charge that is difficult to answer.
Theresa May said they are wasting teachers time – the response was that while this may be true, governments have wasted 30 years, which is worse! “2 years bitching about Brexit while the planet is dying” was such a good poster it almost went viral.
As worn out old cynics we might say that they don’t yet know how difficult or complicated it all is – they are being simplistic. But that is their right. Youth has a great knack of getting to the nub of a problem – cutting through the fluff and saying it how it is. The past generation can try to confuse and procrastinate, but the facts speak for themselves.
There is going to be another school strike on 15 March. A little while ago, Greta Thunberg one of the motivators behind the strike said that they are not there to ask for change but to say that change is coming whether we like it or not. This is no longer just a demonstration – it’s a movement.
Dr Tony Whitbread is an independent ecologist and former Sussex Wildlife Trust CEO