“Wild optimism” doesn’t quite capture the energy of the Global Climate Strike, which took place today at various locations across the world — including New York, where I marched with my wife and daughter. Exuberance, glee, and happiness were all present, but only part of the story. The overwhelming sense that I got from the middle of the march is that that this was a crowd experiencing honest-to-god empowerment. It’s as if marching down the street in a group, leading some really world-class chants, taking pictures, flipping peace signs to news cameras, and getting seen is the thing. In a protest that is populated mostly by teenagers, this is not far from true.
It’s easy to say that naiveté was driving this mood. But that’s demonstrably off-base. The slogans and posters, advocating for climate change and a carbon-free world, show the crowd recognizes the gravity of the situation — and they’re pissed.
“The planet is dying” one teenage girl shouts out as she marches, double-speed as if actually fleeing from a global conflagration. The most popular chant of the day, too, carries serious edge: “What do you want?” “Climate Justice” “When do you want it?” “Now!” “If we don’t get it?” “Shut. It. Down.”
What is climate justice for a teenager? Pre-emptive reparations, perhaps? After all, these kids have been thrust into a world that is unprepared for its weather, that can’t prevent its coastal communities from drowning, that offers mid-level anxiety instead of solutions, for a generation’s inability to wean itself off of fossil fuels despite the evidence that this was not a good idea.
I think climate justice to this crowd is actually trying to accomplish something more sobering and simple: To get those in power to take their complaint and do something about it. To get someone to hear and validate those that stand to inherit the mess.
As I waded through the crowd, this teenage viewpoint was evident everywhere. I wondered, though, what the younger generation would think of this, what my third-grader — who we proudly pulled from class to march with her mom — would make of the atmosphere.
So I asked her. When I found her, she saw me first, ran over and hugged me, shook in excitement, pulled away, and reflexively held up her sign to the crowd, to no one in particular, as if on duty. Clearly, she had caught a bit of that energy too.
“What do you think?” I asked. “It’s hot,” she said. “Also, there was this sign where Donald Trump’s head looked really weird and he had his eyes marked out and he looked angry and shouldn’t be here.” (To note: There were shockingly few signs depicting Donald Trump at this rally.) I waited a bit to prod further, doing so as she ate a few gummies, both of us squatting on the ground at the march’s terminal.
“What did you learn here that you didn’t in the classroom?” I asked. “That’s hard,” she replied, with a furrowed brow, truly stumped. I tried another tack: “What is it you did today?” This, she had an answer for: “Saved the planet!” Now there’s some beautiful naiveté.
This march, full of children and families, did not so much carry the voice of those children and families. It was the teens’ voices that rang loudest, in part because there were more of them. But also, perhaps because they have the most powerful story to tell — a coming of age story where you wake up to a harsh world indeed, one that can be changed but needs to first be shown its deep-down problems.
I passed a tween boy on my way to the subway whose back-and-forth with his friends best captured this sentiment for me today. “Fuck climate change, yo” he said, taking off his shirt to reveal, written across his chest in Sharpie, exactly this (minus the “yo”).
If you were to put the Global Climate Strike on a bumper sticker, I think you need look no further.