It began with one Swedish schoolgirl in a yellow rain jacket and when the Guardian Weekly broke the story of angry schoolkids striking to demand action on climate change, the leitmotif to society was ‘I want you to panic’.
Greta Thunberg’s leaflets as she sat in the rain outside her parliament in Stockholm were uncompromising. She was doing it, she said, “because you adults are shitting on my future’.
Now school children in 71 countries will skip school on Friday, including here, despite squawks that schoolwork is more important than protesting, and why can they not strike on weekends.
The NZ Herald – for years complicit in the previous government’s denial of climate change – hurried to quote Simon Bridges (and a few school principals) on that stuff but the movement strikes a chord for most of us who, in the Lange years of New Zealand, marched against nuclear proliferation in the climate of the Cold War and imminent annihilation.
Often with our children in pushchairs; well aware of the hair-trigger threat that we might be bequeathing them an uninhabitable planet.
Forty years on, and after an often-frightening hubris in consumer-saturated societies wrestling with the economic might of globalised industry and capital, the response from 21st century students’ – “Why study for a future we might not have” – has an all too familiar ring to it.
The world’s young have every right to be usefully angry. In the scheme of life force, apathy and resignation is a pretty low-level of personal existence and increasingly unworkable as a civic response within modern democracies.
Emotion is designed to trigger a real-world response, and anger at least generates an almost normal level of life force. How well we use it is another matter, brute force being low on the scale although somewhat in fashion at present.
It was Gandhi who took resistance to a more sophisticated level when he replaced the toxic English words ‘passive resistance’ with ‘satyagraha’ or determined, nonviolent resistance (fighting with peace).
His use of language as a creative force was compelling. “The power of suggestion is such that a man at last becomes what he believes himself to be.
“If we continue to believe ourselves and let others believe, that we are weak and helpless and therefore offer passive resistance, our resistance would never make us strong, and at the earliest opportunity we would give up passive resistance as a weapon of the weak.
“On the other hand if we are satyagrahis and offer satyagraha, believing us to be strong, two clear consequences result from it.
“Fostering the idea of strength, we grow stronger and stronger every day. With the increase in our strength, our satyagraha too becomes more effective and we would never be casting about for an opportunity to give it up.
“Again, while there is no scope for love in passive resistance, on the other hand not only has hatred no place in satyagraha but is a positive breach of its ruling principle. While in passive resistance there is a scope for the use of arms when a suitable occasion arrives, in satyagraha physical force is forbidden even in the most favourable circumstances.
“Passive resistance is often looked upon as a preparation for the use of force while Satyagraha can never be utilized as such. Passive resistance may be offered side by side with the use of arms. Satyagraha and brute force, being each a negation of the other, can never go together. Satyagraha may be offered to one’s nearest and dearest; passive resistance can never be offered to them unless of course they have ceased to be dear and become an object of hatred to us.
“In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardship entailed upon us by such activity; while in satyagraha there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent.”
Satyagraha, he said, is soul force “pure and simple, and whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul force.”
More than a century later, the young have everything to win and nothing to lose (except everything) in the primal, real-life battle they play out so often on their ubiquitous screens. In that world, as in the archetypical game, life force is pitted against profit, guns and powerful politics. Gandhi used the word evil in the context. Students around the world need to succeed with this call to action. Either way, they will inherit this earth. • Liz Waters