Are school strikers denialists? – Reflections after the Global Strike for Future in Stockholm on 2019-05-24

I have participated in the Global Strike for Future on Friday, 2019-05-24, in Stockholm (Check out the fancy “Stop Climate Breakdown! Now!” Banner :-)). The young organizers managed again to bring together a large crowd of people which was reported to be around 10,000 people in Stockholm [1a] and 1.8 million around the world [1b] to protest against climate breakdown and the current ecological crisis by wonderful mix of science, engagement with the crowd and entertainment. For me the highlights were the climate scientists talks and the ScientistsForFuture (including three climate psychologists!!!) Information Desk. Of course, the talk by Greta Thunberg, who has become an international celebrity over the last months, was also one of the highlights, although she repeated the thoughts she had shared already previously and did not add many new aspects. I agree with her speech in that way, that it does not seem that her call to action has changed the course of action so far, and, therefore, repeating the same statements and call for action is definitely needed.

However, I am very much afraid that this impressive movement and all the energy people are investing may not succeed and I would like to point out some weaknesses to support this movement:

  • Young climate activists are in a state of denial about the actual scale of abuse and maltreatment shown by the parent generation. In my opinion, the atmosphere at the Global Strike for Future protest in Stockholm was too happy, peaceful, and passive reminding of other music festivals, which did not do justice to the actual threats of climate breakdown and the ecological crisis. Greta Thunberg said words (to the effect of) “We know that you as parents love your children more than everything else, but sometimes it does not seem so.” Although Greta Thunberg usually is very direct and clearsighted, I found her being too soft and not addressing an important problem.
    As I had already discussed previously, the climate crisis fulfills the WHO criteria of child maltreatment/child abuse [2]. This means, that persons of power and trust abuse their position to use resources they should give to their dependents to allow their well-being and survival. For example, parents who eat everything in the fridge and leave their kids to starve and die, are showing child maltreatment or child abuse (what you may call it). This is happening on mid-to long-term, global scale.
    Another example illustrating the emotional conflict kids are in may be illustrated by this example: Imagine parents who take their naive kids on a long-distance holiday trip, let’s say to Thailand. After the trip, when their kids become aware of the effects on the climate and their future and start speaking out to their parents. Kid: “Mom, I think we hurt the climate and the future of all kids and other living things. I think it was bad what we did.”. Mom: “Why are you shouting at me? Didn’t you have fun in Thailand, too? Is your family not important to you? You are being a very naughty and ungrateful child!” This creates an emotional conflict in a child which it may not be able to resolve with drastic health consequences. For example, the biographic details of Greta Thunberg, who fell into a depression, while their parents maintained a high emission life-style, has – in my opinion – to do with her being unable to resolve the conflict that her loved parents were living a high-emission lifestyle, which contributed to destroying the very basis of her future [6].
    From my perspective, there is some hope of these kids, that by pointing out the life-threatening problem and by being well-behaved kids, their “parents”, or the adult generation, respectively, will rush to their rescue. However, this is not happening, at least not if you look at the Carbon concentration curve (Keeling curve) globally [3], global policies [4], national policies [5], local politics, and individual behavior, generally speaking (with exceptions). There is a misconception, that adult decision-makers do not listen or do not sufficiently understand the problem to act adequately. This ignores the fact that there are powerful interests involved, not only by the fossil-fuel industry, the wider industry and economy, but also the very own career interests of adults, which do not want (!) to harm their careers by supporting a potentially “toxic” topic like environmental activism. My impression is that adults (who often are also parents) prefer not to act and let their children “go to hell”, than, for example, criticize their employer or their colleagues for high-emission business trips or holidays or other non-sustainable behavior or products.
    Therefore, I think that it is crucial for the younger generation to confront the older generation in a more and more escalating way until adequate action is taken, not only by adults, but also by the younger generation itself, for example, by striking or in other ways blocking the fossil-fuel industry and and consumerism.
    I hope that these reflections and relevant metaphors may help youth movements like Fridays For Future to become more active and goal-directed. Please note, that becoming aware of this anger should not result in physical or verbal violence. Although I feel this may be understandable, it is unlikely be very functional in achieving their goals, since non-violent strategies are superior to change societies and its social norms.
    Note: These thoughts were also the reason why I designed a poster referring to the classic comic character of Bruce Banner (aka Hulk) using a play of words of “green” as a synonym for “angry”. This comic character has several parallels to the climate crisis (scientist, autistic/emotionally distant, manipulative/abusive relationship with father, generation of power by chlorophyll in skin from solar energy, …) and may appeal to the younger generation.
  • The climate crisis is primarily a psycho-social problem, and, therefore, more social scientists should be involved. I was delighted to see that the ScientistsForFuture were also at the Global Strike for Future event, and not only included natural scientists, but also three climate psychologists, addressing aspects of emotional well-being and communication. However, I was disappointed that the focus was on emotional well-being (climate anxiety) and coping strategies (cf Antonosky’s salutogenisis concept, “resilience”, emotional state and action orientation) [7]. I am convinced that sociology and psychology has important, if not crucial contributions to make, to solve the ultimate problem of how to transform a society and its fundamental social values (eg individualism, liberalism, consumerism, materialism,  competition)  within an extremely short time. There are multiple aspects throughout society, which  affect how societies work and which need to be changed at all levels. For example:
    • Individuals reinforce climate-damaging behavior continuously by giving attention and positive feedback to others. For example, an individual reporting holidays with long-distance travel will usually increase his/her well-being and social status by attention and positive feedback from other individuals, who also use the opportunity to strengthen their social network. The same principle applies to many other behaviors involving products or consumerism. Training is needed how to withdraw such positive reinforcers while maintaining social networks.
    • Individuals still show behavior which was adaptive for survival in small groups, but in a world where social networks are not local anymore, but distributed around the planet. Therefore, individuals will invest an enormous amount of resources to maintain and deepen these social networks, for example, by regular long-distance mutual travels to visit their sick mother in Australia.
      Since it is unlikely that these hard-wired behaviours will be changed in society on a large scale, it is important to reframe these psychological mechanism in a sustainable way and break the association of emotional well-being and consumerism/materialism until we reach a sustainable level. Training is needed to reframe behavior, e.g. we do not have to repay the love we got from our parents (which we cant), but can forward it to our children. A present you dont give to your friends, is a present to future generation.
    • Individuals in social organizations with pre-set social norms, eg at work, face problems when trying to change current policies in a sustainable way, because “environment” may be a toxic topic, indicating that the person has not enough other work to do, is not serious as professional about their core role, or has other emotional problems and uses “helping others” as coping strategy. For example, suggesting a reduction of business air travel, may mean fewer meeting with important people and career opportunities for colleagues and managers, which may be met with resistance or even aggression (mobbing). Following the business as usual which means that the usually soft environmental targets can easily be nominally fulfilled by writing new policies and reports, and finding excuses for missing targets because of confounded events, e.g. new market situation or growth of business, leave ample opportunities to avoid conflict and promote one’s own interest. Training is needed to show professionals how to transform their organisations without harming their careers (too much).











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