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Nothing childish about student climate strikers



I was fortunate enough to join the recent youth-led climate strike in Melbourne. I hoped to join friends there but to move through the crowd was like bush bashing deep in Tasmanian forest. Organisers speaking of 150,000 people did not seem unlikely, given that about a third of the crowd around me slipped away before the march.

Protestors holding placards look on on 20 September 2019 at the climate strike in Melbourne. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)The climate strike will inevitably be compared with those organised by adults. Certainly, the organisation and safety precautions were at least as thorough. The children who seemed to form about half the crowd were patient. They were receptive to the speakers, applauding what was praiseworthy while deploring the deplorable. Many held placards with sentiments variously humorous, sad and angry.

Perhaps the weakest aspects were those modelled on adult demonstrations — too many speeches, too long, and some speakers a little too captivated by the excitement of stirring a large and receptive audience. But the event was disciplined in returning to the key points of the message.

The critical response by federal government ministers and their media voices to the event invited deeper comparison. It was aggressive and sought the moral high ground, insisting that children should be at school, that teachers were conniving in breaking rules governing lesson attendance, that valuable school time required to prepare people for their place in society was being wasted and that the demonstration appealed to emotion whereas schools should be about cultivating reason. The tone was hectoring and didactic — we are adults and you are children.

Reflection on the demonstration and the criticisms made of it prompts a more radical and subversive question. Who actually were the adults here? When assessed by conventional wisdom about the path from childhood to adulthood, it might seem that supposed adults were behaving like children and children like adults.

Theories about the growth from child to adult might be summed up in three sentences. Children and adolescents are more influenced by emotion and less by reason, and therefore less likely than adults to consider the consequences of their actions than adults. Children are more self-centred than adults and less empathetic with others. The moral judgments that children make are shaped more by rules that others make than by reasoned argument.

By these criteria the behaviour of the children appeared more adult than that of the adults with whom they took issue. The  climate strike came out of young people’s conviction that business and government leaders are ignoring the consequences of their failure to adequately address climate change. Young people, who will bear the costs of this failure, did recognise its consequences.


"When judged by the criteria of moral maturity the children seemed to have an advantage. To take part in the climate strike they had persuaded their teachers and parents of the rightness of their cause and persuaded them to join in."


They were also familiar with the reasoning behind the urgency for the need for action. Politicians and their allies have consistently ignored the consequences of their inaction, and act impulsively when they reject any evidence contrary to their interests. They act as children are imagined to do.

The children at the climate strike were also distinguished by their empathy. They responded warmly to speakers from Indigenous communities from the Pacific Islands who shared their fears for their own communities. They also insisted that workers in the mines and other industries contributing to global warming, often seen as adversaries of the environmental movement, should be supported in finding new sources of employment.

In contrast, government spokespersons and wealthy corporations engaged in mining seemed to be devoid of empathy and to act out of pure self-interest, whether in seeking to hold on to power or to increase profits. In this they also act as small children are imagined to do.

Finally, when judged by the criteria of moral maturity the children also seemed to have an advantage. To take part in the climate strike the children had persuaded their teachers and parents of the rightness of their cause and persuaded them to join in. They were persuaded by the argument that the urgency of the need dictated the breaking of regular routine involved in the demonstration.

The adults who criticised them used variants of a rule-based argument and failed to meet the arguments for doing so. The students had violated the rule that all students must be at school. Their own supporting arguments were laughable — that to spend one slack Friday afternoon away from school would necessarily hurt their learning, and that their attendance at a rally concerned to make an argument was to abandon reason for emotion. In moral maturity, too, the children scored better than the supposed adults.

If the growth to adulthood were like a competitive soccer game, the score in this case would be 3-0 to the children, including an own goal or two. The strike prompted another subversive thought. Would we be better off with children running the nation? Maybe, but might they not then behave like adults?



