When Greta Thunberg Came to Town: School Strike 4 Climate

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Video by Ollie Pitt

Chaos. Trampling. Injuries. This is what was feared by the emergency services as thousands descended on College Green to watch Greta Thunberg speak in a hastily arranged Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate event. Luckily, this did not occur, although that is not to say the event was well organised.

On what was a cold, wet and miserable day, it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people (with this wide estimate itself alluding to the disorganisation of the event) gathered to cheer on their hero Greta Thunberg, a 17-year-old climate activist from Sweden. Those who attended were, at first, in fine voice and good spirits. The chanting was plentiful and the singing along to some classic hits, such as ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ (a message regarding the current climate crisis?) or ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ (Greta Thunberg?), buoying spirits.

Yet the rain continued to pour and Thunberg continued to be absent even after the clocks struck eleven – maybe her train from Sweden was delayed? The noise began to dampen, and, despite the best efforts of some young activists, the crowd remained subdued. There were some occasional bursts of life from the crowd but largely these were when a striker needed medical attention. Whilst this crowd concern does demonstrate the good nature of the event and the complete absence of any animosity that some had feared, the fact that these were the most memorable moments is emblematic of how this event should ultimately be deemed a failure.

Sure, the eventual appearance of Thunberg raised spirits and there were some definite highlights in her speech, such as her declaration that we ‘will not be silenced when the world is on fire’, a statement which drew large cheers from the largely lacklustre crowd; however, the fact that her much anticipated speech was a matter of mere minutes left many wanting more, especially when some had waited for hours in torrid conditions.

I would count myself as one of those people and I left today questioning the point of these strikes.

The strikers are clear in their aims: they want to empower the youth, which includes reducing the voting age to sixteen, and, unsurprisingly, force climate change action, often through extreme measures. Admittedly, these are admirable aims; the youth should feel empowered and there should be climate change action, but I simply do not see how the current nature of these events will achieve them.

Youth partaking in these events describe themselves as ‘strikers’ because they refuse to go to school due to this climate problem, about which they demand action. Whilst these young people do fit the basic definition of ‘strikers’, they do little more than that. When previous strikes are considered, they draw a governmental reaction because they seriously effect daily activities. For instance, Thatcher had to respond to the Miners’ Strike in 1984 and 1985 because it threatened Britain with a winter without heating; last year, BA had to negotiate with pilots as their business was seriously affected by them striking.

Let’s be honest, who cares that some kids are not going to school? No one. Yes, there is some minor disruption to those wanting to travel through the centre and extra pressure is put on the emergency services but, in reality, these impacts are negligible and will never draw a serious reaction. This is especially the case when many, quite justifiably, believe that most youths are just using these ‘strikes’ as an excuse to skip school. If youngsters campaigned on a Saturday instead of a Friday, hence actually giving up their time for the cause, then it would be much easier to sympathise with them because it would be evident that they actually care about the climate rather than just being lazy and bunking off school.

Members of Extinction Rebellion, for example, do clearly care for the cause: they glue themselves to roads, they get pulled off train carriages, they jump on planes and cause incredible amounts of disruption all across London. Whilst they break the law, they also draw serious governmental responses. Am I suggesting that the law should be broken to force climate change action? Absolutely, although I will stress that I am happier watching people break it from the sidelines – I’m a conformist at heart.

When looking through History, it is difficult to think of a protest movement that has wrought serious changes without breaking the law. My favourite example is the civil rights movement in the USA. Many remember Martin Luther King as a peaceful protestor. This he was, but he was also one who operated outside the law. His marches closed streets, caused panic and shut down Washington but they also brought results, rights and true suffrage for African Americans.

Nowadays we look back on King’s work as necessary, even if many disliked the means at the time. In the future, we will likely look back on Extinction Rebellion’s work as necessary, even if many currently dislike their means.

The School Strike movement’s legacy, however, will probably deservedly be one of encouraging some lazy teens to skip school.