Skipping school to save the world

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Each year I live in Australia, the natural disasters mount and appear to worsen. Every spring, as the bush fire season approaches, we make our preparations.

I am aware of the impact of climate change, but also that I am part of the problem. I drive a petrol car and I fly to the UK to see family and friends.

Nevertheless, there are some reasons to be mildly optimistic. Solar energy has taken off in Australia and is looking even more worthwhile now that battery storage has become viable. My next car may be electric, powered largely by the southern sun that glints off our roof. And one day, I hope, there will be industrial plants that brew carbon neutral aviation fuel.

But these are largely market-based solutions, even if they are eased by subsidies and tax breaks. Otherwise, the politics of climate change is a mess. The intransigent wing of Australia’s governing party recently blocked an extremely modest set of proposals, slaying their leader in the process. They are so torn on the issue, and voters are so frustrated, that the party may not survive the next election, where defenestration is a clear possibility.

Britain, with its binding response to the Paris climate agreement, looks positively progressive in comparison.

What would it take to make more rapid progress? What could governments do if they were so inclined? One answer would be a hike in taxes on fossil fuels, with revenue used to subsidise renewables. Any government that took such measures would face a backlash. We must remember, for instance, that it was an increase in fuel tax that sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement in France.

Therefore, those protesters who wish to push for a more radical response to climate change need to do the calculus. They need a clear plan for exactly what measures they want to see implemented and they need to somehow make it more painful for governments to not implement these measures than to implement them.

What does that require? Probably a mass mobilisation across a number of societal groups; something along the spectrum towards a general strike, depending on just how radical are the protesters’ proposals.

In this light, British school kids skipping school on a Friday to make vague demands that the government declare a ‘climate emergency’ does not really cut it. It is not like miners or nurses going on strike. It’s not really a ‘strike’ at all because nobody is inconvenienced and nobody loses any money. The only potential losers from a withdrawal of student labour are the students themselves, although this will depend greatly on the quality of the education that they have left behind.

Yes, school students could form a part of a very powerful protest movement. If that movement had clear demands and created enough inconvenience it could have an impact on climate policy. For instance, a planned campaign of peaceful civil disobedience that involved stopping traffic or preventing access to petrol stations would make a far bigger point. If the students did this on a Saturday then nobody could claim it was all just an excuse to avoid biology class.

I’m not saying they should do this, of course. I am making a claim about what they could do and how this would be more effective, assuming the intention is to have an effect and not to make an empty, symbolic gesture.

And as teachers, I think it is important to maintain some objectivity about the rights and wrongs of the issue. It is not for us to attempt to manipulate children into protesting about the right issues. It is for us to provide young people with knowledge of the world in all its contradictions, including truths that may be inconvenient. That way they can participate as democratic citizens with their eyes wide open.

Because those who are old enough to protest, are old enough to be criticised for doing so. That is liberal democracy.


11 thoughts on “Skipping school to save the world

  1. Anne Cardinael, retired teacher from Belgium says:

    Hi Greg, I understand your arguments, but please do not underestimate the power of youngsters in this topic. You seem to look at Britain only, and this is indeed a poor example. But look at what is happening in Belgium (from where the British kids obviously took their inspiration). For 6 weeks in a row school kids have been protesting in Brussels, and that in great numbers (average 12000, which is a lot for this small country). They are now followed by high school and university students, and by ‘senior citizens’, their grandparents… and every week more supporters join the movement. Because we have elections coming up in May, all political parties are trying to show how they take climate change serious, but the kids are not fooled and demand more action. They seriously have an impact. And they have to face constant criticism from elders, especially politicians, telling them to study, so they can solve the problems when they grow up. But the solutions are needed NOW, and they are rightly so very concerned. So please give the kids some credit.

