"Within a year, the Swedish teenager has become the figurehead of environmental activism." A mural ("Save the Planet Now") in Denmark of Thunberg by Danish street artist Miki Pau Otkjær. Wikicommons

"You come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words." Greta Thunberg's words at the UN Climate Summit in New York left an auditorium stunned, while simultaneously sending shockwaves around the world. Within a year, the Swedish teenager has become the figurehead of environmental activism. Her UN speech, however, represents much more than this — it has come to symbolise the "war cry" of our generation.

The political upheaval of the last few years has turned today's young generation into the most outspoken since the "flower-power" revolutionaries of '68. From the survivors of the Parkland shooting organising the biggest protest on gun control in American history, to the British youths of Our Future, Our Choice (OFOC) leading the popular conversation on Brexit, young people are raising their voice. Now, Thunberg has created a global student movement of unprecedented proportions, with schoolkids striking from the West Coast of America all the way to Karachi, Pakistan.

We can see history receding on itself

Thunberg's recent statements encapsulate the spirit of this new crop of activist movements. A look at the kind of rhetoric used in protests reveals an inter-generational anger and profound mistrust. "We call BS!" — those three words, denouncing the American political system's ineffective stance on gun control, became Emma González's rallying call in an unforgettable speech shortly after 17 of her fellow high school students had their lives taken in yet another mass shooting. Likewise, Lara Spirit, OFOC's co-president, laces her articles for The Guardian with expressions of condemnation: "Young people won't forgive those who deny us a vote on this botched Brexit," reads the headline of her first article from last year — words that are echoed by millions of youths around the world to the extent that such intergenerational mistrust has become a casual part of everyday language.

Political activism has always been tinged with a certain idealism. "The times they are a-changing," sang a fresh-faced Bob Dylan, which soon became the anthem of a generation of Civil Rights activists. In the speech that would become the defining moment of post-war America, Martin Luther King Jr. announced to 250,000 protesters and the rest of the world that he "had a dream." These activists were all going up against an entrenched, unjust system — but they were changing things for the first time. The optimistic spirit that they carried was palpable.

In recent times, however, the language has changed. Hopefulness has been replaced with jaded exasperation. There is a sense of indignation which now unites our activism. We've been through this before; things should have been resolved by now. As Thunberg herself stated, she and her fellow student strikers should be "in school". Why do we still need to be protesting?

There’s no denying that the political systems of previous generations have let us down

Indeed, we can see history receding on itself. The world is in a different place to when it emerged from the ruins of the Second World War, when rusty institutions and societal norms produced a desire for immediate reforms. Rather, we're seeing all the achievements we've acquired, from human rights to peace in Europe, come under threat. Likewise, as the accumulated by-products of the industrial revolution have left us with a climate emergency, we see the US, under Donald Trump's helm, taking steps backwards. Since young people are the ones who will live with the consequences of such dire political failures, it is understandable that we’re angry and frustrated.

But anger is not enough — we need to make sure we put action where our mouths lie. We've certainly managed to get the world talking, but our voter turnout is still painfully lacklustre. In the 2016 US Presidential elections, which saw one of the most dangerous political contenders in post-war Western history run for office, only 50% of Millennials cast their ballot, representing a mere 1% increase from 2012. The 2018 Mid-terms, by which point POTUS 45's nefarious leadership was well-known, saw a significant youth voter upsurge from those of 2014 (nearly doubling — from 22% to 42%); yet, it once again showed the Millennial and Gen Z electorates lagging considerably behind their older cohorts. This pattern is, sadly, mimicked in numerous elections around the world. We should remember that the same Baby Boomers who produced the revolutionaries of the mid-century later gave us Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, the wolves of Wall Street, and the majority of their supporters, voters and enablers. History has shown us quite aptly that a propensity for demanding change on the streets doesn't always translate to doing the same once inside the institutional walls.


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Our generation will soon be inheriting positions of power, passing laws, and leading governments. When Thunberg rallies against world leaders and political figures, she's looking directly at the same people who once idolised Dylan and wove flowers into their hair at Woodstock, daydreaming of a better future. They too took to the streets, marched, sang, protested, and demanded change. Yet look where that left us: a world crippled — politically, economically, socially, ecologically — by the excesses of a Western capitalist system which somehow manages to offload its failures on the same countries it continues to exploit. 

Granted, landmark advancements have been made in the last half-century which can't be ignored, but there's no denying that the political systems of previous generations have let us down. I — like Thunberg and millions of other young people — feel that kind of anger, an anger we mustn’t abandon, lest we end up repeating the same mistakes of those we’re ready to admonish.

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