By Janet Weil
“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.” – Greta Thunberg, Swedish climate activist
In all my years of activism, I had never heard anything like it. A shiver of nervous excitement ran through me.
The high, piercing voice of a girl on a megaphone demanded: “Tell me what democracy looks like!” A chorus of mostly teen girls shouted back: “This is what democracy looks like!”
A boisterous crowd of a few hundred self-led youth and children, with a handful of adults, we marched uphill in downtown Los Angeles. We were adding our small part to the worldwide Student Strike for Climate Action, in which 1.6 million participated in over 125 countries.
The march was more like a trot, and I was having a bit of a sweaty struggle to keep up. I was relieved when the march stopped briefly near the iconic Disney Concert Hall. A group of Latina high school students formed a line for photos and chants.
Some students’ colorful signs reflected grim humor: “If you fail our planet/ good luck/ getting elected on Mars” and “Sunscreen won’t save you forever”. Some were nature-centered: “Plant Trees/ Save Bees/ Clean Seas.” Much love of the natural world and artistic flourishes had gone into the making of their messages.
As we trooped past the huge, fortress-like headquarters of the LA Police Department, a song familiar from my high school days burst out: “Everywhere we go/ people wanna know/ who we are/ so we tell them/ mighty, mighty students/ fighting for justice…” The “fighting for justice” part was different. These kids weren’t yelling for their basketball team. I thought back to the desperate anger I had felt as a teen during the Vietnam War.
The crisis that threatens this generation of youth dwarfs even a decades-long war. As both the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment and the UN’s IPCC report documented in late 2018, we are in a national and a global emergency. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is the highest in 800,000 years. Emissions are rising, not decreasing. We – in California, but also all over the world — are already suffering the effects of a rise of just over 1 degree Celsius: harsher and more frequent storms, wildfires, droughts, crop failures, unpredictable weather.
The march looped back to LA City Hall. I complimented a boy on his large sign, and we exchanged info on our home towns; his, Venice Beach and mine, Palm Springs. We gave each other a small nod of approval and a “thanks for being here.” After talking to Alissa, an adult activist at the Extinction Rebellion table, and getting a sticker from the Center for Biological Diversity folks, I took a seat in a grassy area above the small stage to listen to the rally.
An indigenous woman led us in a heart-opening ritual to the seven directions: east, south, west, north, above, below, inside. Scientist Peter Kalmus, whose two sons have been climate striking on Fridays at Pasadena’s City Hall, spoke briefly, followed by his son Zack: “I strike because the Earth is so beautiful…” A hush fell on the crowd at his words.
A Chicana high school student cried out: “We are more than a hashtag! We are the generation who will have to deal with this! I would rather be in school.” Another girl spoke of her terror during the wildfires last November, and her feeling of dread at the approach of summer.
From Boulder, Colorado, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an environmental justice activist since age 6 (he’s now 18), performed his spoken word piece, then changed to “rally speech.” He observed, “It used to be me and a bunch of old white people, talking about climate change. And shout out to all the old white people” – I grinned – “but now is OUR time!”
In the wave of applause that followed, I didn’t clap or cheer, because a huge lump rose in my throat and grief overwhelmed me. Why should these young people have to face such a bleak future?
So what is left for us, their elders, to do?
Educate ourselves on both the crisis and the solutions; I recommend the book “Drawdown” for starters. Decrease our own emissions by flying and driving less. Speak up in public and private — but don’t waste time on the deniers. Support young activists, and take up some share of the burden. This fight for climate justice has the potential to draw humanity, and the generations, together in the face of a shared existential threat.
I am grateful to the young people I shared an afternoon with. They could have spurned me or asked me to leave. Instead, there was a shared feeling of concern and trust that I will cherish. My feet were sore, and my heart was full.
Janet Weil is a longtime activist for peace and justice. She lives in the California desert town of Palm Springs with her husband and many hummingbirds. You can find her on Twitter: @JanetRWeil.