Literary Hub

A New Generation, Betrayed by the Old, is Rising Up on Climate Change

thunberg

The voice. At first, it was the voice that took hold of them. Slightly off, coming out of a little girl’s body. A metallic voice, sharp as a blade, trembling not because of stress or shyness, oh no—trembling with rage, a cold rage set to overtake them. And then the words themselves. “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden, you leave to us, children. … Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.” Remarkable twist here: you, adults, world leaders, beaming bosses and consumers, are the unconscious, immature ones. We, children of the 21st century, are taking control, since you are obviously incapable of doing anything new at the steering wheel. “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Then she leaves the stage and disappears.

This is how, last December at the COP 24 in Katowice, the entire world discovered then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg. Since last August, she’d been conducting a school strike every Friday, standing in front of the Swedish Parliament holding up a cardboard sign reading, “Striking for Climate.” On day 1, she was on her own. Today, they are tens of thousands: schoolboys and schoolgirls, high schoolers and university students all over Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, standing up every day, every week, taking the streets of their towns.

In January, in Davos, in front of the big bosses of the world, Greta Thunberg came up on stage. Her poise, her power, the clarity of her gaze and speech: they all stoked the audience again. For the first time, kids born with this century are speaking up. And the well-fed sons of the 20th century are listening, speechless, baffled by the very monster they have created. Back when they were 16, they were having fun, enjoying the infinite resources of an expanding world. Greta Thunberg does not laugh. She can’t afford to.

For the first time we get a visual of what the destruction of a world means: a 16-year-old child who can’t fathom why she should go to school, since there’s nothing waiting for her beyond. Before this, we had the coral and the animals, but their cry was too tenuous for us to listen. And, sure, last summer we felt a bit hot. Now, these kids, bound to burn alive, are looking their parents in the eye, saying thanks for nothing.

It is especially women taking up this fight for the planet. This is no coincidence.

The great divide is happening: everywhere, children and teenagers, and in particular girls and young women, are taking part in movements that refuse to produce leaders; across from them, the last holdouts of the old, ugly tumbling-down world, from Trump to Bolsonaro, are clinging to the trappings of carbon democracy, trying to hold on to their disappearing territory. The coming wave against the old one, rearing back and retaining. Even though it may be slow, the fight will necessarily tilt over to the moving side.

Both of this century’s revolutions are meeting in this wave. It is especially women taking up this fight for the planet. This is no coincidence: we’ve been thrown into this state of things by a world of oil, old-school politics, patriarchy, and capital going hand in hand.

In February 2018, in the wake of the Parkland killings, an astounded America watched the 18-year-old Emma González, who, her fist raised, her voice piercing, screamed at Trump to change the Second Amendment on bearing arms. With her, a whole generation of 2.0 activists is rising and approaching politics in an entirely new way.

Last November, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, born 29 years ago in the Bronx of an American father and a Puerto Rican mother, took Washington by storm. Smart, radical, her Green New Deal is an ambitious program aiming to reach 100 percent of clean and renewable energy by 2035, partly funded by taxing the greatest wealth holders at 70 percent, which could generate a revenue of around $70 billion per year. In the UK, “Extinction Rebellion,” a nonviolent movement of civil disobedience that started last October, unexpectedly expanded over the course of a few weeks to become a global phenomenon, fuelled by that same desire for radical change and to reform practices. While the rear-guard drags its feet, and while governments all over the world, including the French, offer small arrangements with the economic and political system that has shown how fully it has failed, a new generation is coming to terms with the fact that everything needs to change and that they will have to take care of it themselves. They don’t expect anything anymore from parents who brought them to a world they were busy destroying.

These children born with the century do not need the imagination their own parents lacked to understand the extent of the upcoming fight. They speak not against nor in favor, they speak on behalf of everything that is falling.

They do know that simply rescuing of the sinking ship interests no one, whereas inventing new ways of existence, reshaping a manner of being in the world, devising a new pact with nature and new ethics; that is exciting. Were we to approach the ecological crisis as a springboard, as a chance to explore territories anew, to inhabit the world differently, then we might turn the threat into a challenge, and the fear into a quest.

While tensions reach their highest—be it about borders, nations or the local scale—the children of the new century are all about movement, and their mastery of digital devices allows them to spread their actions with new speed and efficiency.

The next force in charge of supporting the new world will also have to modify it entirely.

A world, by definition, will not let itself die. As soon as it goes, with it goes its values, its beauty, its defeats. Another world takes its place, no better and no worse. For the first time in the fragmented journey of homo sapiens, the world to come will be worse than the previous one. Our species just suffered its greatest narcissistic blow, maybe worse than those brought upon it by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud: the scandalous news that we took part in our own destruction and that of everything around us. Of course we are late, voluntarily and as if to protect ourselves from that knowledge, to admit this ontological failure.

The next force in charge of supporting the new world will also have to modify it entirely, to rethink and apply a new way of being in it, but they will also have to digest this defeat of everything that sustained modernity: progress, faith in reason, and human ability. It is an immense and complex task. Yet watching these bodies and this momentum, one tends to believe they will be up to it.

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The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

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