Thirty years ago, when I was 16 and studying for a sociology GCSE, I was asked to choose a “subject for discussion” that was very important to me. I opted for the case study of Maria Isabel Quaresma Dos Santos, a Portuguese girl who had been left in a chicken coop at the age of one and not rescued until she was nine years old. My classmates were enthralled and appalled, and in broad agreement that child-rearing should never be delegated to poultry.
Other students regaled us with fantastical tales of twins separated at birth only to reconnect as adults and find they had both married brown-haired women called Carol with a shared passion for egg and cress sandwiches.
Meanwhile, Lucy Wilson had chosen as her subject for discussion something called “the ozone layer”. None of us had heard of “the ozone layer”, and despite our teacher’s enthusiasm for Lucy’s heartfelt presentation, the rest of us were bored to death.
While I was contributing possibly inaccurate but eminently gawpable stories about feral children, here was Lucy tediously banging on about how we were killing the planet with Lynx Amber. At lunchtime, some of the boys took the mickey out of her, pulling their deodorant cans out of their sports bags and emptying them in the direction of the sky. This was the late 1980s, before the advent of social media, when trolling could only be performed live.
Children today take a somewhat different approach. In March, the Global Climate Strike for Future attracted upwards of a million young protesters worldwide and pushed the climate crisis to the top of the news agenda. In this country, an estimated 50,000 schoolchildren took the day off and spilled out into the streets, calling for their leaders to wake up and take responsibility for this growing emergency.
“Of course, they’re really just truanting,” came the response from some quarters, and thank heavens for that valuable injection of perspective; after all, it’s all very well trying to prevent the planet from turning into a haunted jacuzzi, but surely not at the expense of PE and double maths. If children are going to protest, then it must be in designated areas where we can cheerfully ignore them, and certainly not until they’ve done their homework and eaten their broccoli and the third tsunami of the week is halfway to Worcester.
We may not be quite at that point yet, but the fact is that there is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that this is really happening, as cataclysmic weather events strike across the globe with increasing and horrifying regularity.
Earlier this year, my native Iran was devastated by flash floods, with the province of Golestan receiving 70 per cent of its annual rainfall in a single day. If that’s the way things are heading, then we urgently need to make direct eye contact with this thing, and perhaps the children can become athletes and mathematicians a day later than planned.
And while they might be wiser and better informed than we ever were, we can’t just leave them to it. It’s for that reason that parents across the country are coming together to join the fray this Sunday. I’ll be joining the Mothers Rise Up march from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square, but there are demonstrations taking part across the UK, from Taunton to Jersey to Leeds and Sheffield.
I expect that we’ll be derided as a bunch of middle-class mums with nothing better to do than tell people how to live, who eat meat and drive cars rather than chewing on twigs as we roller-skate up the M1. That’s OK. We’re not claiming to be perfect, and if any of the usual suspects want to call us hypocrites or insinuate that working-class parents are somehow less concerned about their children’s futures, then that’s entirely a matter for their piddling conscience.
No doubt we’ll also be met with the accusation that having children is about the worst thing that you can do for the environment. And sure, they can make a bit of a mess, but rather than trying to quash an entire species’ instinct to reproduce, I would humbly suggest that it’s a touch more realistic to think that we might develop energy systems, food systems and transportation systems that don’t irreparably damage the planet.
I’m certainly not insisting that you must become a strict vegan who bathes bi-annually (please don’t do that), but the simple truth is that we cannot go on as we are. All that Mothers Rise Up are asking people to do is to keep the pressure on the government, to use our voices and our political power and, on a personal level, to make the lifestyle changes that seem small in isolation but could add up to something genuinely meaningful. Perhaps we might even point the way for others.
So do use public transport when you can or walk or cycle. Cut down on meat and dairy and if you’re feeling chilly at home, bung on a cardie instead of immediately whacking up the heating. Try to fly less: my children and I mostly go on holiday in the UK, and let me tell you, the Isle of Wight as a holiday destination is Britain’s best-kept secret. If I blindfolded you, took you to Priory Bay and told you that it was the Caribbean, not only would you believe me but you’d thank me even as I was being carted off by the police.
I didn’t panic about climate change when Lucy Wilson tried to bring it to my attention all those years ago – honestly, I barely even listened – but kids today have better information and, frankly, a bit more sense. Rather than insisting that they get back into the classroom, we owe it to them to swallow our pride, belatedly become willing students ourselves, and learn from their example. If we don’t meet this challenge now, there will inevitably come a time when we simply no longer can.
I hope to see some of you on Sunday.
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