In an age of so many political reasons to be depressed, the recent Extinction Rebellion protests should give those of us on the Left at least one cause to be hopeful. Seemingly out of nowhere, here were thousands of people willing to make a stand about what ought to be the defining political issue of our time.
People of all ages turned out to the protests in London during late April to demand urgent action on climate change, but they were predominantly – crucially – young. One image from the protests brought this home to me in particular: a young woman holding a placard stating ‘You will die of old age. I will die of climate change’.
This not only succinctly illustrate the gravity of the situation humanity faces; it also provides a counter-narrative to the lazy assumption that has persisted for far too long: that young people are too preoccupied with hipster fashions, cat videos on YouTube, their own image on social media, or whatever other supposed indicator of their shallow lack of awareness is being used to denigrate them this week.
Against this background, Greta Thunberg, climate activist and school striker, is the ideal icon of resistance for our times. Engaged, articulate and angrily speaking truth to power, she proves that today’s generation of young people are far from the vacuous, self-centred bunch they are often accused of being. She, and everyone else involved, are of course right.
I don’t need to repeat here the looming crisis we, as a species, face due to climate change. We are in deep trouble. Yet, for too long, politicians have been prepared to side-line the issue; at best paying lip service and fiddling around the edges with this or that issue (as long as it’s business-friendly, of course). Or at worst, denying that there is a problem at all.
This isn’t just about climate change. Young people are increasingly aware, angry, and flexing their political muscles in a way that the establishment do not like at all. Age is becoming the defining dividing line in British politics. 70% of 18-24 year olds voted Remain in the EU referendum. In the 2017 General Election, Corbyn’s Labour would have won easily if only the under-40s had the vote. In both cases, the relevant vote share declined with each upward age bracket.
Some would put this down to naïve, youthful idealism. On the whole, I disagree. Young people are simply voting for their interests. Far from always voting to the left, and despite the ‘Rick from the Young Ones’ caricature, young people played their part in electing Margert Thatcher because they believed she offered them hope for the future. Today, the reality is stark: young people recognise that our current political consensus is driving our planet towards inhabitability, and this doesn’t seem overly appealing for those who, or whose children, will be around to see this happen.
It’s a far cry from what I remember of being a teenager myself. People of my age at the time were predominantly apathetic, aloof, and cynical when it came to politics. Granted, the era of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ and the supposed end of ideology, was not the most inspiring for political engagement. Even in the case of the 2003 Iraq War, an anachronistic flashpoint in a generally unpolitical era, the response of many of my peers wasn’t just to support or oppose the war. It was disinterest or, worse, ‘there’s no point in protesting. It doesn’t work’.
There’s no point in protesting
In my view, this was just another toxic legacy bequeathed to my generation by the privileged Baby Boomer generation. Along with dismantling the welfare state, and imposing tuition fees they themselves were unburdened by, they told us that they’d done the hard work for us: we protested in the 60’s and 70’s, they told us, then we grew up and discovered there’s no point – so you don’t have to bother.
Well, that orthodoxy, depressing as it was, is over. That answer isn’t good enough for young people any more.
Unsurprisingly the protests haven’t gone down well in all quarters. London Mayor Sadiq Kahn stated repeatedly that he ‘shared the passions of those protesting that the government needs to do more on climate change’ whilst imploring the protesters to call it all off, end the disruption, and go home.
This just illustrates the point of Extinction Rebellion. The time for supportive words whilst treating climate change as a side-issue, and doing nothing, is over. I understand why, in his position, Kahn has to take this law-and-order oriented approach, but like the great civil rights struggles of the past, it’s clearly going to take something more assertive than asking politely to push climate change up the agenda.
Young people are a force to be reckoned with
Even more hostile was London police chief Cressida Dick’s recent suggestion that laws should be changed to enable the more rapid arrest of protesters. The disruption caused by Extinction Rebellion is genuine – that was the point - but she should recognise how non-violent the week-long protests remained. They were free of even the fringe violence that marred earlier comparable left-wing protests, such as the G8 anti-capitalist protests in the 2000’s. It’s difficult to imagine, say, ‘Tommy Robinson’ supporters achieving the same peacefulness whilst exercising their freedom to demonstrate.
I hope that Extinction Rebellion achieves its goal of robust action finally being enacted by the government to deal with climate change. I remember, in the pre-financial crash world, occasionally someone in politics would say that climate change was as serious a threat to humanity as terrorism. Well, they were wrong. It’s much worse than that. It’s far more important than Brexit, as well. There are already some encouraging signs from Labour that the issue will form a cornerstone of its future programme for government.
But for now, if nothing else, Extinction Rebellion proves – once again – that young people are a force to be reckoned with. Political parties who ignore them could well end up regretting it as they, like our planet’s future, face oblivion.