Saturday, January 12, 2019

On Fridays for Future

I went to the first #fridaysforfuture protest in our area with my youngest, yesterday, outside my MP's office. The idea is the brainchild of Greta Thunberg who wants all students to strike every Friday until the political system focuses on slowing down climate change so we can avoid hitting that dreaded 1.5 degree ceiling. We've already zipped passed the 350 ppm ceiling with nary an outcry (at about 410 ppm now). We only have 11 more years, until 2030, to act before we won't be able to have any significant effect. She says, "What is the point of learning facts when the most important facts given by our finest scientists are ignored by politicians?". Before I left work, I talked to a few colleagues, discussing the ethics of a teacher taking a half day "family care" day to go to a protest, and everyone I spoke with was supportive of the idea. What's a family care day for if not to fight to sustain the planet for our families! And I decided, even if it's seen as wrong, it's worth the potential consequences. It was a well-run event with about 40 people there on a bitterly cold day (the paper said 30, but I counted at least 40); unfortunately, I think a good 60 or 70% of the crowd were long past their school days.

I've been talking up this type of activism in my classes, as related to the curriculum of course. Luckily I teach Challenge of Change in Society and Civics, where the issues fit perfectly! We often consider the conundrum that we are the cause of climate change, so fighting it is, in part, fighting against ourselves, against our own life choices: our possessions and our conveniences. It's clear we need to be the solution, but we won't change our own behaviour without being forced to. It's too hard to willingly give up what we've gotten used to. So we need help. Just like we put a heavy tax on cigarettes and liquor to deter consumption, we need a carbon tax. And just like we restrict cell phone usage in cars to save our lives, we need to restrict our consumption of fossil fuels and beef and so much stuff in order to save our own lives. We need to convince politicians to make these changes in legislation. And we have to convince energy companies - they do call themselves that - to shift to solar, wind, and tidal power.

When cars first came on the scene, people were excited by the new technology, by our incredible human ingenuity, so most people didn't publicly lament the loss of jobs of the farriers, blacksmiths, carriage makers, etc. Lots of people were out of work as people stopped driving horse and buggies. When computers were invented, nobody cared that typewriter makers would lose their livelihood. Computers are so clearly superior to typewriters that it's worth some job losses in the name of progress.

You see where I'm going with this.

Getting energy from fossil fuels is a dinosaur technology. Now we have created, with our incredible genius, ways of capturing and storing power from sun, wind, and water!! We have to get more excited about these inventions and let the fossil fuel industry go the way of the dinosaurs. Keep the oil in the ground! The new energies are so clearly superior to the old, AND they require more workers to implement on a large scale, so there will be a net gain in employment.

Change is scary. I remember the first time I used a computer, back in 1985, and how frustrated I got trying to get the hang of it. At one of my very first real jobs, I accidentally deleted an entire document with the push of one wrong button, and back then there was no "edit undo" option. The work had to be completely redone. What a stupid invention! Searching for anything required scanning list after list after list to narrow down the search (before search engines existed). It was so much faster to use the index cards in a library! A friend insisted that soon we'd all have a computer in our homes. I argued this would never catch on. It's a total waste of time. And now look at us.

Shifting to a reliance on solar, wind, and water will be a scary change, and there will be bumps along the way, but we can do this. But I have yet to convince the people around me.

In one class, I was debated by a vocal opponent of saving the human species on Earth who advanced the position that we just need to do more space exploration to find or build a better home. Space travel is necessary to prove our ingenuity, he argued. My main point of rebuttal was that if it's the case that we could make a hospitable biodome on Mars, then wouldn't it be easier to make one on Earth? Air travel is so destructive that Thunberg refuses to get on a plane to speak around the world. But every time we fire up a rocket, it produces exponentially more GHGs than an airplane. (Except I later found out it actually doesn't). Regardless my error, which I'll correct on Monday, the idea of rebuilding our planet elsewhere instead of fixing the one we have is part and parcel of an entitled attitude of unrestricted growth that got us into this mess in the first place. Are we just like a virus that used up it's first host and wants to jump to a second? Or are we smarter than that? We prove our ingenuity by surviving this crisis without running away to a new planet. My adversary was having none of it, however.

I told a few of my students about the protest, of course while clarifying that I don't advocate that they miss school. That's a choice only they can make. None showed up. I have students who will skip class to go to Tim Horton's but they didn't want to skip class for this. For some, school is too important to miss a single class, particularly for grade 12s applying for university. For others, they fear getting in trouble for breaking the rules to take a moral stand. And I imagine some are unsure of what a protest looks like and what they'd be expected to do there. It's daunting to do anything for the first time. Some say their generation does activism differently, by clicking on social media, and I couldn't convince them that nothing beats boots-on-the-ground crowds to actually affect change. But the bigger issue here is that some are not yet convinced that this is actually a problem. They're openly not environmentalists; it's just not what they're into.

