Slow Violence and the Youth Climate Movement
From the Series: Green Capitalism and Its Others
People keep asking me “what is the solution to the climate crisis.” And how do we “fix this problem.” They expect me to know the answer. That is beyond absurd as there are no “solutions” within our current systems.
—Greta Thunberg, March 19, 2019
In August 2018, fifteen-year-old student Greta Thunberg began a school strike. She sat outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm with a sign bearing the words “School Strike for Climate” in her native Swedish, distributing leaflets to curious passersby with the text, “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” She returned every day until Sweden’s general election on September 9, 2018.
Thunberg was soon joined by students from around the world, uniting under the Twitter hashtag #FridaysForFuture. Groups organized local, state, and national strikes. Through Twitter, the young activists coordinated a massive international school strike on March 15, 2019. An estimated 1.5 million students representing 125 countries participated. A year after Thunberg’s first protest, thousands of students continue to strike each Friday. In my own city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a small but mighty group of young people has occupied the steps of the City-County Building for thirteen Fridays and counting. Thunberg has rocketed to international celebrity, addressing the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, the UN Forum on Climate Change (COP24), and numerous environmental protests. She recently made her first trip to North America. As she adamantly refuses to travel by plane, she crossed the Atlantic by sailboat.
Thunberg’s activism, and the youth climate movement broadly, has been met with reactions ranging from indifference to patronizing dismissal to violent rejection. Climate change denialists accuse them of ignorance and fearmongering. Some detractors claim that Thunberg’s youth and her diagnosis of Asperger’s mean she is surely manipulated by adults.1 These generational critiques illuminate how the temporality of climate change is always “the diachronic, the disconcordant, the inchoate”: a collapse of the past, present, and future (Malm 2018, 11).
Boundaries between the local and the global become blurred and stretched by the environmental destruction caused by global capital, or what Rob Nixon (2011) calls slow violence. He attends to the ways slow violence disproportionately accumulates in the Global South, despite its origins in Global North, even as the inequalities between the two continue to widen. Additionally, slow violence manifests as “the intergenerational aftermath” of climate change (Nixon 2011, 13); the locked-in effects of the last two hundred years of emissions (to say nothing of current or future emissions) have yet to affect global temperatures (Malm 2018).
This shift in temporal scale, from the instantaneous pace of capital to the intergenerational perspective of climate change, prompts the formation of a political subject based on generation more than nationality or class. Regardless of their countries of origin, youth climate activists share a rhetoric: their futures have been stolen by predatory global corporations and ineffectual governments. They recognize the interrelations of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and climate change, maintaining a commitment not only to halting fossil fuel use, but also to climate justice.
The strikes aim to generate a sense of urgency and emergency, to demand action from those (adults) who wield the power to make change at the necessary pace and scale. As young people, even under democratic governments, the strikers are marginalized relative to political power. Their interests are not represented within existing legal or political structures. They are disenfranchised from the political process due to voting age requirements. Although in one sense the strikers represent a departure from modern politics in their subject formation, in other ways their movement solidifies existing power structures. Thunberg often urges politicians to use their vote for future generations “for their children and grandchildren” who will truly feel the fallout of climate change (FridaysForFuture).
But this appeal to power, rather than revolution, demonstrates another limitation of the temporality of climate disaster. The time for these young activists to educate themselves to make changes in business and politics does not exist. This is a paradox of the youth climate movement: “the politics needed do not exist today” (FridaysForFuture 2019) but in the time such political revolution would take too much damage will be done.
The constraints of the temporality of climate change—the time to act is rapidly decreasing even as many impacts remain far in the future—do not preclude the movement from dismantling existing political structures. The strikes interrupt their conditioning as the perpetuation of neoliberalism. By refusing to participate in school-as-usual, youth climate strikers reject their conditioning as neoliberal subjects who will grow up to continue business-as-usual. The structures of education mold students into absorbable subjects, consumable by society (Simon 1971). Within the Global North, this ideal subjectivity includes behaviors of consumption and the belief in the superiority of the way of life made possible by fossil capitalism. School strikers remove themselves from this process, refusing to assimilate to the societal roles their education designs them for. Moreover, they critique the role education plays in the climate crisis, demanding educational reform alongside political change.
This generational politics, like slow violence itself, resonates differently across the Global South and North. There is a long history of (youth) climate activists working in vulnerable nations; the development of the global youth climate movement should not erase or elide their work. But the global media’s fascination with Thunberg specifically—such as her designation as Time’s 2019 Person of the Year—encapsulates this particular challenge for the movement broadly. Despite Thunberg’s efforts to displace the narrow focus on her and draw attention to other activists, much media overlooks this political position to paint her as a solitary (European) climate hero. Just as structures of democracy represent an obstacle for (youth) climate action, so too do these media conventions stand in the way of the movement’s generational politics.
But insofar as this particular movement was sparked by Thunberg’s solitary protest from a center of the Capitalocene (Moore 2015), the youth climate strikers recognize the role of First World nations in causing climate crises, the culpability of the capitalist class, and the uneven distribution of environmental devastation. The movement strikes at capital from both the periphery and the center, critiquing the hypocrisy of existing environmental politics at the same time that it proposes new politics and ways of living.
1. Thunberg speaks often about how her diagnosis is a cause of her activism, rather than a hindrance (see Thunberg 2019).
FridaysForFuture. 2019. “Greta Thunberg’s Full Speech at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg.” Filmed [April 16, 2019]. YouTube video, 12:54. Posted April 21, 2019.
Malm, Andreas. 2018. The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. London: Verso.
Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Simon, John K. 1971. “A Conversation with Michel Foucault.” Partisan Review 38, no. 2: 192–201.
Thunberg, Greta. 2019. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. London: Penguin Random House.