Young People As Activists

Many studies have asserted low levels of political participation and environmental activism among young people, but it is generally the case that such studies enforce adult terms and adult concepts of politics, environmentalism and activism on young people. A broad academic literature exists that presupposes adult-centric approaches and enforces, for example, methodological divisions between political motivations and self-expressive motivations (Bowman, 2019). Such literature frequently claims that young people are disengaged from civic action (Costanza-Chock, 2012) and -it must be said, rather confusingly - it is often claimed that young people ‘fall short of offering concrete solutions’ (as in Han and Ahn, 2020) or, alternatively, that young people are too limited by their focus on concrete solutions (Evensen, 2019).The numerous critiques of young activism, and particularly the climate strike movement, tend to fail to recognise the marginalisation of young people including children from the civic realm, from democratic processes, and their marginalisation in society, generally. Criticisms of young activism also tend not to involve young people themselves, nor do they frequently cite youth-authored texts like the Lausanne Declaration of the Fridays for Future movement, which outlines concrete solutions as well as commitments to social justice, global equality and so forth (Fridays for Future, 2019).

Activists, at all ages, struggle to be recognised as ‘agents of democracy, not pathological deviants’ (Haste et al., 2017, p. 4). Child activists, because they are children, must push against their civic exclusion as children whose role is to engage with politics, not to change it; to have a voice, but not power; to sustain democratic systems by becoming socialised to them, not to challenge the status quo. Political action by children challenges the concept of the civic, since young people’s democratic participation is directed towards ‘consent, cohesion and loyalty, rather than contestation and dissent’ (O’Brien et al., 2018, p. 5). By no coincidence, young people’s environmentalist action is often shaped by everyday experience and their participation may be issue-based, local and on a case-by-case basis (Sloam, 2020).

Epistemologically speaking, the search by adults to identify children’s participation as somehow ‘activist’ tends to privilege modes of participation that cohere with adult institutions, are loyal to adult-led groups and are easily comprehensible to adult policymakers, adult activists and the mainstream adult environmentalist movement. The renewal of young politics is celebrated in these terms. For example, in the UK, in a reversal of a historic decline in youth electoral participation, many young people joined and became influential in the Labour Party when under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (Pickard, 2018; Young, 2018). Other prominent forms of young activism have included taking out lawsuits against fossil fuel companies and governments (Parker, 2019). For example, in 2015, young people from Oregon, US, filed a lawsuit against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry. They argued that their government’s failure to address climate change and protect resources had impacted their life, liberty and property (Our Children’s Trust, n.d.). Lawsuits along similar lines have also been taken out in Colombia, Pakistan and other countries of the Global South (Parker, 2019). The UN Development Program has financed a number of youth-led environmental projects globally (UN Development Program, 2015).

One of the most important manifestations of their concern and willingness to take action has been the youth mobilisation against climate change, but there have been numerous prior youth movements throughout history. For example, young people recently mobilised against gun violence in the US. They have also played an important role in the feminism, anti-war, labour and anti-racism movements (Costanza-Chock, 2012; Ouellett, 1996).

What stands out about the climate strike movement may be the way that school strikes take place across the conceptual and epistemological boundary of child activism because they disrupt adult institutions, align with adult-led groups and present an easy-to-recognise form of civil disobedience, which is strike action and the withdrawal of labour. At the same time, the climate strikes offer children the opportunity to dissent and disrupt, to express themselves, to ‘do it ourselves’ (Pickard, 2019) and to organise their own movement led by young people for young people.

 
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