Missoula-area students refused to attend classes Friday in a strike to get the adult world to take the dangers of climate change more seriously.
As did millions of young people in 139 countries around the world, about 150 high school and college students rallied Friday morning at Caras Park to declare their fears for the future and their fury at previous generations’ lack of action to combat the causes of climate change.
Inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who a year ago began striking every Friday in front of the Swedish Parliament, 15 representatives of Missoula’s high schools and the University of Montana stepped to the microphone, one by one, and begged the 300 or so adults in the audience to lead or get out of the way.
University of Montana student Joan Sadich said she was angry that adults caused the bulk of the climate change crisis, but she had to pay the price because she was reluctant to bring a child into a dying world.
“I don’t even know most politicians personally, and I hate them. I hate them for not taking action, for not watching out for us, for not seeming to care about the climate crisis,” Sadich said. “I don’t want anyone to suffer the consequences of inaction. People who were supposed to do their job but apparently can’t do shit – it is up to us to push them toward action.”
Among those adults guilty of inaction, schoolteachers and administrators took the brunt of the students’ anger. Many of the speakers recalled learning little if anything about climate change in their high school classes and said that did little to prepare them for the future they now face.
UM student Nick Shepard said his teachers treated climate change as an abstract concept so he remained ambivalent. Then a few years ago, he watched disastrous hurricanes hit the coast and catastrophic wildfires rage through the West, and he realized where the world was headed. That made him disappointed in teachers as much as politicians.
“The scientists were screaming when, when will you understand that this is only going to get worse, that ‘normal years’ are going to become few and far between and society as we know it will come to an end?” Shepard said. “Their words seemed to fall on deaf ears. And I was scared.”
The students who came together in June to organize Friday’s strike wrote a letter to Missoula Public Schools superintendent Rob Watson and educators, which Maeve Lange read to the audience. The letter informed the superintendent that students would strike one Friday a month until they saw change in the curriculum.
“When students strike against schools, they further threaten the legitimacy of an already rapidly crumbling society and the education system that reproduces it,” Lange read. “Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that our future is hurtling toward catastrophe, our education seems more interested in preparing us to compete in the labor market that will soon be stranded, like all assets, by climate change. It is absurd that we students are supposed to sit, listen and put our trust into what is being taught, while the world around us unravels.”
Thunberg was alive in Missoula even though she was leading a similar rally in Washington, D.C. Several students quoted Thunberg in their speeches – her phrase “Our house is on fire” was repeated often – while two read Thunberg’s addresses to European leaders.
Addressing the World Economic Forum in January, Thunberg rejected the platitudes of adults, saying: “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis.”
Although most of the speakers voiced fear and anger at the crisis happening around them, a few did mention hope, although it was tinged with skepticism.
Olivia Lisovich of Hellgate High School told the adults not to give up hope because young people don’t yet have the power to enact change.
“There should not have to be student activists. We should not have to be missing school right now to get adults to do their jobs,” Lisovich said. “It should not be left to young people to save the world. But right now, it has been. This is going to take everyone trying their hardest.”
Many criticized greedy corporations, especially those in the fossil fuel industry, capitalism and the associated belief that economic growth can continue indefinitely. They said people have to give up on such falsehoods. With less than a decade remaining to drastically reduce carbon emissions – some have said only a year remains – the status quo has to change.
It wasn’t all angry speeches. A few students composed poems, although they were just as dark.
UM student Valen Ethos focused on global destruction, but finished with hope in his poem called “Ecostentialism.”
“Together, there is power. Together, there is possibility. Together, there is always a better future to fight for,” Ethos read. “Forget this divided individualistic drivel telling us to take shorter showers and recycle our plastic. They tell us because they’re scared of true community, of true solidarity, of coming together in way that has never before graced western society. So let’s show ‘em.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.