Being Young in a Changing Climate: An Intersectional Perspective
Welcome to the second blog in this series on intersectionality and climate change! As this is UKYCC, this one will be focusing on youth.
Being young can be awesome. You have the motivation, energy and passion to look critically at how the world works and tell it how and why it’s often quite crap. But if you want to actually do anything about it and change the way the world works, being young can suck. And in the context of climate change, it can really suck.
As an angsty (and proud) young person myself, I want to know what it means to be a ‘youth’ in 2018, with a climate that promises nothing but a more chaotic and challenging future. This is less simple than it sounds, because nobody is just ‘a young person’. People are Sri Lankan, French, Australian, female, male, transgender, bisexual, black, white, Hispanic, disabled and all manner of things at once, all of which feed into their unique experiences of the world. That is why we need to use intersectionality to look at this properly. The ultimate aim of this discussion is use intersectionality to enable people to reflect on what being young means in the context of climate change and other aspects of their lives, and empower them to take action.
Finally, before we begin I’d like to establish some context. Authoring this as a straight, white, western (and otherwise generally privileged) male, youth is one of the only examples of ‘discrimination' within society where I have any experience and feel able to contribute independent thought rather than participating solely as a student. These words represent my opinions subject to these biases, and aim to start a discussion, rather than trying to dictate ‘truth’.
Bein’ a Yoof
So how are young people treated differently in society? And is 'discrimination' even the correct word to describe this? Well firstly, it’s fair to say that young people are effectively powerless by traditional standards. Most can't vote at all, and even those considered ‘full adults’ are very rarely in roles of responsibility and power. Furthermore, whenever young people vocalise strong opinions, they are considered naive and are often casually dismissed by older family, friends and the larger community with off-hand, ‘head-patting’ phrases like “it’s just a phase” or “you’ll understand when you’re older”. Finally, due to the physical and mental challenges of childhood, adolescence and early adult life, young people can be some of the most vulnerable in society.
This is an interesting form of ‘discrimination’, because of course some of it does actually make sense - in particular, having older people in positions of responsibility is somewhat logical. We arrange ourselves and our organisations on the assumption that with age comes experience, and with that comes the ability to perform more effectively and the wisdom to represent the best interests of younger, less experienced people. However, the discussion here is not whether this is a good system or not, but how being denied a voice, simply for being young, actually affects people’s lives generally and especially in the context of climate change.
To achieve this, it’s time to get intersectional. Among the many forms of discrimination, youth is unique because it’s totally inclusive; every single human being gets to be young at some point. This means that it cuts across all other social groups and ‘categories’ that we divide ourselves into, affecting people in the early stages of every single possible walk of life.
I would like to claim that the main effect of this, rather than being a form of discrimination on it’s own, is to amplify the struggles individuals are already facing due to other forms of oppression and the general chaos of life. For example, if you’re struggling with mental health issues as a young person in the western world, you might be told not to be "such an entitled millennial snowflake”, or even worse that “it’s normal for people your age” - you will probably find this isn’t particularly helpful. Alternatively (or perhaps in addition), as a victim of sexual or racial violence, you might feel like you are less likely to be believed or taken seriously if you report an incident, you may fear some form of retribution, and you might be more prone to this occurring in the first place, all because you’re young.
So what’s this all got to do with climate change?
Well, a lot. Climate change affects everyone and will continue to do so until we actually do something about it. More importantly, it will keep getting worse. This means that the younger you are right now the more you will pay over the course of your life to clean up this mess. In privileged nations, if we are extremely lucky, it will mean working and living in a country with a much weaker economy, and probably under a far stricter government and set of laws, than we have today. In most places around the world, it will get more and more likely that climate change will cost young people their homes, their nations and possibly their lives.
So not only does being young amplify the struggles of many individuals within their own societies, but climate change also disproportionately affects both the youngest people and those who are already more vulnerable, such as poorer nations and minority communities, among others. It will no doubt be a common theme in this blog series that social justice and climate change are inextricably linked, and to solve one we must solve the other. In this case, it is quite clear that leaders are failing in their responsibility to steward the planet for younger generations, who are at the intersection of the very worst climate change impacts, the powerlessness of their position, and all the other myriad challenges that life constantly throws at people.
What can we actually do?
This picture is useful to us because it gives a clear picture of the multi-layered challenges young people face. However, that alone is not enough. The brutal truth of the world is that even if you are affected by circumstances out of your control, how you choose to respond is still your responsibility, and the (albeit painful) acceptance of that fact promotes action that can lead to positive change.
Let’s just take a second to appreciate that as young people, it’s really not all bad and we have some advantages too. We tend to have more time, more energy and more passion to direct to causes of justice, and we see the world from a fresh and highly critical perspective. In addition, the modern age has given us technology (which we actually know how to use) to connect with our fellow rebels and the wider public more reliably and easily than carrier pigeons or whatever our parents used. Finally, on a global scale we are the most well educated generation of humans that has ever lived; hopefully we can apply our new found genius to drive progress rather than getting bogged-down in the increasingly stagnant, polarised and corrupt world of current politics.
So viva la revolution! But for now, what are some relevant, impactful, concrete actions that we can take as young people and as a wider society to combat the injustices that have been highlighted, and to fight climate change despite the circumstances?
Participate in your democracy! (if you’re lucky enough to live in one)
The more frustrating and toxic democracy seems, the more important it is to get involved with it. So right now it’s really important to:
o Vote if you can! (even if it’s solely for environmental reasons, DO IT!)
o Write a letter to your MP – if you’re from the UK, you can find out exactly how they have voted on issues you care about here, and you can find their contact details here. They will almost certainly respond, and taking a respectful but firm tone can be surprisingly effective in getting them to act on the causes you care about!
Take a bold action
Check out the inspiring story of Greta, a 15 year old who, in early September, went viral on social media by going on school-strike to protest climate change. Her brave decision to sit all alone outside the Swedish parliament and challenge politicians catalyzed many people, young and old, into action too.
Get involved in a group, action and/or protest
Together people achieve SO much more than the sum of their parts! Joining a group (such as UKYCC or one of the many organisations we work with) connects you to like-minded people and a network that stretches further than you can imagine. It feels great to be part of something larger than yourself, gives you opportunities and enables you to use your skills more effectively than you could alone!