This is a moment. Perhaps it’s not the moment—since there have been others before it and more will surely follow—but it’s certainly a moment that will help determine the future of life on this planet. Yes, people have marched before and initiated strikes of all sorts, and in particular around environmental issues and climate change. Likewise, young people have taken the lead in social movements both historical and contemporary, from civil rights to gun control. Still, this moment is different in key ways.
For starters, there’s the indefatigable Greta Thunberg, about whom so much has been written and said that in its sheer magnitude may tend to obscure the full depth of her intervention. To be sure, the movement for climate justice and urgent policymaking isn’t just about her or due solely to her, and she would probably be the first to remind us of that. Yet in every movement—which is really a series of moments—there are voices breaking above the din to focus the discourse and engage our imagination.
And she’s done this, with a kind of clarity that is at once disarming and disquieting. She speaks truth to power, as movement mantra often aspires to do, in pointed terms without generating the sort of acrimonious repercussions that can lead to blowback and even open repression. Instead, her style of stating the case in unvarnished and incontrovertible terms while conveying to those elders in power that they ought to know better, inverts the standard narrative and flips the script of intergenerational justice.
Social change efforts often devolve upon a dynamic of youthful energy met with paternalistic indifference. The organizing done by young people usually is met with public pronouncements praising their spirit of civic engagement, coupled with blatant policy inaction that speaks volumes in its silence. We were all young once, the thinking goes, and can understand both the tone of urgency and sense of irresponsibility inherent in young minds. It’s good when youth speak, but we don’t have to really listen.
That is, until all of the young people—or at least a whole lot of them—raise their voices at once. That’s the confluence of this moment, with images and sounds pouring in from across the globe of youth (joined by allies and supporters from all generations) taking the streets and taking the lead on climate change issues. And this time around, the obvious spark of urgency—conveyed in pointed demands for immediate action—is coupled not with rashness but a sober analysis of causes, effects, and responses.
Sometimes people use a phrase about locating “the grownups in the room” in a figurative sense, since it’s usually applied to a room full of adults in which only a few are voicing responsible positions. Even more so, the phrase is meant to imply that the grownups are the ones capable of making the tough calls, staking out unpopular but necessary positions, and moving the discussion from handwringing to action. These proverbial grownups may use fewer words, making their gravitas even more impactful on others.
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Current events turn all of this on its head. The chronological grownups blather incessantly, squandering precious time and dwindling resources while the planet inexorably burns. These aged grownups have shown a remarkable lack of backbone in making the tough calls about what it will actually take to immediately pump the brakes on decades of profligate overconsumption, unbridled waste, unrestrained fossil fuel exploitation, and the acquisition of wealth at the expense of having any future on this world.
In many cultures, it’s the wisdom of elders that inspires veneration and conveys a long-term perspective essential for survival. And indeed, we needn’t be ageist in interpreting the present moment as one in which purely virtuous young people are contrasted with nothing but doddering fossils bent on ignoring their claims. Many adults have been raising their voices about climate change, some for decades, in ways that have helped frame the discussion and build a stage from which today’s youth can speak.
Perhaps these youths don’t have all the answers, but they’re asking the right questions. How much more evidence do we need before taking action? How many dire warnings will it take to prompt meaningful policy change? Why aren’t more political figures taking seriously their responsibility to actually represent people and guard the future from the ravages of the present? Why haven’t many elders gotten the message that their legacy is going to be the closure of the future for their descendants?
These questions reverberate in the streets, public fora, and halls of power as we speak. But they aren’t being asked in polite terms so much as they’re being pressed as urgent claims. The answers by now are almost self-evident, doled out by the bushel at the seniors-only luncheon in the form of gold-plated morsels marinated in oil. Meanwhile, beyond this ecocidal feeding frenzy, young people are hungry for change and won’t accept empty promises any longer. They are indeed the grownups outside the room.
That’s what this moment represents: a turning point in which the torch of moral clarity and political credibility is passed from one generation to another. Being somewhere in the middle of that dynamic—not quite old enough to be fossilized, yet clearly not taken for being young—presents an interesting vantage point. Any thoughts of a succession strategy in which power slips seamlessly from one generation to the next is nonsensical at this juncture, with the window of time to act rapidly closing.
Simply put, we can’t wait for those who either refuse to see the problem or lack the courage to take tangible action to step aside and wander off into the sunset. The arc of agitation is ascending like the proverbial sunrise, with all its connotations of promise and possibility. History, too, is cyclical, with ebbs and flows and transitions from what was to what might be. It can be difficult to see these cycles in real time, but the message today isn’t very subtle. Young people know what time it is, and it’s their moment.