  2. Julia - Teacher in Belgium says:

    Dear Greg, I usually find myself in agreement with your posts. I’m also very grateful for your global challenge to ill-informed educational practice. Your work and that of others in the ResearchED movement is fuelling debate, and hopefully change ahead in our school and doubtless in many others. However, this morning I found myself disagreeing with you when you challenged the utility of school strikes for the climate. The school strikes in Belgium (this Thursday will be the 7th) were inspired by the 15 year old Greta Thunberg. If you haven’t done so already, it’s worth listening to her at the COP 24 or at the January Davos meeting. She expresses the sense of panic that students feel as they observe the inertia of our political systems, faced with an impending crisis. The students from our school who participe express their desire to demand that action is taken to urgently to avert a climate catastrophe. This is in the context of our government failing to ratify the commitments made at the COP 24. The students’ bleak message to politicians is ‘Why have our heads buried in the sand studying for a very uncertain future?’ As for the implication that students are manipulated. I can only speak from my observations. At our school, students request permission to ´striké’, they must catch up with missed work and the must provide a written reflection. These students have strong arguments that motivate their action. Indeed, the meetings that have taken place between student leaders of the movement and our leaders, even those ministers responsible for the environment, have shown that the student leaders have the greater grasp of the complexity of the challenges. More generally, the school strikes have provoked discussion in our school between students, between staff and students, and between state and staff. As a teacher, I can honestly say that I am inspired by the passion of these students, their phenomenal ability to communicate, mobilise, and their tenacity in keeping their message at the top of our political agenda week after week.

    • It sounds like students have a clear goal in Belgium – ratification of COP 24. I could be wrong about this and, in a way, I hope I am. However, knowing what I know about the UK, I think my advice for protesters there is still valid.

    • Janita Cunnington says:

      Global warming is such a massive problem that I’m reluctant to carp, but I’m not so impressed by the students’ passion. Passion comes cheap. I’d be more impressed by a general effort to come to grips with the details and devise solutions. I agree with Greg that the striking students all need to voice a clear, specific demand (like the ratification of COP 24), rather than just express their dismay. Motives are always complicated, of course, but when there’s rage without rigour it looks like posturing. I’m irresistibly reminded of the Children’s Crusades in the thirteenth century. Lots of pious passion then too.

  3. I agree with Greg on the protest being more effective if done on the weekend as it avoid the appearance of other motives. They could also use their purchasing power.

    But based on the Canadian experience I’d say taxing and spending on subsidies is problematic because of the perception of sending taxes to their pals and the inability to pick the right ideas to subsidize.

    Better to just tax carbon and cut everyone a cheque for an equal share of what is collected. This makes it much harder to argue it is about anything other than climate.

  4. Pingback: Backfire effects – Filling the pail

  5. I agree entirely with your point that it isn’t the place of educators to encourage protest in the ‘right’ areas, but I don’t see evidence of this happening. Many commentators have said they could march/protest Ona Saturday, but I think we all know that it wouldn’t have the same impact: the media pick up on the school strike aspect; we are talking about it because of this aspect.
    The concern of teachers about impact on attainment is justified and understandable – especially I think for those who teach year 11 on a Friday afternoon – but I find the student argument that school prepares them for a future which may not exist a compelling one. Reading of the climate change sections of any of the current GCSE geography specifications might lead anyone to conclude that direct action is the only logical course of action!

  6. Joe Taylor says:

    Declaring a climate emergency is a concrete demand, realistic and important. There will be others – bringing forward the net zero target for example.

    Several Tories including Michael Gove have made supportive statements about the school strikes. This lays the ground nicely for the strikers to make more concrete demands. You can’t really say no to children who may well die prematurely because of climate change; this is what happens when you try:

    “A planned campaign of peaceful civil disobedience that involved stopping traffic… would make a far bigger point.” – this is exactly what Extinction Rebellion are doing, and there were kids lying in front of cars on Westminster Bridge on Friday. But I think you and possibly Extinction Rebellion are missing the point here – this problem can’t be solved by individuals changing their behaviour, and if you blockade a petrol station or lie in front of cars on Westminster Bridge then you’re primarily inconveniencing individuals. What’s needed is system change and that requires a massive change in public awareness followed by massive political and corporate changes. School kids are the last best hope of making this happen, and right now, the best strategy for them making their voices heard is to strike.

  7. Pingback: A reflection on climate strikes – Through the threshold

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