“ We need children to care. We need them to push us to do something, because we have not pushed ourselves.”
As a teacher, father and aspirant politician, when I consider this week’s proposed school strike on global warming I face a dilemma: ‘Am I letting my students down if I allow them to skip school or am I letting them down if I don’t encourage them to strike?’
For those who are not familiar with the planned ‘Schools Strike for Climate Action’ this Friday, it is a nationwide protest against the Government’s lack of action on climate change. Students from all over Ireland will take part in marches in Dublin and Cork as well as demonstrations outside school gates in counties from Kerry to Donegal.
While there have been many days of protest across the country in recent years, from housing to health, this one is quite different. To begin with, this protest is student-led and the Irish strike is just one part of a growing international movement. This is the latest of a series of student-led protests, strikes and demonstrations that began on the 20th of August 2018 when 15-year old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, decided to skip school and protest outside the Swedish parliament due to its inaction on global warming.
That first Friday she spent alone with a hand-painted “skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for climate) banner. On the second day people started to join her and she hasn’t been alone since.
This Friday she will be joined by students in over 700 places in 71 different countries.The second difference is the strength of the message that this remarkable young woman has brought forward.
Our house is on fire
Greta’s message, which she has delivered passionately in front of audiences ranging from school children to billionaires at Davos, is emphatic, unequivocal and damning. The world, the biosphere, the planet is dying. Our house is on fire. She does not mince her words, telling Governments and decision makers: “you are too scared of being unpopular” – “you are not mature enough to tell it like it is, even that burden you leave to us children” – “you say you love your children above all else yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes” – “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act”.
These are uncomfortable truths, especially coming from a child, as she describes herself. But going by the latest figures from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we need to start listening. According to the latest IPCC climate change report, published in October 2018, the world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years left for global warming to be kept under 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree rise will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
The final reason that this protest is different and has potential to become truly meteoric is because it contains an action that may prove especially popular with the average student – skipping school. If all this does not yet strike fear into the heart of politicians, principals or parents then they probably still don’t fully understand the power of internet and social media.
This cluster of protests is close to tipping point, close to becoming an all-encompassing international movement, that each new protester, each hashtag, each video that goes viral helps to accelerate forward.
Fridays for Futures
And this is where I become torn. The strikes have begun gaining momentum in other countries as a regular ‘Friday for Futures’ event. Do I want to see this happen? Do I want my students to begin skipping classes and falling behind? Or should I be encouraging them to make their voices heard because of what is in store for humanity if we fail to act now and act decisively?
We need children to care. We need them to push us to do something, because we have not pushed ourselves. I sometimes show the 1997 Oscar winning film ‘Good Will Hunting’ to my students. I tie in a whole host of themes into it but at the heart of my choice is that I think it is a beautiful film that resonates with young people – a story of redemption, of love, of forgiveness, and of friendship. It’s also really funny and I would love just one opportunity to say Matt Damon’s immortal line ‘How do you like them apples?’ with meaning.
There is a moment in the film when Matt’s childhood friend Chuckie tells him that his favourite part of the day is when he arrives at his Matt’s house to pick him up for another dead-end day of menial labour and hopes that his friend will have packed up and gone. Gone to a better life than the one that Chuckie and his other friends are destined to fulfil.
There is a part of me that has begun hoping that I will turn up one Friday morning with my Hamlet, my French Revolution and my Syliva Plath prepared and my students won’t be there anymore. Instead, they’ll realise safeguarding our planet is the most important job they may ever have. They might be able to live with the consequences of skipping school, but none of us will survive the consequences of destroying our planet.
This opinion piece originally appeared in TheJournal.ie