by Sarah Pike

author of For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism

Originally published by The Immanent Frame, SSRC

On Friday, December 6, 2019, a day of national climate strikes, I heard drums outside my monthly morning meeting at California State University, Chico. Climate strikers from our university and local high schools were marching through campus carrying signs, drumming, chanting, and accumulating people as they went. I walked out of the meeting to join them. For a while the president of the university joined the march, as did other university employees as we passed their offices and classrooms. The march followed a circuitous route through the halls of campus buildings and across open quads, a visual and aural reminder of the future we face. Chants and drums created a soundscape of protest, while signs and banners challenged business as usual. Instead of simply gathering in the university’s officially designated free speech area, the march permeated many different spaces on campus with its messages: “A Livable Future,” “Strike for the Climate,” “For the air we breathe, For the water we drink, For the planet we call home,” “Extinction Rebellion,” and “Fridays for Future.”

The December 6 strike was initiated by young people to protest government inaction on climate-related issues and to demand a livable future. That day, in an act of national synchronicity, students walked out of high schools and colleges across the United States. Social media powered the spread of the Friday strike with hashtags like #FridaysForFuture and #ClimateStrike. Young people and their supporters of all ages acted together, aspiring toward a different future than the tragic one that seems destined to come their way.

As I was marching through my campus, across the Atlantic Ocean the COP25 UN Climate Change Conference was taking place in Madrid, with hundreds of representatives from 196 countries and the goal of working out implementation of the 2016 Paris Agreement Climate Pact. Protests erupted that Friday in Madrid and throughout the week of the conference. A group of performance artists, Extinction Rebellion’s Red Rebel Brigade, maintained a silent vigil in the streets. Dressed in red robes, their faces painted a ghostly white, Red Brigaders say their red attire “symbolises the common blood we share with all species, that unifies us and makes us one.” And it also symbolizes the blood that will be spilled in the future.

Climate strikes are rites of mourning the future, lamenting current catastrophes, and demanding world leaders to radically reduce carbon emissions. The bodies of young people acting together on rural lands, city streets, and in front of powerful political institutions such as embassies transform public, secular spaces into sacred spaces. They ritually invoke sacred relationships with other humans and other species that are worth the sacrifice of strikers’ own comfort and safety. These young protesters express ultimate values with their vulnerable and precarious bodies: the integrity of the planet, the right to a livable future, the dire situation of species (including humans) facing extinction.

Some climate strikers belong to religious communities, but many of them are agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious.” Some embody a kind of nature religion, as described in the work of scholars Catherine Albanese and Bron Taylor, in which nature is seen as a sacred center and human lives are inextricably connected to the lives of other species and “Mother Earth.” Young climate strikers’ actions both constitute and express religious commitment in the sense of what matters most, now and in the future to come. They are a prime example of how secular, spiritual, and religious categories have become blurred, as explored in Ann Taves’s and Courtney Bender’s 2012 book, What Matters: Ethnographies of Value in a Not So Secular Age. Youth-led climate strikes are important sites for exploring the dynamics of contemporary spirituality, and especially youth spirituality, in secular spaces.

“Our Earth is Dying,” laments the Youth Climate Strike website. In January 2020, as Australia burned, Australian school strikers called for vigils to bring attention to the dead and dying, human and nonhuman, as well as the destruction of important spiritual and cultural places for indigenous Australians: “It’s time to mourn, and a time to inspire hope” stated the strikers. Instead of anticipating death, young climate strikers want the rest of the world to choose a life-filled future, meaning not simply a future in which life in some form continues, but one in which all humans and other species flourish. Theirs is a mourning meant to spur action.

The youth-led climate strike movement began in 2018 when Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, a ninth grader, skipped school and sat outside the Swedish Parliament building, alone, holding a sign that translated “school strike for climate.” On her second day, others joined her. Six months later, on March 15, 2019, over a million students took part in school strikes for climate, and the movement continues to grow around the world. Throughout 2019, youth in multiple countries and continents, including Australia, India, Greece, El Salvador, China, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, the United States, Nigeria, and most European countries, walked into public spaces carrying signs that read “Save Our Future,” “You Will Die of Old Age, We Will Die of Climate Change,” and other demands and dire warnings.

