Image: Extinction Rebellion London from Alexander Savin's Flickr Photostream

Social Change, the Climate Emergency, and the ‘Snowflake Generation’

The idea that it’s ‘cool to care’ and the recent rise of ethical consumerism in the UK has been driven by ‘Millennials’. But is ‘cool to care’ simply a reworking of new forms of consumption involving oat milk latte’s and bamboo straws or a new social movement, indicating renewed energy amongst younger people, intent on addressing some of society’s biggest problems? The differences across different generations are certainly becoming more apparent.

For example,  Goldsmiths, University of London recently announced it will be removing all beef products from sale in a bid to become carbon neutral by 2025. This chimes with a survey which found that Generation Z believed the planet could be meatfree by 2030. While spokespeople from Greenpeace welcomed this news, others such as the Countryside Alliance perhaps predictably, called it “bizarre”.

Also recently John Caturano of Nestlé Waters North America, which makes bottled water bemoaned the declining reputation of plastic, citing changing social norms amongst the young:

“The water bottle has in some ways become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes. It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me,”

But it doesn’t stop at water-bottles. Younger generations are more likely to view climate change as personally important, and they are more willing to take action on climate change than older generations. Despite being pilloried as the entitled ‘Peter Pan’ generation, and with many of them juggling weighty student loans still as many as 73% of Global Millennials are quite willing to pay more for sustainable goods. The financial uncertainty caused by ever-rising University fees and zero-hour contracts as well as a national housing crisis leaves many questions about the generational divide unanswered, but the popular assumption that ‘snowflakes’ are disinterested in political discourse has already been proven wrong in 2017’s General Election which evidenced that young people do want to be involved in politics that include them.

Sociologically, when understanding the ‘bigger picture’, we must look at everyday life encounters and experiences that shape the society around us. It is ultimately the micro-decisions of our everyday lives that will impact the macro societal structures. Sociologist Michael I. Borer explains that: “everyday life reveals behaviours and situations which would be otherwise taken for granted”. So what are ‘angry’ millennials trying to say when they refuse to buy celery wrapped in plastic and instead pay one quid extra for the unwrapped one, freshly taken from the allotment or from your local farmer’s market? Resistance! As pointed out by Lila Abu-Lughod, “where there is resistance, there is power”.  She argues that everyday resistance can reveal much about the social structures we live in. The exploitation of workers, the horrific plastic pollution of our oceans and consequential disappearance of coral reefs, unequal distribution of wealth and capital, and deforestation of every possible living biome has made millennials tired. It is unquestionable that the mental health of this generation is poor. A large scale survey identified as many as 49% of 18-24 years old have experienced high levels of stress with 60% experiencing anxiety overpressure to succeed and 32% cited that housing worries are a primary reason for their stress.

Yet the now iconic figure of climate activist teenager Greta Thunberg has drawn global praise for her efforts to highlight the climate emergency. The high- profile campaign to alert governments to global warming involved her quietly sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament almost every Friday. Thunberg’s actions have inspired similar strikes by young people in 1,659 cities in 105 countries. Her profile has grown rapidly. Her most recent coverage concerned her zero-carbon North Atlantic sailing trip to attend UN climate change events. Of course, it had its detractors. Aaron Banks, insurance tycoon, and “LeaveEU” founder offered a cynical response replying to a post by Green party MP Caroline Lucas about Greta’s voyage writing: “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August …”

He later tweeted that it was a “joke” after his comment sparked outrage from social media users. The vitriol directed towards this young woman is quite clearly inappropriate but maybe his response can be taken as some indication of the threat this young woman poses to the established structures. Thunberg and other students striking for climate change have been dismissed as truants or naïve teenagers being manipulated by adults.  Indeed the leader of the anti-immigration People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier, was forced to apologise for describing Thunberg as, “not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive, eating disorder, depression, and lethargy, and she lives in a constant state of fear”.

Figures such as Bernier attempt to minimise the power of young voices in a way which is reminiscent of the widespread media dismissal of young people protesting the Iraq war – a dismissal which contributed to the disaffection of young people from participating in the political process.  But now it appears that things are very different. The emergence of creative artists like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Thunberg and the rise of the Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience movement has put the environmental crisis firmly in the public domain. They symbolise the power and agency of young people and these high – profile media-friendly events communicate the urgency of the issue more effectively than traditional news media.  Indeed media reporting has faced major changes causing Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian, to describe climate change as journalism’s “great failure”. Others call for a rethink not in how climate change is communicated but in the broad field of political communication and public engagement. It is here surely where social and alternative media-savvy millennials can mobilise to challenge powerful interests.

It has recently emerged that the early election so desired by the new PM to take place on October 15 was designed precisely to minimise the youth vote. The idea is that students would be unable to provide their address until settled in University and many won’t bother to register. In fact, there has been a rapid increase in the number of people registering to vote and reportedly a majority were aged 35 and under. Those who find it hard to tolerate the idea of young people exercising their power in the voting booth or who can only resort to personalised, gendered criticism of teenage girls are not part of a solution but rather living in denial about the climate emergency and the need for political structures to become more creative and more inclusive. Far from being snowflakes, we would argue that millennials and generation Z are at the forefront of leading robust efforts to ensure our future is liveable.

About the author:  Martina Lastikova graduated this summer and is recently back from Zambia where she was working with the Mayukwayukwa refugee and resettlement community in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme.