A few months ago I wondered if there is a right age to be a graduate student. However, as my fellow blogger Sophie reminds us here and here, each of us is more than a student, and there are other things in our lives beside being a student here and now: Family, friends, sports, art, views… and what about the idea of saving the world?
Well, maybe that’s too much. Or, I should say, that is not an expression I completely approve, because when we talk about saving the world most of the times what we actually mean is preventing ourselves from making things further worse, for example by not further increasing pollution, not further widening the gap between the rich and the poor, or not adding another war to human history. Things that we should do anyway to be good citizens of the world, but that we like associating with the heroic expression saving the world, because apparently we are more likely to do what we believe is right, if doing it makes us feel a bit of a hero. So, in most cases, the expression saving the world is an overstatement… but hey, if it motivates us, let’s go for it! Let’s use this expression, let’s think about saving the world!
For me, saving the world is one of those concepts that come up every now and then, when I hear the story of someone who is actually doing it, or who has done it in the past. This happened again a few weeks ago, when my social media networks started talking about Greta Thunberg.
Greta is a 15-year-old Swedish student who started a solo school strike to call attention to climate change and point out the negligence with which it has been dealt with until now (source). At first she was alone in her strike, but she inspired many other students to join her all over the world (source): An admirable achievement for anybody, exceptional for a 15-year-old who started her action alone. “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago”, she says (reported here). Words that really challenge the idea that maturity and responsibility would be associated with age.
But what really shakes me is another of Greta’s statements (reported here): “You don’t have to school strike, it’s your own choice. But why should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more? This is more important than school, I think.” This statement makes me feel so uncomfortable. Ashamed, even. I care about climate change. I am worried about climate change. I even moved to Canada to join a research project that is very much related to climate change. But in the end, all I have done is pragmatically (adultly?) redirecting my broad academic interest for our society’s problems towards the study of the environmental-social problems, worried by their seriousness and complexity. I never considered sacrificing my education compelled by the urgency of these problems. Definitely not at 15. And this is where Greta’s actions and words reasonate with me at levels of my brain that were drowsed: The problem is so urgent for the new generations that they are willing to sacrifice part of their education to call for action. And I am quite sure they are not skipping classes out of laziness, or not fully understanding what they are missing. They value their classes, but they value safety more. Including the safety that we will have in the future, the one that Economics teaches us to discount, i.e. to value less than the present one, because human beings are impatient so they prefer a dollar today over a dollar tomorrow, because in the future we’ll be richer (really?) so we’ll care less about it than we do now, and blah blah blah. There are things that just can’t be discounted. And the new generations remind us that.
Just like the new generations, with their incorrupt view of things and their fresh training on what is good and what is bad, have reminded us many other times that certain things the adults are excusing, or not counteracting hard enough, are wrong. Like Iqbal Masih, who knew abusive child labour was wrong and bravely denounced it. Like Samantha Smith, who innocently but powerfully reminded that war is bad. Like Claudette Colvin, who knew racial segregation was wrong and did the same thing as Rosa Parks, but 9 months earlier, at the age of 15. Like Malala Yousafzai, who knew that banning girls from school was wrong and didn’t accept it. Like Jazz Jennings, who knows that being transgender doesn’t mean being evil or dangerous in any way, and cares about making that very clear. And, coming back to climate change, Greta Thunberg is not the only kid pointing out that many current environmental choices are wrong: 21 young Americans between 11 and 22 years old filed the Juliana v. United States lawsuit arguing that certain environmental choices constitute a violation of the youth’s rights, while young Quebecers under 35 launched a similar lawsuit against the Canadian government, following the footsteps of 43 young Filipinos who in the 1990s opposed deforestation through a class-action suit.
The list of young people who are saving the world in a way or another is much longer than this. And I bet there are many young people who started equally admirable actions but didn’t make headlines, or even failed, because the world around them was not ready, or too unfair, to actually listen to them. And this is probably the main reason why saving the world when you are young, sometimes even underage, can be even more difficult than when you are an adult: You depend a lot on the adults around you, hence your chances of being taken seriously are probably lower than an adult’s. But in the same time, your young innocence and righteousness are probably more likely to shake those who hear you, and your energy and enthusiasm are at their peak. If you wait until you are an adult, there is a chance you will be too caught up in the system, or too afraid to lose what you have achieved in the meanwhile, to dare. But there’s also a chance you will still have the same spirit, and the ability to save the world in potentially more powerful ways, with the tools you have acquired along your way. Or maybe you feel the need to save the world for the first time when you are an adult, without having felt it when you were younger. After all, the problems around us are evolving as well, and we have different sensitivities to different problems.
I don’t expect anyone to feel compelled to save the world. There is no rule we all have to be heros, or to do something right that makes us feel like one. But if you are worried by some big problem and feel you want to save the world from it, I wish you to find your way, at any age, with any tools you have, in any context you live in. Oh, and I wish you a happy 2019. Let’s hope this year we will manage to prevent ourselves from making things further worse. Let’s do it.