Looking Back Better: the Future Forum on climate change
by Alex Talbott
While human suffering is not a win for climate justice, could new timescales for international cooperation foster the mechanism for urgent environmental action?
Our body has a virus, a fever, dry throat, desert, breathlessness
Oxygen running out as we’re flooded with dark thoughts and despair
We fear the ways tendons will clutch to the last drops of oxygen residing in our lungs
As the inferno encapsulates our homes, livelihoods, dreams
Young girls flee to gracious arms of their Mother
Only to find that she’s been swept away by the furious path of the ocean
Even now the fight for the last grain of corn is at the very tips of your fingers, within closer reach
The men in grey suits slam their hands on the table deciding the future of the world as we know it
And we watch from the side-lines, poised
The root of the problem lies within the smaller things but tendrils can tease their way towards solutions too
What if for every hair on our head we planted a million trees, delicate strands of brown drawing in carbon?
What if we stayed grounded, less planes, our feet firmly rooted to the fresh and fertile soil?
What if we use renewable energy, our ache to save the planet being blown globally in fierce gusts of wind?
What if we spoke about our future rather than the past?
As ineloquent activists, feeling everything, but being stifled by a system of suffocation
It’s time to breathe in, breathe out, let your chest expand and issue forth a roar, a bellow from below
A bellyful of rage, guttural, intense and all-consuming, stuffed with global gluttony
Gnarled, stumped hands feel the pressure peak
As we seek the end of decline
The grey-suited people sit on piles on plentiful paper but it’s a glass tower, a fragile economy
We throw our own stones, the bones of a decimated landscape
We will shatter their system!
Young voices are leading attitudinal shifts on climate change. It’s vital that their work and messages are not lost or warped in the face of another more immediate global problem. In Hull, Sarah Barfield Marks, from climate action charity ‘We are Possible’, laid out the seriousness of the threat and emphasised that the climate movement must be a mass movement or it simply won’t achieve its aims. The way we communicate about climate change is an ongoing challenge. While a sense of urgency to act has been heightened, the impact of climate change is so widespread and all-encompassing as to be impossible to get a grip on. Individual actions can feel hopeless in the face of a world still seemingly backing the status quo.
With the support of writer and poet S K Perry, the young people in our climate breakout group collaboratively wrote and performed the poem ‘Our body has a virus’. The body metaphor powerfully unites the personal and the global: we all have bodies we look after and their actions all affect our world. The opening line: ‘Our body has a virus, a fever, dry throat, desert, breathlessness/Oxygen running out as we’re flooded with dark thoughts and despair’ now seems uneasily close to the reported experiences of the virus all our actions are controlled by. But metaphor also allows for real discussion of solutions, as the poems asks: ‘What if for every hair on our head we planted a million trees, delicate strands of brown drawing in carbon?/What if we stayed grounded, less planes, our feet firmly rooted to the fresh and fertile soil?’
As if a premonition, Coronavirus has literally grounded us, but, as climate activists have sought to make clear, human suffering is not a win for climate justice. We must make progress through decisive positive action. Nonetheless, our grounding has given us the opportunity to assess air quality and recognise the dramatic difference made in a short space of time.
Further, the virus has given us a sense of the scale and the rapidity with which international action and cooperation can take place without profit as the driving factor. While now this is motivated by a health crisis, in the future could these new lines and timescales for action be harnessed for environmental progress? As the long-term economic impact begins to hit home, could public and political support for the Green New Deal grow, seen now as a solution for our times rather than a utopian vision of the left?
We will forge the ‘new normal’ as we come out of this; we need not move backwards on climate change. While ‘Our body has a virus’ reads uncomfortably in our current moment, it is seeped in the wisdom and ideas of a new generation who are seeing all that was certain come into question within a matter of weeks. As overwhelming as it is, there is opportunity in this.
This final blog in a series of four themes, community, education, technology and climate, completes the charting of young people’s thoughtful and deep explorations with some elements offering accurate, albeit unknowing premonitions of life under the Covid-19 global experience. These ideas emanating from young voices in Hull are more needed than ever to generate hope for ‘the future we want’.
Alex Talbott is Programme Manager for The Orwell Youth Prize
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