While globally coordinated Friday strikes and their articulate youth leaders are new, climate related protests are not. Climate marches took place around the world in 2014, including the People’s Climate March in New York City, the largest climate march ever according to the New York Times. In the United States, youth-led environmental protest movements have a long history. In my book For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism (2017), I trace the roots of contemporary eco-activism to 1960s youth protest movements through the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s and the 2011 Occupy movement. Eco-activists I interviewed described a sense of urgency that motivated them to join protests like Tar Sands Blockade in 2012 to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. In the early twenty-first century, Tar Sands Blockade, Earth First!, and other environmental activists increasingly targeted extraction industries and brought awareness to the causes of climate change, building momentum at a grassroots level. But most of these protests were ignored by mainstream news outlets and politicians, until the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s 2016 No Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota, when indigenous protesters attracted thousands of supporters from around the world to their protest camp. Indigenous youth were especially active in #NoDAPL. The Standing Rock protests called into question not just the impact of fossil fuels on forests, waters, land, animals, and climate, but especially on the lives of the young and those in the most marginalized and impoverished communities.

Oil pipeline protests are the forerunners of today’s climate strikes and they rally diverse groups of youth to their cause, especially indigenous youth. In the early twenty-first century, youth movements such as Earth Guardians, Zero Hour, and Youth vs. Apocalypse foreground the urgency of climate change and focus on youth of color. Earth Guardians, for example, trains “diverse youth” to be leaders in “environmental, climate and social justice movements across the globe” and includes youth-led “crews” in sixty-one countries. Zero Hour, another climate action group that wants to bring in the “voices of diverse youth,” carried banners at climate protestsreading “We Are In A Mass Extinction” and “Youth for Climate Action Now.” The nonviolent direct action group Extinction Rebellion, which emerged in the past few years alongside school strikes, includes Extinction Rebellion Youth that advocates “Rebel for Life, Reclaim Your Future.”

The future dead haunt climate strikes. Extinction Rebellion reminds us that “we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.” Climate strikes that mourn future extinctions make visible the bodies of the young and species that are most vulnerable. Identification between protesters and other animals at risk is sometimes made explicit in the strikes and other climate change protests. Protesters may point to present-day tragedies to show us what the future will bring. In response to devastating news from Australia that thirty-three humans and over a billion nonhuman animals had died, including species on the brink of extinction, activists dressed as animals stopped traffic in London and activists with burning kangaroos painted on their cheeks marched in Buenos Aires. One January 2020 protest outside the Australian embassy in London included a stuffed kangaroo wearing an Extinction Rebellion button. While climate strikes have generally focused on the threat to humans and “the Earth” in general, the Australian fires brought the precarity of specific species into the foreground.

In acts of identification with other species, protesters’ bodies bring these other beings into public view and insist they are of value. Activists carrying life-sized stuffed kangaroos or dressed as polar bears and “climate change cows” filled streets and plazas. Strikers’ vulnerable bodies refer directly to others’ vulnerability as well as their own, now and in the decades of climate disruption to come. Usually invisible victims of climate change are made visible when activists’ bodies gather in the streets, referencing the lives of suffering others, bringing them into the heart of the protest.

Climate strikers draw on the efficacy of ritual to save the earth and their future. Their bodies, acting together, marching or sitting in, seize and occupy spaces of state power, demanding a response. Thunberg sitting in front of Parliament challenged the everyday, taken-for-granted realities of nation-states where political agendas have outweighed the urgency of the climate crisis. In “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” her analysis of another youth-led movement, the Arab Spring of 2011, philosopher Judith Butler argues that protesters’ bodies moving and speaking together can transform the meanings of public spaces. Protesting bodies create alliances that express the society they want to bring about and sever the order that exists between public space and state power. In climate strikes, disorderly youth claim these spaces for their future and the futures of other species.

In addition to occupying public space, climate strikers leave behind state-sponsored schooling, severing that order as well.When students walk out of school and into the streets, they send a message that the concerns they are striking for are more important than state-sponsored education. Young people’s presence at climate strikes and in sites of political power where they previously rarely had a voice (Thunberg’s 2019 address to the United Nations, for example) means their absence in schools, their refusal to be schooled in facts and skills that they believe will be meaningless in the context of rapidly increasing global warming.

As rites of mourning and hope, climate strikes consecrate the streets and act out utopian aspirations. They insist the world must become otherwise than it is. Through the physical process of walking out of school, into streets, identifying with other species and with marginalized human communities, and gathering together diverse groups of people, climate strikers enact the social order they want to bring about. Their actions are interventions, ruptures in the social order, that turn streets that would normally carry cars burning fossil fuels into sites of resistance, grief, and utopian hope for a different future.