"Get out of class!"
No matter how these words are said, and no matter who says them, they reek of a paternalism that frowns upon dissent and liberty. They represent a fear that has kept us in check through our student years.
In August 2018, a Swedish teenager said the same words with a different urgency. They reverberated across the world. Greta Thunberg was 15 when she began her “School Strike For Climate.” She protested outside her country’s parliament, demanding urgent action to address the climate crisis. A year hence, she is the face of a global protest, inspiring millions to join cause with a collective fight. Last month, she travelled across the Atlantic from Europe to the United States in an emissions-free sailboat. She addressed Congress and the United Nations, urging leaders to stop dawdling and start panicking.
The patriarchs of our society wasted no time to undermine little Greta. They made feeble armchair commentary on her flawed methods. They stooped to mock her appearance and her mental health — she has Asperger’s, which she calls a “superpower”. Yet, the crowds gathering in solidarity with her from Sydney to Athens reaffirm that there has never been a better reason or a better time to protest.
As another young woman, Malala Yousafzai, showed us, education is a great leveller. It gives humans the opportunity to shape and own the future. When we send our kids to school, college and university, we expect that education will prepare them for a better future. Yet, this very notion of future is the problem. Being sucked into a global chain of consequences that perpetuates hopelessness is not an acceptable future. Being denied the right to live by submitting to, and paying for, a wilful neglect of climate security is not an acceptable future. Why, then, endorse an education system that is set up to fail us?
Many of us, products of the aforesaid system, are sceptical of this uprising. You see, the climate emergency can’t be appreciated from a climate-controlled cubbyhole that shuts the window on reality. Look what’s happening across the world. Chest-thumping leaders of men are consolidating power and muzzling free speech. Their governments are declaring war on the earth. By endorsing fracking and mining, burning rainforests for grazing, razing coastal mangroves for bullet trains, or effacing city forests for metro lines, they all send the same message: Economy over ecology.
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They can sell that idea to the KoolAid-swilling masses for ten years, maybe twenty. What happens after that?
Turn down the volume on social media rhetoric and political propaganda, and you’ll hear other voices. Fierce, courageous and unflappable, these voices have another thing in common. They are female.
New Zealand’s bold Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is 39. Even younger, at 29, is the persuasive US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both have stood up to the patriarchy of climate politics. Closer home, Nirupabai, a Karwa tribal woman from Chhattisgarh, has campaigned relentlessly to win back her right to work on land that the coal mafia usurped from her community. Agnes Karshiing was battered and left for dead by a 40-strong mob for opposing illegal mining in the infamous rat-hole coal-mines of Meghalaya.
The first two you may know about, but I won’t blame you for not having heard the last two names. Stories like theirs are drowned out by celebrity gossip and public relations blitzkrieg. All thanks to an education system that teaches us to value celebrity over achievement, affluence over service, and power over responsibility. To labour an unfashionable old argument, we are educated to speak not as citizens but consumers. When confronted with a danger as real and present as a climate crisis, we are thrown. Making sense of it demands a lifetime of unlearning, a lifetime we do not have the luxury to afford.
We can’t stop the clocks. We can’t buy time. But we can make a start.
In the late 1990s, a white woman named Erin Gruwell took up a teaching job at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. She was assigned to a freshman class of social rejects — Black, Hispanic and Asian teenagers from broken homes with troubled backgrounds who were bused in from sensitive neighbourhoods prone to interracial gang violence. When she realised that conventional English literature had no relevance to their lives, she turned the system on its head, encouraged them to learn deeply about issues that mattered to them, like racism and prejudice. Eventually, she invited them to journal their stories, a process both healing and empowering. Not only did 150 students become better adjusted citizens, their story became an inspiration for others. Compiled into a book called The Freedom Writers Diary, it became a New York Times Bestseller.
We can teach our children well. Better still, we can learn from them.