Act: Inspiration

Standing in the Fire With Young Climate Activists

April 9, 2019

A global student uprising is underway, with youth worldwide demanding that adults face the climate crisis head on. They need a strong foundation in themselves and adult partnership for the challenges ahead.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg became one of the most well-recognized faces of this movement following her speech before world leaders at a UN climate conference in Poland in December 2018, when she said, “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”

Youth leaders like Thunberg are rising up across the globe. I had the privilege of working with a group of them from the United World College of the Atlantic in early March this year when I co-led a retreat in the U.K. with 17- and 18-year-olds. There were six adults in the retreat as well as students from 11 countries. All of the students had been on the front lines of the most recent strike; all of them carry deep questions about their futures. A young woman from the Netherlands named Maura Van der Ark — whom I had met in the Amazon Rainforest two summers ago, as Truthout reporter Dahr Jamail and I conducted research for his book, The End of Ice — had organized the retreat to help fellow students find a solid footing in these times.

These young people were exhausted from overwork, highly pressured to succeed by society’s standards, confused about their pathways into the future, and angry at their planetary inheritance. They were harboring a severe need to slow down, be themselves, reflect, and connect deeply with the Earth, with one another and with supportive, understanding adults. My experiences with them left a deep impression on me.

Need for a Deep Pause

At our retreat, the talented, motivated, bright, devoted young people collapsed into the spacious, undemanding atmosphere that we offered to them. Expectations from parents, school and the immediacy of the climate crisis were suspended. One of the students, Laurie Chan, wrote this of her experience:

To be able to pause and to truly think is so rare and difficult to get in this fast-paced life…. The idea that we are more productive if we are constantly on the move isn’t true at all. If anything, it makes us tired and forget who we are, what our values are, who we want to be, and where we want to go…. The most important takeaway I had from the retreat is that meaningful seemingly life changing answers are always inside of us, but it takes this kind of self-introspection in order to put the pieces together and draw it out of ourselves.

Of this same vein, Sanela Ramic from Bosnia wrote, “Calm is indeed a superpower.”

Walking Together, With Intergenerational Respect and Solidarity

One of the students, Beth Irving, spoke about having a 60-year spread in ages within the retreat, and what she thought of the older generations. “There is a lot of blame and anger directed towards the older generations,” she wrote to me after the retreat ended. “I want you to take me seriously when I say I am terrified. And I need you to take action, now, like I am doing.”

“We make not be able to reverse the climate situation, but reassurance comes from knowing others care like I do,” Irving continued. “Anything we muster may not be enough, but the salvation is that we will do this TOGETHER. I tend to hide out in my hopelessness; so it really helps to consider this openly together.”

Shortly after writing this, Irving joined Greta Thunberg and a band of student leaders she gathered to further strengthen the student-led strikes.

A vulnerable, honest co-generational conversation is needed for both adults and our children.

Weston Pew, who is in his 30s, facilitates workshops that help people sink into the enormity of the times, while bringing us back into right relationship with each other and the planet, regardless of the outcome of the converging crises that are now upon us.

In “A Call to Our Elders,” he wrote that his prayer for people over 50 years old is “re-establishing connection to … the self which acts not solely for the benefit of oneself and family but for the health and well-being of the whole of humanity and the larger living systems of which we are kin … such action defines what it means to be an ancestor worthy of the love and respect of future generations.”

One night in the middle of the retreat, I lay awake wrestling with a burning dilemma: How does one balance the wisdom of Cherokee elder Stan Rushworth, who says, “You never cross the fire of a young person,” with our responsibility to tell the truth that we are already off the cliff with regards to runaway climate disruption?

Or, put another way, how do we discuss the immediate need to adapt our lives to worsening wars, water scarcity, impending global crop failures, sea level rise and societal chaos, without threatening or dampening a child’s innate creative force and desire to live?

My sister, after having worked for decades in the Massachusetts school system, is right when she says, “Never ever take hope away from the young people.”

And we also have an urgent need to assess what we are able to do personally and collectively in this precious window of time, looking squarely at the scientific realities.

This tension, at least in our experience at the retreat, resolved itself. The young people are waking up to the urgency of the current climate crisis, often faster than adults who are invested in the status quo.

The next morning, we were in a conversation about the students’ feelings of empowerment and intimacy with co-strikers. At one point, we ended up hanging out in a long pause. After a while, Beth broke the silence. Referring to the global student walk-outs, she said flatly, “It is not enough.” They know, each one in their own way.

Dahr Jamail also recently spoke to a full house at a Seattle town hall meeting. In the front row were high school students who had traveled three hours on a bus to look at the realities straight on.

A 17-year-old climate-striker, Shayla Oates, told Barbara of her experience in Australia, March 15. Oates organized the strike in Armidale, Australia, and wrote of it afterwards:

I don’t believe governments will make significant changes regardless of our efforts. And even if significant changes were put in place, they wouldn’t change the climate catastrophe. But regardless, the event just ended and I feel relieved and happy. I have about 50 letters to send to Parliament that were written by students and adults, and the overwhelming support leaves me hopeful.

Here is the knowing and hope side by side. And the need to be linked with elder friends.

Madalena Eisele Cabral Vaz Andrefrom Portugal, came to the retreat with the knowing weighing heavily on her spirits. She read a poem to us that she had written to Mother Earth prior to our gathering. The last five lines went like this:

Dear Mum,
I am sorry I wasn’t strong enough
I am sorry I quit fighting for you
I am sorry I let you down
and that we did not make it through.