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Protestors holding placards look on on 20 September 2019 at the climate strike in Melbourne. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, climate change, Covering Climate Now



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Existing comments

Conservative politicians dusting off and trotting out the same old tired arguments used during the Vietnam War Moratorium marches and South African rugby tour during the apartheid regime. Distract and deflect!

Kimball Byron Chen | 23 September 2019  

I've always said that Year 12s should run the country, Andy. They are passionate, well-organised, able to juggle multiple commitments, attentive to those struggling, resilient and hopeful. The addresses of Greta Thurnberg demonstrate a remarkable ability to read an audience and alter her approach accordingly. I am certainly reflecting on many dimensions of leadership as I am immersed in current climate action. I am delighted to be led by young people - our hope, our future. I am shamed by the incoherent rants of so many in power and wonder what sort of educational experience they had.

Anne Muirhead | 23 September 2019  

Thankyou for this Andrew. So many times the wisdom of children is disarmed by adults perhaps projecting their own weaknesses onto ‘the child ‘ or childish state . Children can vision and hope where adults often get caught in unmet expectations and anger . Cs Lewis Narnia stories help us see that . child theology teaches us this . I believe this movement is definitely and prophetically ‘ led by a child’.

Josephine | 23 September 2019  

Thank you, Andrew. How good is your analysis!!!!

John McKeon | 23 September 2019  

I am indeed sorry to say but the 'kids' have no idea about the science of climate. The world will not end (but 'come Lord Jesus come' would be good) and whatever we do here in Australia will have almost zero effect. Can we please stop all this hype and take a practical worldview. How many would have turned up if it was a Saturday - come on be honest!

Greg | 23 September 2019  

Thank you Andrew. It is good to see a positive voice for our students who have taken time out from school to make demands that political leaders urgently introduce effective strategies to control pollution that is causing climate change and already killing millions around the world. My wife and I were at the Adelaide rally and march which was not as impressive as the one you attended, but nevertheless for Adelaide stopped the CBD for quite some time. We were in mobile phone contact with the Melbourne rally however,as our grandson was there as part of the Tasmanian forest! It was great to see that about 350,000 around Australia participated, but those who criticise the demonstrators need to be aware that they are part of a world-wide movement involving millions. However, I am more concerned about our PM and the US president. Such was the attitude of Scott Morrison and Donald Trump, they indulged in a state dinner, a parade and the opening of a factory to involve themselves in an exercise of mutual admiration. In my opinion they showed their arrogance, ignorance and dereliction of responsibility to future generations. It is to be hoped that when the young people who have taken action for the environment reach voting age, they ensure that responsible leaders who take effective action for the environment are elected. In closing, I would like to mention that I have discovered that Penguin books have released a book recently that is about the 16 year old Swedish school girl who initiated these world wide actions. It is "Greta Thunberg - No One is Too Small to Make a Difference" and is a collection of a number of her speeches. A good read.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 23 September 2019  

Andy, I attended the Canberra protest with about 10,000 souls. I completely agree with all you wrote. Good on the kids!

Gavin A. O'Brien | 24 September 2019  

It is very clear how emotionally and psychologically harmful this problem has become for young children around the world. It is very sad. I feel more for them, than for the damage caused by global warming. My prayers are for the parents who have now deeply troubled small children due to this problem. Yet another form of child abuse due to blind adults motivated by greed. As much as I admire Greta. I am looking forward to hearing from children around the world who are deeply optimistic about the future. Who see the glass full. Not half empty. Not something Black or White. These will step forward and bring back Faith, Hope, Healing Solutions, and Love for this world of ours, for all forms of life for the future good not the condemnation of the human race. Despair heard in the words in this video. Only bring despair. What is now needed is the belief in a compassionate God intervening through the choices of compassionate human beings.

