By Robert Alcock
From an Extinction Rebellion activist and father
You’ll have noticed that there’s never any shortage of grown-ups who are eager to tell you their opinions about whatever you happen to be doing. That’s especially true when tens of thousands of you—including my daughter, I’m proud to say—skip school to protest about the state your elders are leaving the planet in.
(School strikers at the Scottish Parliament.)
Quite a few “responsible” adults—as in “the ones who are responsible for the mess we’re in”—have made it clear they think the Climate Strike is really just an excuse to skip school. Well, duh! Obviously it’s much more fun and educational to be out in the streets changing the world than sitting in class being taught about it. You’ve written slogans and designed placards, organised with friends and debated with opponents, made appearances on TV and in social media, made new friends and bumped into old ones you had no idea were involved. Try fitting all that into a timetable and a lesson plan.
Theresa May had this to say about the School Strike: “…Disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for. That time is crucial for young people precisely so that they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates that we need to help tackle this problem.”
Sorry, Theresa, but I’ll have to give you an F for that answer. This is a global ecological emergency! We need action NOW, not in 30 years’ time when a lucky few among today’s teenagers have managed to reach positions of power and influence. Anyway the vast majority of schools don’t give kids the kind of education they need to gain access to those positions. And the wise young people who were on the streets on Friday know full well that what’s needed today isn’t more technical solutions, but the political will to put the solutions we already have into practice, in a way that’s socially just and ecologically sustainable. No amount of studying is going to achieve that.
My educational journey
When it comes to the cost and value of formal education, I know what I’m talking about. I left school in 1988, the year the IPCC was founded; I studied science at university, graduating in 1992, the year of the Rio Earth Summit, went on to do a masters in ecology, then a PhD, studying the effects of climate change on rocky shore organisms.
In November 2002, the very same weekend I completed my fieldwork, the beautiful coast of northern Spain was devastated by the Prestige oil spill—the worst environmental disaster in Spain’s history—which covered the whole shore in a thick layer of toxic black fuel oil, poisoning the seaweed and shellfish I’d spent three years studying.
(Futile attempts to clean up the Prestige oil spill.)
After all that, I still couldn’t get a job changing the world, so I had to do it on my own time, supporting myself as an writer, editor and translator while also building a house for my family—all skills that I learned mostly outside the formal education system.
Meanwhile, in those 30 years since I left school, the global economy has emitted more CO2 than it did during the whole of human history up to that point, and still shows no sign of slowing down, while ecosystems worldwide are on the point of collapse. If anyone had told me back then that we’d be in this predicament now, I think I would have done less studying and more protesting.
(Global CO2 emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution.)
But here we are.
Unlike George Monbiot, I don’t feel inclined to apologise to your generation on behalf of my own for having fucked up the world. I’ve been doing what I can. Let everyone look to their own conscience.
But nor do I want to put the burden of the future entirely on your shoulders. Greta Thunberg has something to say about that: “It’s sometimes annoying when people say, ‘Oh you children, you young people are the hope. You will save the world.’ I think it would be helpful if you could help us just a little bit.”
Hearing you loud and clear, Greta. On behalf of the adults of Extinction Rebellion (XR)—and I think I’m safe in speaking for the whole movement here—I want to say to the school strikers: we’ve got your back. We’re here to help. We don’t want to take control of the Climate Strike, profit from it, or use it as part of our nefarious plot to take over the world (well, ok, maybe just a little bit ;-). You’ve done a great job so far, and it has to continue to be driven and organised by you, the young people. But we want to offer you our whole-hearted support to help the Climate Strike grow bigger and better every Friday, and make the next mass action, on Friday March 15th, absolutely impossible to ignore.
In a very practical sense, XR has a lot of resources that you can draw on. (Of course, we’re also aware of the safeguarding and legal issues around adults working with children and other vulnerable groups.) We can offer training and support in a load of different areas: media and messaging, legal advice, how to plan and cary out NVDA (non-violent direct action), how to facilitate meetings and assemblies, prevent burnout, resolve conflicts, and make sure we are all having a good time, how to make effective and beautiful graphics, signs, puppets, music… Really, pretty much everything your movement needs to grow and flourish, except your own passion, wisdom and dedication—and you already have that in abundance.
What about Monday morning?
It’s great that you’re out on the streets protesting on Fridays. I hope you keep it up and diversify what you do during the protests. Marching, waving banners and shouting slogans gets a bit boring after a while. How about holding (Young) People’s Assemblies to talk about the ecological emergency and what we should be doing about it? Extend the conversation you’ve started with your brilliant signs and slogans.
But I think what matters just as much is what you’re going to be doing Monday to Thursday. Many of you are about to go back to school after the half-term break: going from schooling adults in how to change the world, to having to ask to use the bathroom.
Despite the excellent intentions and efforts of many teachers, the vast majority of schools are simply not fit for purpose. They just aren’t set up to empower and inform the young people who are going to create a restorative future for Planet Earth. Rather, for the most part, they foster a culture of domination, disempowerment, passivity, and hopelessness: in fact, the culture at the root of the ecological crisis. The system persists through our resignation and acceptance. Systemic change is needed, starting where each of us is best placed to act. For you, that’s likely to be in your school.
The climate crisis is a great rallying point, though our predicament is a whole lot bigger than just the climate. From oceans to insects, forests to cities, health to justice, no aspect of life on Earth is untouched. You can create a student-led assembly to demand your school declare an climate emergency, and discuss what to do about it: whether that means planting a school forest, tackling air pollution, eliminating plastics, stopping the use of pesticides, sourcing healthy local food for school lunches or growing your own… or reaching out into your local communities. But at the same time, you’ll likely find yourselves talking about, and coming up with solutions for, a lot of other problems—from bullying to child poverty to boring lessons—once you start to see how they are all connected.
Three words to remember: NEVER. ASK. PERMISSION.
I don’t mean you should be rude or arrogant in your behaviour. Be respectful at all times—especially to your opponents; but make it clear that you’re going to do what you believe is right, whether those in power grant permission or not. Most adults will be on your side, even if they might be afraid to say so openly.
Another world is possible. See you there!
For the Earth,
Robert Alcock, Extinction Rebellion Edinburgh