At the close of the gathering we planted a tree together in a field, an oak that could outlive us by a thousand years. Each of us placed a kernel of ceremonial corn into the hole that held a personal prayer. The students gave names to their seeds. Vaz Andre named her seed “Resilience.” She told me:

I know that people must care about the Earth if they are to take action. This takes time, and patience. I believe I will at times face failure, frustration and hopelessness, which could lead to giving up. This is why I named my seed “resilience”. Life is not easy and there are many moments that might push us to give up, or to take the easy way out … this willingness to have it easy and quick is something that I want to fight against. I believe in taking time, in having time.

And resilience demands exactly that: “time.”

Meaning at the Intersection of Personal Interests and Needs of the World

In Western culture, we often find meaning in the context of an improved future and personal legacy. Faced now with the sober knowing that is carried at some level in many of our young people, we must look at creating meaningful lives in the midst of the dire conditions in which we find ourselves.

During the retreat, we tried on an assumption that we all came to live on the Earth in this moment of crisis by choice … that we wanted to grow into the strength and depth needed to participate in the challenges at hand. Perhaps a pervasive underlying sense of victimhood regarding the catastrophic conditions we got landed with is not entirely accurate, or useful. Who knows?

We then reflected on how our innate characters combine with cultural and biological dynamics and the trembling realities in which we find ourselves to create each of our unique callings for contributions in the face of climate disaster. These strands inform the deep field of potential out of which we emerge as ourselves. Tapping into that potential was possible in the protected space of extraordinary quiet and listening. The flow of our conversation naturally passed through pools of quiet, which we came to respect as an incubator of realization and insight. We looked at what brings us alive and considered these as the guideposts pointing to our unique contributions.

Instead of thinking only in terms of leadership for survival’s sake, the students tuned into their artistic passions, their need to connect with ancestral streams, their affinity for non-traditional intimacy, their call to reshape relevant curriculum in schools, etc. When their fire was lit, it was easy to feel empowerment and leadership, though not perhaps in terms of progressive mindsets. They came to see their communal job as support of each one’s distinct and evolving thread of interest and excitement.

Making Promises

During the retreat, we also tapped into the ancient spirituality associated with the circular earthen mounds that defined the location of the structures on the estate, likely of Celtic origin. The students were intrigued with the energetic and ceremonial foundations of the land we were on.

Reflections on the Celtic spiritual origins of the site gave way to their own stories of medicinal healing capabilities in their ancestors and shamanic traditions in their lineages. Pete Glassey, the steward of the land, taught us how to measure the age of the ancient oaks. The stories and the trees triggered forms of memory and inspiration that are not normally factored into our survival options. It felt to me that these young people were keepers of another way of being. At the close of our tree-planting ritual, we sang over the small tree as an unusually strong wind blew in, and one could easily feel the presence of something larger. As we hit the wall on so many fronts on the planet, perhaps relationship with nonlinear factors is important.

At the end of the retreat, students boarded the bus back to Wales. Before disembarking, they turned to one another and made several promises. One was that whenever they passed one another on campus, they would hug one another. They are carrying through with this, filling their need for touch, a calming of the nervous system and a remembering of a deeper stream of wisdom.

They are also sharing this wisdom more widely. The young people who came to the retreat offered a version of this workshop to another ring of 25 students this past weekend, and they are establishing a nondenominational Quiet Room on the campus.

They also agreed that when they encountered one another and asked, “How are you doing?” they would answer honestly, and truly listen to one another.

Here are the seeds of healthy community, taking hold.

Sanela Ramic ended the final dinner of the retreat with these words penned on a card she wrote to the group:

We are all born with softness, it is vital that we grow into it and never let our hearts grow cold. It is not surviving that is most important. What counts is that we don’t betray each other.

The fire, in both young and old, keeps our hearts warm even as they break, opening ever more deeply into our vital connections with one another and to this precious Earth.

Dahr Jamail contributed to this report.

Annotated References:

Greta Thunberg, Swedish student and climate activist, told world leaders at a UN climate conference in Poland in December 2018: “Change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.” Watch her TED Talk here.

Last Child in the Woods is the first book to bring together a new and growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. More than just raising an alarm, author Richard Louv offers practical solutions and simple ways to heal the broken bond–and many are right in our own backyards.

Support children in the face of climate change, a Facebook page that is a timely and wise resource for parents, teachers and adults, hosted by Jo McAndrews, who is integral in the Extinction Rebellion.

Weston Pew’s article. Weston is a wilderness guide in Montana and is launching a media platform called Pathways to Resilience. He is founder and lead mentor of Inner Wild, a program dedicated to helping individuals of any age cultivate deeper relationships to self, Earth, and community through exposure to and guidance from the natural world.

Dahr Jamail’s “Climate Disruption Dispatches” are regular updates on the science of climate change, and are reliable sources of scientific truth.

Barbara Cecil

Barbara Cecil is the author of the book Coming Into Your Own: A Woman’s Guide Through Life Transitions. The book is a roadmap through life’s thresholds. It is woven with stories from women around the globe who are shifting into meaningful lives that meet the needs of the world and express their unique gifts in the stage of life they are in. Cecil’s decades of work as an organizational change consultant serve as the foundation of her thriving coaching practice. She was an associate dean in the School of Humanities at California State University, Long Beach. She served for 10 years as CEO of the America-Soviet Film Initiative, an organization that worked to breakthrough the media propaganda machines on both sides that fueled the Cold War.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change responses, school climate strikes, young people