"I know that they have wisdom": Young climate activists on the need for older voices

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Young people, particularly Gen Z, are at the forefront of the global climate movement. Over the past few years, millions of youth have organized global climate strikes, taken action through small grants programs in their homes and schools, created new spaces, and demanded action on what they feel is the defining issue of their lives. While many older people are filled with hope by their climate action, sitting on the sidelines and cheering on the kids is not enough when, as UN chief Antonio Guterres puts it, we’re waging a “suicidal war” on nature.

Things were bad before Trump, but after four years of his disastrous environmental rollbacks it’s clear that we can’t afford to wait any longer. Thankfully, Biden appears to be gearing up to enact an ambitious climate agenda. Still, for real change to happen the weight of protesting and pressuring politicians and businesses can’t be carried on the backs of youth climate activists alone, who are already growing up with eco-anxiety. That’s where intergenerational environmentalism comes in.

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The importance of an intergenerational climate movement

The term “intersectional environmentalism,” has become something of a buzzword among activists this year. An inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet, it’s a crucial framework through which to view the future of climate activism. Leah Thomas, a 25-year-old sustainability influencer, posted about the term during the peak of the Black Lives Matter rallies last summer, starting a conversation that led to the launch of the Intersectional Environmentalist organization in June this year. Understanding that climate change is a racial justice problem, with people of color on the frontlines, is integral to addressing it and elevating Black and Indigenous voices, just as it’s essential for the movement to include members of every generation.

Xiye Bastida

Because governments tend to be made up of older people, the ability to push through legislation still lies heavily with older generations. This is something that 18-year-old New York-based climate justice activist Xiye Bastida is acutely aware of. “If we want to solve the climate crisis, this is the least favorable time to be generationally divided because the climate crisis is, at the end of the day, a generational injustice to us,” she tells Mic. “Older people are the ones who have power, so we cannot alienate a whole generation just because we think that they are not understanding our demands. We have to try harder.” The Mexico-born Indigenous activist made waves this year by refusing to join the “okay, boomer” trend in her Ted Talk, which was presented as a moving letter to her grandmother. She’s also one of the lead organizers of the Fridays for Future youth climate strike movement, and a member of Global Choice’s youth-led intergenerational action network Arctic Angels.

Indigenous and cultural knowledge

Part of Bastida’s resistance to the “okay, boomer” trend comes down to its implicit rejection of the knowledge held by older people. “I grew up with these things called youth and elder circles in which youth and elders get together,” Bastida explains. “It usually lasts for one or two weeks and it's similar to a getaway camp where all families come.”

The awareness that older people have valuable knowledge has influenced Bastida’s approach to activism. “I know that they have wisdom, and I know that they need our new energy,” she says. “We were lacking knowledge. We were lacking experience. They are lacking vitality.” Bastida says this is why it’s important to start mending the generational divide through conversations with family.

21-year-old Chinese Australian Maggie Zhou agrees, telling Mic: “To make environmental issues more collaborative, I think it’s acknowledging that everyone comes from a different life experience.” Zhou grew up with a Chinese family who she says, culturally, doesn’t speak about issues like this. She chooses to approach the conversation by first acknowledging the different cultural backgrounds, and using dialogue as a tool for growth and non judgmental conversation.

Talking with family members

When Evelyn Acham, a climate justice activist who organizes strikes in Uganda, first started discussing climate change with her family, she says they were surprised. “They didn’t know that such a thing is actually here and existing in the world,” she tells Mic. “My experience is that people are not entirely aware and we need to continue preaching to them.” Acham’s brother has since joined her as a climate activist. Bastida has also had success in getting through to older generations, noting that many families have reached out and said they changed their ways of life after watching the climate strikes on TV.

Iluuna Sørensen, a 19-year-old climate activist based in Greenland, has found that older generations there are usually on the same page. “They might not know the deeper science like me, but my family has been very supportive,” she tells Mic. The key to approaching the topic, she says, is openness. “One of my older family members shared that he never wanted to be vegetarian, then he learned more about the health benefits and started becoming much more open about it. One day he called me and said ‘I saw this documentary and it was amazing; I’m never going to eat meat again,’” She says. Sørensen enjoys talking to the children in her community as they’re a “blank canvas” and finds breaking down sustainability at a child level helpful for her learning. Acham and Sørensen are also involved in Global Choice’s action network Arctic Angels.

Iluuna Sørensen. Photo by Natta Summerky

As the climate bomb continues ticking, it seems the key to getting family members and friends across generations involved in climate action is rethinking divisive rhetoric and taking an open-minded approach. By acknowledging the strengths of each generation and using the conversation as a learning opportunity for both parties, we’re able to make important groundwork in ensuring the movement is intergenerational. This means that the holiday season should be less about yelling across the table or Zoom at your conservative uncle and more about sharing your interest in and knowledge on the topic, asking questions about their beliefs, and finding some common ground. After all, young people have been driving the climate movement thus far, but the impact of the crisis will reach across generations and borders.