Youth driving the environmental movement

| 25th March 2009
'We're here because our parents' generation has failed us and it's up to young people to stop climate change by whatever peaceful means we have left.'

Much more than just an off-the-cuff soundbite, this reported comment to the BBC from 21-year-old Plane Stupid activist Lily Kember after the occupation of the runway at Stansted was really profound and really resonated. It touched on a theme I predict we’ll come to hear a lot more about. I’ve lost count of the number of people who told me that hearing this quote on every news bulletin that day led to a bit of an ‘epiphany moment’, as they were forced to contemplate why the same young people that don’t usually vote, and whom they usually dismiss as apathetic, were risking so much to go to such extraordinary lengths.

Yet the media establishment, obsessed by the class and personalities of a handful of those involved, continues broadly to miss the significance of the new wave of youth activism it is witnessing and the important question of intergenerational justice.

The naive popular narrative that ‘every generation has their thing’, that climate is ours and that we are the ‘Facebook generation’ doesn’t hold. A deeper analysis shows we’re way beyond that. We’re not simply rejecting coal and unsustainable aviation growth, but the delegitimised tools we’ve been handed to bring about change.

We’re not just using Facebook, but are forming a whole array of networks and cross-organisational links involving individuals in political parties, pressure groups, local community groups, social groups and mass movements with an international bent enabled by technology.

More importantly, while many have traditionally become campaigners with worries about what the world would look like for their children, much of that’s changed; altruism has little to do with it any more. With the latest scientific reports showing that it will be our generation that will feel the severe impacts of warming, this is now about us. That simple fact leads to a different emotional reaction. It’s not an option to set a standard that we don’t expect to have to meet in a few years’ time, when we’ve exited our ‘radical phases’ and entered into institutions to be corrupted as we ‘grow up’ and ‘get less black and white’.

The patronising clichés fall apart because this isn’t about ideals so much as hard science. Every scientist in the world tells us things aren’t going to get better, and [climate change secretary] Ed Miliband and his ilk should know that. We’re not just going to go to rock concerts wearing green wristbands for the next 100 months. As a friend of mine put it, ‘There’s now an entire generation plotting how to take over the system. And you only see the direct action because it’s explicitly designed to be visible’.

An interesting byproduct of this new movement is the re-radicalisation of the ‘old hands’. With hard-won experience we’re seeing many former activists coming back out of ‘retirement’ and helping to arm us with their expertise and support. This isn’t generation versus generation – it’s an intergenerational united front. In the US, the youth movement in general is an increasingly powerful force that political elites are proactively courting.


The mainstream consensus view is that Barack Obama would not be president of the United States if he hadn’t made the ‘youth vote’ – notoriously ‘unreliable’ in the eyes of political apparatchiks – central to his electoral strategy. In the US, Democratic strategists have written books on the subject, and it was noticeable that with every speech he aimed at my generation the environment was a central theme. His team, many of them themselves young and energetic – his chief speechwriter is 27 – recognised that only by rejecting the old labels, institutions and assumptions would they be able to reach into the campuses. By differentiating himself from Clinton with this age constituency, he reaped the rewards on 4 November. Turnout from 18 to 30s doubled on 2004 figures, with votes going to Obama by a massive margin off the back of an enormous grassroots mobilisation by young people who spent evenings and weekends knocking on doors and sleeping on sofas in a decentralised campaign that they ran themselves.

It is completely inconceivable that this would happen for the Labour Party in Britain at the next general election, but for any British politician who wants a young, fresh and motivated team ahead of future elections, the lesson from Obama is that what they say and do now counts. This is interesting as younger Labour politicians begin to fight over who’ll replace Brown.

Professor James Hansen said that with Kingsnorth, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has the future of the world in his hands, and now he’s passed that responsibility to Miliband, someone closer in age to our generation than his. Whose generation will Ed Miliband side with? He might like to bear that in mind as he ponders the Kingsnorth decision. Starvation, floods, mass migration and warfare over dwindling resources. In our lifetimes. We’re not going to be forgiving.

Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2009

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