AO | 24 September 2019  

The final two questions in this article bear some contemplation. Power is involved in running the nation and this provokes the question: are 'grown-ups' better suited to wielding power? The experiences of young people would be varied. Some have reached their stage of life relatively unscathed while others have seen that the jaws of power are always opened to devour. It is the energy and dynamism that young people can bring to a difficult question that makes their contribution valuable. However, it is always good to have someone wise reminding them that freedom of thinking, speaking and writing are not givens.

Pam | 24 September 2019  

AO has certainly brought a touch of reality to this debate. To put his view (I think?) in another way, all children and young adults naturally "see the glass full" and in their inexperience of life are the idealists amongst humanity. Sadly, their idealism is sophisticated (adulterated) by experience and the human pursuit of achievement in material things (such as ambition and money) over-rides the idealism. All politicians and big business promoters were once idealistic children, many of them only to become victims of self ambition over and above genuine concern for the common good. Child activists have sadly had their idealism/childhood manipulated by such adults using them for their political and other ends in what is effectively child abuse and destruction of childhood innocence. Now we have young people refusing to have children because of the terrible imagined future that awaits tomorrow's child. Others suffer psychiatric dimension anxiety and depression including self-destructive tendencies when the likelihood is that the human being, remarkably adaptive since the beginning of time, will almost certainly cope and the world of the future is unlikely to be what the doomsayers imagine. That doesn't mean that we should not undertake the essential repair of those environmental abuses we have inflicted on the planet through the adult loss of the idealism of the young. To all of the sophisticated adults, stop abusing, frightening and destroying the joys, innocence and idealism of childhood and the young for the sake of your political and personal ends above all else. You are a far bigger threat to the futures of our children and grandchildren than climate change.

john frawley | 24 September 2019  

Well said, AO and john frawley. Every picture tells a story - not a smiling face among the crowd. Sad.

John RD | 24 September 2019  

Regarding these worldwide marches on climate change, my response is similar to Marshal Soult's reported comment on the Charge of the Light Brigade: 'C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la guerre'.

Edward Fido | 24 September 2019  

In the matter of ‘climate change’, are the children being wiser than adults? The hypothesis can be tested. Let’s have a televised conversation between Greta Thunberg and Bjorn Lomborg to hear who makes the better sense.

roy chen yee | 25 September 2019  

Andrew, the Birmingham School of cultural studies would be proud of your analysis and apologia here on behalf of the youthful demonstrators. As Douglas Kellner writes, commenting on the work of Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Richard Hoggart et al from the 1960s: "British cultural studies was highly political in nature and investigated the potentials for resistance in oppositional subcultures . . . they . . . indicated how youth subcultures could resist the hegemonic forms of capitalist domination." (Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies, p 9,).

John RD | 25 September 2019  

Yes, no thank you, must be said to all words supporting any doomsayers imagine. Yes, it is vital to not allow ourselves or small children be sucked into despair, and anger. These emotions only work as a downward spiral for the weak and chronically depressed. Because, just as all the Virtues are linked to each other. And call forth each other by giving birth to each other. So are the Vices. Despair and anger being two of these. No matter what is ever said, in serious matters such as these. Greta and others in a position such as she is today must never forget. "If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love. I am nothing".

AO | 25 September 2019  

Andrew asks, "Would we be better off with children running the nation?" I have been under the overwhelming impression for the last six years (and ever more intensively after each election they win) that is exactly what we had!" A group of completely spoilt brats, who shirk their duties to everyone but their donors at every turn, ignore their constituents (or at least those who do not vote for or donate to their party, lie through their teeth when confronted with anything that challenges their behaviour or what they've said, run around looking busy in an attempt to stop people from recognising that they are both doing and achieving nothing. Frankly, they make kindergarten children look like sages of self-control.

