We could have been forgiven for wondering what it would take to shift Brexit from the front pages of our newspapers. In recent weeks, answers seem to have come thick and fast: the killing of Muslim worshippers at mosques in New Zealand by a self-styled white supremacist; the murder of a young journalist in Northern Ireland; terrorist attacks on Christian worshippers, in Sri Lanka, on Easter Day; the fire which almost consumed the cathedral of Notre Dame in Holy Week; and the visit of a sixteen-year-old Swedish school girl, concerned that we are running out of time to save our planet, along with the publication of a United Nations report predicting the extinction of a million species. News that makes the headlines is rarely good but the fun of working with young people lies often in their optimism, and their cheerful refusal to accept any obstacles to change: school children’s response to environmental disaster is, thankfully, vigorous and determined!
I understand the scepticism, from some, over politicians’ response to Greta Thunberg’s recent visit and the sense that they just needed to manage a media event. How is it that a sixteen-year-old can speak with wisdom and knowledge to those older and more experienced? What is it about youth, about being young, which should allow a teenager to grab the attention of the world’s most powerful and influential people? I understand too (but don’t agree with) the scepticism voiced, by some, about the ‘school strikes 4 climate change’, and the concern that school children have been encouraged to miss out on teaching to take part in activities which are not risk assessed or supervised or, indeed, allow some to take a day off school to go shopping.
On one level the answer is, of course, easy: hearing young people speak passionately and knowledgeably about the environment means they deploy their scientific and oratorical skills to sway adults. So much of what adults overhear is conversation designed to keep them at arm’s length, to appeal to their own generation, and thus cast in the ephemeral vernacular of a young person’s world. The empathetic leap which Greta, and her fellow environmental advocates, have made is into the adult world: they have to understand the realpolitik of international organisations, international trade and multinational businesses, and the interplay of Treasury budgets, taxation and family income. It’s impressive in its political and economic sophistication, and it’s telling because, as adults, we know they’re right and that the way we are living is wrong.
Some say that the motivation comes from young people’s realisation that the repercussions for them, and for other young people around the globe, will be starker simply because they will live long enough to suffer the consequences, and that their children, and their children’s children, will live radically different lives. That may be, although I am not sure that is the only reason or even the main one. I suspect that the motivation comes from the immediacy of taking actions which they can themselves take, and get us to take, and of the horrifying impact that inaction is having on things they can visualise at almost any age: famine, floods, deforestation, melting ice caps, plastic pollution in the oceans. Why wouldn’t you feel angry? Why wouldn’t you want to do something, anything, to make a difference?
Some of Highgate’s pupils and teachers have been pretty busy, and pretty militant, too. Single-use plastic bottled water was banned, and meat-free Mondays introduced, following lobbying by our pupil-led Environment Committee; February saw teachers trying to be ‘fast-fashion-free’ (no jokes about ‘fashion-free’, please); reusable cups were provided for teachers and support staff, and single use cups withdrawn; School bus routes have allowed pupils to avoid car journeys; tests to measure air pollution around our School are being conducted by pupils and staff, and more is planned.
The big question we all ask is whether, to quote one Highgate pupil’s poster, ‘Convenience is no longer a good excuse’: is the younger (or the older) generation willing to forego convenience in traveling, eating or shopping to make that difference? Greta Thunberg argues that damage to the environment is not caused by evil people but by uninformed people, and that information will overcome selfishness and laziness.
The optimism and energy of the young are inspiring. But inspiration needs regulatory muscle to be effective, and to combat convenience, laziness and selfishness. So, we’ll be asking what rules and regulations we need to put in place to give youthful anger, optimism and energy the space it needs to make sustainable changes. We’ll be adopting, and publishing, a sustainability action plan – we’ve designated our Governors’ Estates Committee as the monitoring body for its progress, and appointed a Governor, Paul Rothwell, as our Governors’ Sustainability Lead. I don’t think my generation is in for a comfortable ride but hey, who needs comfort when you have a chance for change?