Teenage climate protestors were born of our abuse of the planet

Teenage climate protestors were born of our abuse of the planet
Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, marches with other young climate activists for a climate strike outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh).

I apologise in advance. I try not to start these columns with a rant. It’s a great privilege to be given space like this to express a point of view, and I’ve tried to accept that other people have a point of view, too. And that (mostly) they’re entitled to it.

But I’m sick to my back teeth of all these middle-aged men — and it is mostly men — sneering at the young people who took to the streets last week to protest at the world’s failure to tackle climate change decisively. These men have been having a sort of collective temper tantrum, like overgrown, spoiled children.

Take David Quinn. When the extraordinary Greta Thunberg sailed to New York, rather than fly there, Quinn spent days in open contempt of her. And he was at it again this past week, on radio and in constant twittering. He’s a prolific tweeter, with 30,000 tweets, on every subject under the sun, for his 11,000 followers.

Here’s a couple of his most recent ones and they’re all about theclimate change protests: “Radicalising children is a mark of totalitarian regimes, where politics no longer recognises any boundaries.”

“Hold the climate strikes in non-school hours and then we’ll see how serious the kids are.”

“When we faced the possibility of nuclear war, back in the day, no-one thought we should terrify children, and encourage them to skip school and take to the streets.”

That last one is almost funny. Back in the day was 1961, when children and teenagers were routinely beaten (and I was one of them) for having the impertinence to express any opinion about subjects like nuclear war.And, my heavens, we were terrified.

You read stuff like this and you feel like asking David Quinn what he hopes to be when he grows up. He has made a living — and I’m not saying that pejoratively — out of articulating and advocating issues that used to hold sway in Ireland, but which are now rather more difficult to talk about. I’ve never agreed with him, but I’ve acknowledged his constancy and determination.

So, when someone like that spends so much time retweeting contemptuous and contemptible rubbish about young people who are becoming involved in democratic, civilised, good-natured street politics (to highlight an issue that will shape and determine their futures), I wonder what the hell he’s afraid of.

You couldn’t turn on your radio this week without hearing endless, puerile abuse being heaped on the young people. Look at them, said one caller to a popular radio show, driven to the protest in their mums’ SUVs. Another one phoned in to say that if his children could be persuaded to turn off the lights or take shorter showers or pick up after themselves, it would sooner solve climate change.

On and on it went.

And the internet was just as bad. That’s the ultimate echo chamber, of course, with people endlessly retweeting and reposting the comments of those with whom they agree. So, if you find one grumpy, middle-aged man giving out about the young people, it’s easy to find dozens of them. (Like the Australian TV commentator who called them selfish little turds and who slipped in a few digs about immigration.)

What have all these young people done to arouse such revolting, middle-age ire?

They’ve got political, that’s what. How dare they. They’ve had the nerve to hold a mirror up to our failure. Haven’t they some neck? They’ve taken — the cheek of them — a leadership position.

But the real reason that we’re so annoyed at the young people is that we know, in our hearts, that they’re right. We grumpy, middle-aged anti-protestors may be the first generation in history to bequeath a worse world to our children than the one we found.

And we hate having that pointed out to us. Every generation wants to make the world better. And our generation, more than any other, inherited a world full of promise and potential.

We squandered it. We invented consumerism, and we have been the most material, the most feckless, generation ever. And look at the damage we have left behind. We’re the original party-goers who didn’t know how to clean up after ourselves.

Maybe it wasn’t what we set out to do. We can argue — although that wouldn’t be true, either — that we didn’t know any better.

When we were chasing economic growth, trying to enable everyone to have a second car, discovering the world of cheap flights and foreign holidays — when politics was all about who could put more money into people’s pockets — the environment was never high on anyone’s list of priorities.

I worked in active politics for a good deal of my adult life. And I was always, whether in government or in opposition, campaigning about something. Things I believed; things I suffered about when I failed; things that made a difference when I won. The environment was never among them.

And I have less excuse than most, because when I was younger, I read a famous book called Silent Spring by the American writer Rachel Carson. I still remember it and the effect it had on me. It wasn’t just a famous book: It was hugely influential, perhaps among the first pieces of writing to awaken concern about the environment.

In Carson’s analysis, science, and especially the science of pesticides, had gone so far that it had begun to disturb the natural balance of the Earth, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Like today’s generation, Carson was viciously attacked in her time. By the time she published the book, she was already seriously ill with breast cancer, and some believe that the strength of the criticism hastened her death a year or so later.

But she was right, and proved right.

GRETA Thunberg, and the millions of young people she has inspired, are right, too. We’re in their debt that they have decided to force the pace. They want to leave a better world for their children than we have left them — a world with a future — and because of our profligacy, that’s an uphill struggle.

So we need to stop bitching and moaning and cop ourselves on. Only this weekend, the World Meteorological Organisation has said that the impact of climate change is accelerating, with the period 2015-2019 as the warmest in history, and the causes of climate change still proliferating.

That’s the legacy we’ve left to the next generation, and we have a hard neck to criticise them. We actually need more of them on the streets, not fewer. I believe education ministers everywhere should encourage and enable more schools to get more children involved in the climate change protests.

We need to respect and listen to our children. We need to follow them, not sneer at them. That may just be the only way to save the only planet we’ll ever have.

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