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Justified stridency: We must listen very carefully to young climate activists

These young activists seem to know that envisioning a society melding justice and equity within the bounds of a fragile planet is the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
REUTERS/Erin Scott
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is building her congressional career around the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement is building grassroots support to bolster the case for climate action.
The meeting was in an old high school classroom. We were there because four young high school students are concerned about the climate crisis. They organized one climate strike in front of city hall and were using the winter months to build momentum for the Sunrise Movement.

They announced the meeting via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They prepared a PowerPoint and rehearsed their delivery. Scheduled at the start of the holiday season, the turnout for the meeting was not great. At first, that made the classroom seem larger than usual, but with fewer people, the conversation was more focused.

They spoke of their passion and commitment to the issues surrounding the climate crisis. They demonstrated their knowledge and enthusiasm as they introduced themselves and also in the shared banter as they went through their presentation. They smoothly shared the responsibility of moving from slide to slide, each adding comments in turn.

They must have been disappointed in the turnout, but it didn’t show. And the Sunrise Movement is focused on mobilizing youth, so our gray hair might have deepened their disappointment, but, again, it didn’t show. Their eagerness to talk about the issue of climate change filled the room and made it feel smaller. They were very well prepared.

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The Green New Deal

Their explanation of the Green New Deal is built into the presentation. The proposed legislation is visionary precisely because it leaves so much open to the imagination. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is building her congressional career around the proposal, and the Sunrise Movement is building grassroots support to bolster the case for climate action.

A seven-minute video, “A Message from the Future,” narrated by AOC, is garnering hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube. It tells the story of a retired AOC reflecting on the successes of the Green New Deal from her vantage point in the future – watching a young “true child” of the Green New Deal being sworn into the congressional seat AOC once held. This glimpse of the future is inspiring many young people to see alternatives to our current political impasse.

Keith Luebke
Keith Luebke
The video ends assertively: “We can be whatever we have the courage to see.” This no doubt sounds naive to those who attack AOC, her cohort, and the Green New Deal. But it conjures images of a past era when people could see a very different way of living their lives, a different path for government and public policies, and a better life for people who work for a living. The Green New Deal is a contemporary version of the New Deal that led America out of the Great Depression.

Images of the Great Depression no longer haunt most Americans. Even when buried in debt, many families have access to a level of material well-being that would have seemed impossible to most families during the 1930s. But from that economic turmoil came the New Deal. Social Security is the most widely known program associated with the New Deal, but it also included the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Farm Security Administration, and the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.

The New Deal revitalized the economy in both urban and rural areas. Its programs and projects allowed Americans to see the legislation at work: major public infrastructure projects, new housing, public art, and increased public assistance and employment programs. But there were also financial reforms aimed at preventing another economic depression, and those reforms worked, for the most part, until 2008.

After the New Deal, we became a more equitable society. The movement was uneven, often left out minorities, and is open to criticism for not going far enough, but it undeniably improved the lives of millions of Americans. If not for the New Deal, many Americans would now live in deeper poverty. We need a clever seven-minute video proclaiming its accomplishments to pair with “A Message From the Future.”

Growing inequality, deep social divisions

The 1970s wore away at the accomplishments of the New Deal, and the last 40 years obscured its successes and questioned its premises. As a result, we see growing inequality, deep social divisions, and increased doubt in our government and its institutions. During this time, wealth has migrated into the bank accounts of an economic elite, while the hard work that makes our economy function is less rewarded. For many, their wages barely pay the bills.

The Federal Reserve tells us that 40% of Americans can’t come up with $400 for a financial emergency. Living from paycheck to paycheck, they are what Alissa Quart, author of “Squeeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America” and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, calls the precariat.

She and others are documenting the lives of these Americans living precarious, unpredictable lives of never-ending financial insecurity. Underemployed and barely treading water, they can never get ahead. This group includes those with little education, those with university degrees, and people of all ages. And they are not limited to the United States; we find them in Britain, France, Italy, and other parts of Europe.

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The large numbers of those turning toward populism, conspiracy theories, and simple anger are usually older workers who feel disenfranchised. Young climate activists seem, at first, to be on the other end of the political spectrum. However, the science-based concerns of the activists offer the best path to public policies addressing the concerns and needs of older disenfranchised workers. Better lives for the majority of workers in the developed world cannot be separated from greening our economy.

The Green New Deal is a vision for how to fundamentally change our economy while reducing carbon emissions to address the climate crisis. It is as grand a concept as the original New Deal and has many of the same enemies. But in this case, the stakes are even higher. In our pursuit of never-ending growth, we’ve undermined the very basis of life on our planet. We are flirting with ecological disasters that can never be fixed or repaired. The fact that this crisis unfolds slowly does not lessen the ultimate impact on the human experiment. As we drive other species into extinction, we hasten our own demise. This is what scientists are telling us, and we’d better start listening.

At the moment, those most willing to listen and act are mainly young people. They read, study, meet and organize as the news reports accumulate: more extreme fires in Australia, more severe weather incidents, more flooding, and more melting of the glaciers and icecaps.

Peak learners

I understand the passion of the high school students as they build their case against complacency in the face of a worsening climate crisis. Science was an abstraction for me until a high school biology teacher connected it with my lived experience. These students are the best we have to offer – they are the peak learners of their era. The activism of these emerging learners will shape our response to the growing challenges of a changing environment. The environmental prophet of my era was Rachel Carson. The voice of their generation is Greta Thunberg.

The world would be a very different place if we’d listened more carefully to Rachel Carson, particularly her concern with our oceans. The world will be a very different place if we don’t listen very carefully to the voices of climate movement activists like Thunberg and other high schoolers with their PowerPoints and protest signs. Their voices are growing, and their stridency is justified.

Americans need to understand how sound public policies responding to the Great Depression made our nation more equal and viable. They also need to understand how policies since the 1980s have made us less equal and more splintered. We need a public policy response to the splintering as much as we need a response to the climate crisis. The Green New Deal is a long shot – as the New Deal was a long shot. But we have no other alternative. As climate activists say: There is no planet B.

Those students who invited us into their lives that afternoon in a community center, located in an old school building, made an old classroom glow with their enthusiasm. They are testing what is possible: Can we “be whatever we have the courage to see”? In their hands, the Green New Deal will evolve in ways we can’t foresee. Like all sound public policy, it will need feedback loops to improve its programs, initiatives, and projects as they are implemented.

It is not hard to envision a society more just and equitable than our current mess. Making it sustainable is the hard part. These young activists seem to know that envisioning a society melding justice and equity within the bounds of a fragile planet is the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced.

Keith Luebke recently retired from teaching nonprofit leadership courses and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.


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