Confession: I hate Earth Day.
The first handful of Earth Days in the 1970s helped galvanize support environmental policies, which is in part why we ended up with the Environmental Protection Agency and laws like the Clean Air Act. For that, I salute you, 1970s Earth Days. The modern version, like everything else good in this world, has been coopted by opportunistic Brands trying to make a buck off rapacious overconsumption. My inbox is a wasteland of pitches offering chances to talk with CEOs, soda companies crowing about reducing plastic waste, and corporations congratulating themselves for half measures to address climate change all while helping the oil industry.
Yet if Earth Day the holiday is a neoliberal zombie, its original spirit lives on. Young adults have picked up the banner of activism and are urgently pushing for leaders to address climate change. The timeline to get something done is shorter and the headwinds (at least in the U.S. at the moment) are stiffer. But the constellation of young adults of this emerging movement aren’t deterred because it’s their future on the line.
Last November’s midterm elections represented a reorganizing of politics in the U.S. as progressive candidates won many key House races. While there were a number of groups that helped tilt those races, the youth-led Sunrise Movement was the main one pushing for progressive climate policies like the Green New Deal.
In the first months of the new Congress, Sunrise Movement has staged protests in members of Congress’ office and helped drum up Congressional and public support for the Green New Deal. The group is gearing up for the 2020 presidential election with a plan to mobilize thousands of young adults to advocate for climate questions at the presidential debates, which will help ensure we don’t end up with a redo of the 2016 elections that didn’t feature any substantive discussion of climate change.
Teens writing climate policy
The national Green New Deal proposal introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has spawned a raft of imitators at the state and local level. Maine, Minnesota, and New York City are among the cities and states that have introduced or passed legislation with the Green New Deal moniker slapped on. The Minnesota version, though, is unique in how it was written. Or more accurately, who it was written by.
Minnesota Can’t Wait, a local environmental group fronted by teens and young adults, worked directly with legislators and stakeholders to craft the legislation in the ultimate civics lesson. The ambitious state bill goes beyond the federal Green New Deal resolution in one key regard: it would become law if passed. The effort shows that teens are finding ways to take control of their future even if they can’t vote.
The Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg began a solo protest each Friday outside the Swedish parliament last summer. Fast forward a few months, and tens of thousands of students were turning out in European cities in solidarity. Fast forward a few months more, and Thunberg was addressing world leaders at the international climate conference in Poland and the World Economic Forum in Davos and letting them know, in radically honest terms, how much their inaction is screwing her generation.
Thunberg has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her unbending advocacy and for fostering a movement. On Sunday, she continued to build connections with that movement by addressing protesters at climate activist group Extinction Rebellion’s massive takeover of London.
“We have gathered here today because we have chosen which path we want to take, and now we are waiting for others to follow our example,” Thunberg said.
In March, Thunberg found a lot more company than in her early days of striking. The first international climate strike drew 1.6 million students into the streets on every continent, including Antarctica. New York saw 15,000 strikers take to the streets and a sit-in on the American Museum of Natural History’s steps.
The climate strike movement is still taking shape and U.S. Youth Climate Strike, the group that sparked the uprising in the U.S., has plans to make the community more diverse and inclusive. And Alexandria Villasenor, one of the group’s founding members, just launched her own nonprofit called Earth Uprising aimed at building a broad coalition of young adults and what it calls “adult allies” that will focus on mass direct actions and climate education, all with the goal of getting leaders to act with urgency to address climate change.
While you won’t see any Earth Day climate strikes happening, you also won’t have to wait long for the next one: it’s on the calendar for May 24.