Listen to Youth, and Stop Waiting on Government

By: Alice Grendon | TCAT Communications Coordinator 

Like many politically engaged people living in modern times, I have an inner conflict between the desire to stay informed and the need to protect my nervous system from the onslaught of fear and horror which is frequently brought forth by listening to the news. This week the desire to stay informed has won out, as I start the day listening to the speeches and news coverage of the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

I am brought to tears by the words of youth climate activists like Vanessa Nakate, Mikaela Loach, Helena Gualinga, and Greta Thunberg. I am crying not only because their words are powerful, but because I hear in their speeches the echoes of words I too have spoken. I am transported back 10 years to when I myself was a youth climate activist testifying before city councils, port commissions, elected leaders, and rallies of likeminded people concerned for the planet, and the tears roll down my cheeks because 10 years later these amazing and powerful young womxn are sounding the same desperate alarms and little-to-nothing has changed politically, but everything has changed atmospherically. U.K youth climate activist Michaela Loach spoke to this heartbreak and despair:

“My heart was broken by the people inside that COP building, by the world leaders who steal our sacred words and use them to defend and uphold the oppressive systems of capitalism and white supremacy, who tell us that action needed to prevent sea level rise engulfing my ancestral home in Jamaica is impossible or not practical. In this heartbreak, fear and despair, I felt weak. But I will allow myself the space for my heart to break, so that the gold of community can be poured into those cracks and make it stronger, make it bigger, because every time my heart breaks, it is made stronger. . . The antidote to despair is not to run away or ignore the realities of the societal violence around us. It is not to ignore the violence our siblings on the frontlines experience at the hands of the neocolonial fossil fuel companies. . . In the face of this violence and despair, we cannot give up. We cannot be overwhelmed. We must act. These are last resort times. So do whatever you can and be audacious about how incredible the future we can create can be. We have to believe that we can achieve it,” said Loach in their November 6th speech.

Here, Loach reminds us of something deeply important, the power of community. The Conference of Parties has been held my entire life, and yet over the course of the quarter century I have lived on this planet, warming has only gotten exponentially worse. Just last week, the court ruled against the futures of youth in Washington State in their decision in Aji P. vs. The State of Washington (I encourage you to read the powerful dissent and more from Youth V. Gov here). I believe that we can no longer rely on our elected officials, many of whom are backed by corporate interests, the judicial system, or a crumbling democracy to protect us from the impacts of climate change. I am not interested in spending another 10 years begging for my future from people who will not have to live the nightmarish consequences of their inaction alongside me. I believe that building power and resiliency in our local communities is the only way forward.

We can see even here in Thurston County a microcosm of the greater political foot dragging taking place on the global stage. Despite many of our elected officials’ true desire to act, the current systems of government operation move too slowly to rise to the occasion of this crisis. It is not only political will that stands in the way of swift climate action, but it is also that our government procedural systems were not made for this. We cannot sit back and wait for the local government to enact the Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan (TCMP) we fought so hard to passed. We ourselves must begin bringing about the changes it articulates. We must do this by building alternatives through community organizations, gathering places, in our neighborhoods, and homes. Olympia Community Solar is one great example of what it means to build an equitable, clean, and necessary alternative without waiting for local government action. 

Modes of action are not mutually exclusive. We can continue to work with local governments, try to overhaul the processes by which decisions are made, and push for emergency decision making measures to be instituted. But, all of that takes precious time that we young people simply do not have. This crisis demands that we divest some of our faith in the political systems we have previously relied on because they simply were not created to find equitable solutions to a pressing global crisis. The systems and procedures that were created by the ruling class of Colonial America continue to this day to serve only today’s ruling class. Exclusion and gatekeeping are baked into the very bones of these systems of governance. So, we must start working in the community to actively build alternatives while we wait for governments to catch up. My life literally depends on it.

A Note on Loving and Supporting Young People in the 21st Century:

In the climate movement I have worked in very intergenerational spaces for many years, I love the exchange of knowledge and ideas that can happen across generations when all parties young and old are open to learning from one another. And, I want to share a small offering for older activists about appropriately showing your support for youth.

Myself and many young people in climate and environmental spaces often are told some version of, “Oh you young people give me so much hope, my generation really messed things up, but I have hope for the future because amazing young people like you are going to fix it.” This is intended well, but it fails to recognize the fear and pain that accompany the reality of what it means to be on the frontline of the climate crisis because of decisions that were made before you were even born.

Every young person is already, or soon will be, acutely impacted by the climate crisis. We sit like dominos on a table; some of us have a few shreds of protection due to other societal privileges like nationality, race, or class, but even these institutions of enshrined power cannot protect us forever, and eventually all the dominos on the table will fall. Most of us are carrying low levels of grief and anxiety at all times. Sometimes we are very consciously and explicitly holding that grief at the forefront of our minds, when thinking about the futures we don’t get to have or the choices we don’t get to make. Sentiments like “you give me hope” or “you’ll turn this around” breeze past the deep fear and pain that young people and parents of young children hold and can often land as a little tone-deaf. An alternative might be “Thank you for your actions/words/wisdom,” or asking “How can I support your activism?” and listening with an open heart, and following through. These are just a few small pieces of advice, and I certainly cannot speak for everyone born after 1980. But I do hope this perspective can aid in building a strong multi-generational movement.

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