PaulM | 25 September 2019  

There were some excellent articles in today's (25 September 2019) Australian about Greta Thunberg. 'Child of the climate cult delivers a compelling story' by Gerard Baker (originally in the Wall Street Journal) is worth reading. I have a problem with a 16 year old, whose real knowledge of the science seems limited, becoming a prophet whose every diktat is regarded as secular Holy Writ. This is dangerous stuff. It reminds me of a supposedly 'holy' goose which some misguided souls followed to the Crusades. I fear we are in danger of doing this. Let me say I deplore the human-caused pollution in the world's major cities which is already taking its toll of human health and life. Countries like India have clouds of pollution hanging over them which is observable from space. Some world leaders seem both oblivious to and recalcitrant to do anything about it. There is the science to solve this. We, especially in the Free World, need to make this clear to our politicians. This is not about grandstanding at the UN: it's about doing something.

Edward Fido | 25 September 2019  

Speaking yesterday with students who appreciate our stewardship responsibilities for the environment, I was interested to learn that their main impression of Greta's speech was that its pessimistic and accusatory tone were counterproductive.

John RD | 26 September 2019  

David Runciman, the head of politics at Cambridge University, points out that young people are massively outnumbered by our aging population and that we should give them the vote. He argues in his book ‘How democracies end’ that children, as soon as they can read, should have the vote, because it is their future we are ruining. To those who complain that such children would vary in their capacity to understand the issues, Runciman points out that we don’t disqualify older voters as their cognitive capacity declines so why should we be concerned about the varying ability of schoolchildren. I say give children the vote when they turn 12.

Jill Sutton | 27 September 2019  

To the commenters who point to Greta's lack of scientific knowledge: that is completely irrelevant. I don't need to understand molecular biology to convince me to take the drugs the doctor prescribes - I trust his knowledge and the expertise of the pharmacologists. Greta has been educated in a time when 'evidence-based' is fundamental, and they know to trust the reliable sources. If only the adults in Australia had a bit more respect for our CSIRO, and every other major scientific organisation in the world - they all agree that the need for action re climate is urgent.

Russell | 27 September 2019  

I agree with Jill Sutton. Give children the vote when they turn 12.

AO | 29 September 2019  

Somebody has learned something at school, how to write rude words for example, as evidenced by the placard at the right of the picture.

Jennifer | 29 September 2019  

I think it is sad that some feel that children are being manipulated for the environmental cause While I do not support the manipulation of children, I believe that the massive pollution we have cause is a definite threat to the future. I too want young people to feel confident about the future, but I suspect that they will not be able to be positive until effective strategies are implemented to confront the environmental problems that we face. I had the good fortune of knowing the late Professor Michael Raupach who was a world leading climate scientist. He worked at the CSIRO for decades and then became the director of the ANU's Climate Change Institute. He spoke publicly on the topic of climate change on numerous occasions and he was insistent that we should be positive about the future as long as effective strategies were taken to deal with the problems we face Tragically, this great scientist and humanitarian was lost to us because of cancer in 2015. During the Cold War, many young (and not so young) people became negative about the future because of the nuclear arms race - quite correctly given the brinkmanship played by some world leaders. This later subsided when the risk was reduced. Let's hope that the risks we face can also and thanks to the young people who are making a stand so that something effective is done.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 30 September 2019  

''Yet another form of child abuse due to blind adults motivated by greed''. When I wrote this. I was implying the Greed of adults at the heart of their man made money machine, has severely harmed our extraordinarily beautiful world. The result being: The poor, and the children of our world, have been abused. Give children the vote when they turn 12! At the next marches, LET US VOTE, should be written in bold fonte on every protest sign. It is a very realistic possible achievable democratic entitlement, and proposal. Giving power to children entitled to a Green Future.

AO | 02 October 2019  

Most comments on this topic tend to give uncritical support to rallies 'against' climate change'- few analyse what is being done to cope with it- or suggest ;'nothing is being done' It's not so.A great deal is being done- at huge cost- but...how will we know when 'climate change' has 'stopped' - and should the climate begin to 'retract' (cooler, drought free etc) is that still 'climate change'? And let's stear clear of the absurdity of 'let's give government to our children'- how many parents always think that way?

Trevor Cowell | 04 October 2019  

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