A Salute to the School Strikers

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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

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