As the annual observation of Earth Day approaches, it seems things are heating up. Literally. The oceans and the atmosphere, as well as the debates and the rhetoric, are hotter than ever. In the face of impending crisis and even doom, however, our elected leaders are doing little to address, let alone combat, the causes of our perilous path. Which leads one to ask: If our children are the future, why are we not more concerned about their future?
Our children are evidently asking the same question, because our children are the ones agitating for their governments to make changes. Much like the young student survivors of the Parkland mass shooting who are advocating for sensible changes to our gun laws, children around the world are fighting right now for the planet they would like to be able to inhabit after we older folks are gone.
Young people are not waiting for Earth Day to confront climate change. Around the world, every Friday is now Earth Day. This ongoing movement, dubbed #FridaysforFuture, was started by a 15-year-old student in Sweden named Greta Thunberg. Each Friday, high school and even grade school students cut classes to protest, march and rally against their governments’ inaction and lack of commitment in the face of climate change. The #FridaysforFuture website tracked 879 separate rallies in 69 different countries on a recent Friday, according to a Los Angeles Times article. The adults of tomorrow are taking their future into their own hands, because the adults presently on duty — us — have let them down. We have hastened the destruction of the earth in shortsighted ways that we may not be able to reverse. As a result, our children have lost their patience with us. They intend to fight for their endangered planet, on social media and in the streets. Even if their elders are upset with them for skipping school in order to demonstrate.
“We cannot solve the crisis without treating it as a crisis,” Greta Thunberg said.
As someone who remembers being a brand-new teenager on the first Earth Day in 1970, I feel regret for our grown-up failures. I believe that we adults are guilty of global gross negligence. We have surely lost our way from those early days of environmentalism, even though the alarming statistics and projections about climate change have become ever more available to us. We grew complacent, thinking only of our own tiny circles of concern. We micro-parented, ignoring the big planetary picture. We shunned uncomfortable solutions, opting for convenience over greener recommendations. We questioned established science as somehow debatable when we didn’t like the conclusions. We vilified the voices of disquieting environmentalists as radical and hysterical. Worst of all, we ignored the common good.
Concerned young people have an ally in Pope Francis. In his encyclical "On Care for our Common Home,” the pope urges everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike, to reject the narrow narcissism that is harming God’s creation, because caring for the environment is an integral part of caring for each other. In the pope’s view, our spiritual obligations mirror our civic duties. Every earthling is responsible for promoting global healing and justice. And lest we think that the issue of climate change is too huge and too abstract for our actions to register, the pope assures us that even the smallest changes we make on behalf of a cleaner and healthier environment matter. “We must not think,” says Pope Francis, “that these efforts are not going to change the world.”
Young people get this. We should, too. “When you’re in a crisis, you change your behavior,” Greta Thunberg said.
To quote the prophet Isaiah: “And a little child shall lead them,” and all that. (Isaiah 11:6) Throughout history and in our own communities, children have often had to grow up before their chronological age thanks to the missteps of their elders. When we adults mess up the world with war and persecution and unjust policies — when we precipitate crises rather than defuse them — children pay the price. Yet they sometimes find ways to compensate for the ignorance and indifference, the ineptitude and corruption of the adults supposedly in charge. Sometimes we need to get out of the way and take a lesson from them, rather than vice versa. If we don’t, shame on us.
Earth Day is now a call for the environment’s survival rather than a token gesture of green living. We older folks may never be woke, as the young people say, but we do need to awaken our souls to the immediate challenges of mending our ways and preserving a habitat for the children we say we love.