What if we're wrong? If it's a case that we're not sure that climate change is caused by people burning fossil fuels, then we can take a Pascal's wager approach:

A Better World for Nothing by Joel Pett
I appreciate a skeptical stance, but only up to a point. We should definitely fact check social media claims and news articles, but we can know some things for certain, and, when we can't know something for certain, we can recognize when two things are strongly correlated such that one likely has an effect on the other. It's not certainty, but it's also nothing to sneeze at! We can figure out what makes a claim more or less accurate, and we can calculate probability and make decisions based on the most likely outcome. At its worst, skepticism is a means merely to avoid making a decision or taking a stand. But, in the immortal words of Geddy Lee, "If you choose not to decide you still have make a choice." Standing back to wait until there is 100% agreement by everyone in all the land before being willing to take action is suicidal to our species at a time when climate scientists are debating whether or not we'll make it to 2100. That's just 80 years! To put it another way, it's just 29,574 sleeps!

Another argument went something like this:

X: One of my teachers says that using pipelines is the best way to transport oil and gas, so we shouldn't be trying to stop them.
Me: There's no good way to transport oil and gas. We have to leave it in the ground.
X: I wonder if the people protesting know that plastic is made from oil. So much of what they use day to day is oil-based.
Me: I think most of them do. It's pretty common knowledge to anyone immersed in this area. (And now some grocery stores are taking a stand on plastics, which is huge.) Most environmentalists I've met completely recognize that our own actions are part of the problem and that seeking out change means having to change ourselves as well. But, does every activist have to be completely educated for it to be a cause worth promoting? If you think you know more than the typical environmentalist at these protests, then by all means join us!

At the event, one of the things we shouted in unison was...
"What do we want?"
"Climate justice!"
"Who do we want if from?"
The people there recognized and spoke about the problem that we are all benefitting from the products that are harming our biosphere. The only way this will change is if we're legislated to change the way laws restrict our behaviour when we drive. We need governments to ban unnecessary plastic packaging (i.e. pretty much all of it) in grocery stores instead of waiting for stores to take the initiative to do it themselves. We need any subsidies to fossil fuels to be shifted to renewable energies. And we need it NOW!

The next #fridaysforfuture in my town is on a PD day, February 1st, which won't really be a walk out, then, but it might remove barriers for some of the first-time protesters that could spur them on to fight more for the continued survival of our species. We're only meeting monthly in front of the MPs, but if you want to meet weekly in my area, you can go the atrium of the Environmental Studies Bldg #2 at UW at 2:00 on all the other Fridays.

Avoiding cameras on the periphery, but captured chatting with an MP anyway.


Anonymous said...

"I have students who will skip class to go to Tim Horton's but they didn't want to skip class for this. For some, school is too important to miss a single class, particularly for grade 12s applying for university. For others, they fear getting in trouble for breaking the rules to take a moral stand. And I imagine some are unsure of what a protest looks like and what they'd be expected to do there."

I suppose that part of it is that the movement is brand new, with little track record and little organization, and revolves completely around the personality and charisma of one individual-- Greta Thuneberg.

In other words, just because someone does not go along with this particular activity, which involves repeated truancy, does not mean that they reject envionmental activism. In fact, I would question someone immediately jumping on the bandwagon of this, with its potential disruption to the educational activities of themselves and others (yes, other students are impacted when their fellow classmates decide to cut class repeatedly).

I don't know much about Greta Thunberg's world, but many students do not have the privilege of being able to repeatedly skip school like this. Maybe Greta Thunberg, with her celebrity parents, is able to afford a private tutor to make up for these classes that she misses, or is otherwise exempt from the consequences of missing school; but this is not how it is for the 99%.

And seriously, what if every new "movement" that popped up encouraged students to "strike"? Kids would never go to school anymore. This is not a good thing. No teacher should be encouraging it.

Marie Snyder said...

Yes, refusing to participate in protests doesn't mean that people aren't about environmental activism, but there aren't signs of other forms of activism either beyond clicking 'like' on posts. This isn't entirely a brand new movement. It's been around since November, and more than 100 countries are significantly involved.

As for students missing one afternoon each month, I doubt that will have a profound impact on their education - certainly not enough to require a private tutor to catch up. And, as I suggested, some will miss that much just to hang out with friends. But it will reinforce that climate change is an issue that matters more than education - that matters more than absolutely everything right now.

Finally, as for every movement encouraging a strike, that's a slippery slope fallacy. It's not the case that students are overrun with calls to strike. It's just the first Friday afternoon of each month, to march outside our MP's office to let her know that many people will vote against her if she doesn't act for the sake of the climate, because it's just that important.