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  • Writer's pictureFreya Freeman-Taylor

Youth identity and climate activism

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

― Franz Fanon

For almost two years now, I’ve been working within the giant machine that is Extinction Rebellion, representing the voices of young people within the movement. In January last year, I started sitting on the strategy design team : a group of people assigned with the task of writing XR’s UK Strategy for the upcoming year. A daunting task, and everyone on the team seemed to know it. I was the youngest person there by 22 years (18 vs 40), and while everyone else in the room was either a highly experienced activist or a strategist in some kind of professional capacity, it really felt that in some ways, we were all starting off on the same foot. In a climate movement, you’re all driven by a specific energy; urgency for the lives of yours and others. That’s what makes it become really stressful really easily. There isn’t another group doing climate activism to the same extent as XR, so the mindset is that if we don’t succeed strategically, it’s likely that the Climate Crisis will continue to be brushed over by our world’s powers. The feeling is that we need this to work. Because if it doesn’t, we might be fucked.

It’s strange to go from adults having authority over your life and success, to sitting in a room of adults who you genuinely admire, who have no overt hierarchy over you, and seeing them be just as absolutely lost and scared as you are. At the eye of the storm, a group of people have been given the task of deciding what happens next, and no one really seems very qualified. One of the unspoken things about our society is that adults haven’t really grown up. Our system is structured in a way that means it’s really easy to get through life without maturing emotionally in the ways we would within a healthier society. Which is why we have so many grown ups with fragile egos, fear of death, greed, and tendencies to blame others when something is going wrong. This really heightens itself when you feel like your actions, if you get them wrong, could fail an entire planet. During my time on the strategy team, I watched grown adults bully each other, remove each other from group chats, and on one zoom call, just leave the frame and scream (he thought his mic was off). It’s pretty tragic to get to the centre of a machine and realise that it’s filled with a bunch of emotionally immature adults all trying to blame each other for getting things wrong. It’s no wonder that our society has got to this point if no one in the west has really learnt to mature alongside their increased responsibilities.

In comparison, the youth climate movement fights its fears not by behaving like the young people we are, but by mimicking adult bureaucratic structures we don’t need. In the youth striker movement, the machine is made up of clear working groups with mandates and weekly meetings. Chaos and creativity is cast aside and branding strategies and spreadsheets are adopted. They behave not like the youth of their time, but like 40 yr old lobbyists who can vote. They talk to politicians, set net zero climate targets, launch media campaigns, and strike solemnly in the street. The activist youth of the UK have not been given the space to utilise their power as creative, unhinged, fresh-faced revolutionaries, but rather are encouraged by greenpeace, and other big NGOs, to set up petitions and write letters to their MPs. Why must we mimic our generation’s adults in order to be change makers? Surely the entire point is to reject the systems that are failing us and fall into the chaos that actually creates new exciting stuff? We need to step away from our admin and hit the streets with some paint, a giant speaker and our own vision. The role of the youth is to make monumental, future-shifting change on our terms, not minor adjustments to legislation, gate kept by the toxic adult system we should be breaking down.

The power of the youth is not one well understood within the Climate Activist sphere. Young people are not seen as the leaders of the resistance, but as tools to be used in order to mobilize adults who cry over Greta Thunberg speeches. The “save our children” rhetoric strongly upholds the idea that the young are helpless and need adults to save them from a bleak future - but if we continue to allow grown-ups to decide what is best for us, we’re never going to get anywhere, and nothing is going to be overthrown or changed. In order for us to survive this crisis of capitalism, colonialism and climate, young people need to take hold of power and be put in the driver’s seat rather than in a booster seat at the back.

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