ANGER IS AN ENERGY

ILLUSTRATION BY  Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

Whitney Houston’s 1985 hit begins with the line, “I believe the children are our future.” Men in their 70s certainly are not the future—unless they want to run for the U.S. presidency. But a new wave of activism spawned by climate change is being driven by children, who do not believe there will necessarily be a future at all.

On March 1, inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, students walked out of class to demand action on climate change and joined the “Fridays for Future” rally at Nathan Phillips Square. An eight-year-old girl was asked why she was there.

“Because I know I won’t have a future,” she responded.

“No future” is no longer an ancient punk catchphrase. It’s now defining the anxieties of children too young to even know what punk is. Johnny Rotten, eat your heart out.

The enormity of climate change is overwhelming. The political inertia is staggering and the ability of different levels of government in different democracies to deal with the situation seems downright impossible.

But now the kids are showing up. And they’re pissed.

Of course it would be the kids. The signs started a year ago, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. The intractable gun lobby in the U.S. faced its biggest threat in generations when the students there channelled their righteous indignation into a national movement. Their moral clarity was obvious to everyone not named Alex Jones.

Likewise, when Thunberg addressed the world’s political and financial elite in Davos last December, she didn’t mince words.

“Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful.” She glared at those assembled and continued: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

The first Canadian to follow her, in November 2018, was 11-year-old Sophia Mathur of Sudbury. The rest of the country soon stepped up. In Toronto, parents and children in the West End took up the mantle, with the help of activist group ClimateFast. At a Jan. 28 Queen’s Park rally, they paid a visit to Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips at his office. Phillips knew they were coming but did not meet with them, so the students issued him an “absence slip.” It read

Rod Phillips was marked late today on climate action. The consequences of this will be lethal heatwaves, more extreme weather events, floods, extended droughts, a rise in insect-borne diseases and a public health crisis. We wish this were just a joke. It’s not.

Inspired by Thunberg, students all over the world are holding rallies on Friday, March 15, including one at Queen’s Park at 12:30 p.m. There are also plans for a Canada-wide student strike on May 3.

The children motivated by Thunberg say they’re speaking up because they can’t even vote, and even if they could, adults are clearly not taking action. When it looks like things are moving forward, they’re not. King Edward Senior Public School (at Bathurst and College) student Roy Bateman points out that the City of Toronto’s TransformTO program, approved in 2016, had its funding cut by more than one-third in the 2019 budget. In February, the 12-year-old Bateman gave a deputation on the issue to the budget committee.

These kids believe there is no time to wait—most of them will not yet be 30 by 2030, which is the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned will be the tipping point. In October 2018, the UN body warned that unless serious measures are taken in the next 12 years, global temperatures will rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, resulting in catastrophe.

Alienor Rougeot, a.k.a. Allie Rouge, is a 20-year-old University of Toronto student of economics and public policy. She’s lending an organizational hand to the high school students. She says the recent IPCC report reached a lot of ears that her own activism couldn’t.

“It went from some people thinking I was annoying because I talk about this all the time, to when the IPCC report came out, suddenly people were asking me questions about it.”

That, combined with Thunberg’s speech, has led to what could be a breakthrough for awareness of the issue.

Now students are walking out of school on the first Friday of every month, because what’s the point in studying if there is no future? And if there is no future, how does one resist the pit of despair?

Rougeot—who sounds surprised when she says, “I’m considered an adult now”—finds herself consoling kids drawn to the movement, who are being plagued by apocalyptic anxiety before they even reach puberty.

“Sometimes I think we’re already in too deep, and I feel dread,” she admits. “Right now we’re talking about mitigation. There are some things that are irreversible, but there are some things that can be done. It would be impossible for me to think I could give up. Every step is a step in the right direction.”

When talking to her younger peers, she says, “Even if a lot of people don’t care, there are a lot more people who do care and who are open to listening. You have to keep that notion of, ‘We are hearing you, and we promise you there are people who will act on this.’

“There are some serious mental illness issues here,” Rougeot continues. “There is mounting anxiety not only in children, but in adults. This threat is bigger than all of us. I’m afraid that for myself, and for younger activists even more, people will get so deeply involved that they burn out. Activism burnout is a real thing—and when you start when you’re 10, you might feel burnout by 14, as opposed to 20 or 25. That’s something I want to be very wary of. You have to take care of yourself first. You can’t take care of others in the long run if you don’t make sure you’re okay in the short run.”

I was reminded of my own apocalyptic teenage angst recently when one of my child’s babysitters told me, “I’ve been worried about climate change for years. But I just started learning about nuclear weapons.”

But unlike nuclear weapons, decisions about which were and are made by precious few, climate change is in the hands of all of us. Clichés be damned: Maybe the children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.

Soundtrack to this column: "The Earth Died Screaming" by Tom Waits; "Super Subtle Folk Song" by Geoff Berner; "Rise" by Public Image Ltd.; "You Don't Do Anything" by Rae Spoon; "Another World" by Antony and the Johnsons

This ongoing online column will be about those who make it their job to make this city work. I’ll be following not only representatives at City Hall and Queen’s Park, but also the neighbours who run businesses, sit on committees, spearhead projects and light up our lives. Hit me up with tips at michael@westendphoenix.com.