“I want you to panic”: An Uncertain Future in the Face of a Climate Crisis An Explorative Visual Ethnography about Young Climate Activists and Why They Take it to the Streets

Electra, 11 years old, strikes every Friday from 09:00 until 10:00 in front of the townhall of her city. She also picks up plastic from the streets with her grandfather.

“If everyone listens, then the world might remain the same, even though there might be a little bit more [global warming], but if no one listens, then most countries might actually become smaller because of the rising sea levels. … Time is moving fast. This is scary. Time is moving faster. It is scary that [the eleven years of carbon budget we have] is kind of a coincidence [with my age], but also seeing that the time period until humanity has for it to become right has now moved to one year later. That is SCARY. We have littler time now. Because we had loads of time, but now it is becoming really late, we need to do something now. Now.”

Timon (on the right) is 18 years old and in his final year of secondary school; he is active in the climate movement since November 2018.

"I think we are so well of here in the Netherlands that we would also find a solution for sea level rising for example. I think we are very good at treating symptoms in the Netherlands. The causes, yes, well that is a global problem I worry about, but I see no real Dutch problem. Maybe that's the danger, that a lot of people don't really care, because their own lives are not influenced by it."

Jeanne, 14 years old, started a local Youth for Climate organisation in April 2019 and strikes from school.

“[Among activists] we never speak about the consequences of climate change because everyone knows them, but we are too much afraid they will actually come true. We want that people worry about the consequences, are afraid of them or at least that they are aware of them. But we rather not think about those consequences ourselves. Because, I, at least, am too afraid that it has actually no point, and that it is too late, and that those horrible consequences that we take action to prevent will come true.”

Dana, 16 years old. Founded her own local Youth for Climate organisation and works together with other organisations. Two green stripes painted on their cheecks is the mark of her local Youth for Climate and thus a visual symbol.

"I was really afraid of all the climate change that is happening and I was afraid of the consequences for me personally and for the whole world. For a long time I have felt that I needed to do something about it, but then I saw that people started striking and I thought this is something I can do that can really make a difference. I'm afraid that the world will become unlivable, that we won't have enough space to grow food, that everyone has enough space to live, that people will live in poverty. Because those consequences are very real and they are impacting a lot of people right now in the poorer countries and that's going to happen here as well if it doesn't stop."

Introduction: The Green Path

I started this project out of my own curiosity, but mostly because I wanted to do something that is much needed; engaging with the social and cultural dimensions of climate change. When I saw one of Greta Thunberg’s speeches for the very first time, I felt like this teenager had just given me answers to questions I wasn’t even aware I had. I still get chills whenever I hear Thunberg speech. Her message is so clear and told so matter-of-factly it pierces through me. The more I saw and read of Thunberg and her backstory I started to wonder about emotions influencing motivations and agency. I’ve never had a depression over climate issues like she has, but I have felt anxious, panic-stricken, and powerless in the face of climate change. Thunberg started her school strike in September 2018 claiming not to stop until Sweden is in line with the Paris Agreement. In about six months she’s grown out to be a leading climate activist. She demands climate action from world leaders who promised us measures against a 2 degree warming of the planet.

I’ve been on a “green path” myself, banning animal products from my diet and trying to ban any consumption of plastic. However, it turns out my second year political anthropology teacher was right and resistance is indeed never pure. In this modern, consumerist world I couldn’t avoid all plastics, all animal products or everything that is deemed unsustainable. Psychologically my intern and extern behaviour were at war with each other. Thunberg says that she lacks the ability to live as if there is no crisis regarding our climate, due to her Asperger syndrome. Her message is that humans need to act as if we are in a crisis. She tells world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Guardian News):

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 if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.

Greta’s “straight talk” is refreshing in the stagnant political climate. As a result of my own experiences and Thunberg’s ability to start a world wide movement with this message, I am interested in why young children are striking or demonstrating for the climate. Do they have the same experiences as Greta and I? How do they feel about being part of a movement that is focussed on this crisis? How does it impact their lives? And what does it mean to grow up as a generation that is said to be the last one able to prevent a devastating 3 or 4 degrees of global warming? Climate scientists say that the world handed to this generation is to change rapidly. The IPCC reports estimate that we have between 2 and 13 years (depending on the scope of the risk) left in the carbon budget to remain below a 2 degree warming (McSweeney and Pearce 2017). And these calculations don’t even include possible tipping points like methane release from permafrost or forest diebacks (Klein 2015: 13). I figured that in order to take it to the streets at such young ages, these children have to have strong motivations; they are defying social norms. They are going off the beaten track so to say.

Striking as a Minor: Agency or Indoctrination?

I was often asked by people who were non-activist, and usually far into their adult lives, whether this striking was really the idea of the children themselves or if parents and/or teachers had ushered them into it. It is undeniable that parents, or caregivers in general, are influential on the development of children’s interests. However, this is inadequate to explain their actions. Not all the children with activist or “green” parents take it to the streets themselves. Jeanne’s parents for example are activists and she tells me that going to demonstrations with the entire family was part of her upbringing, but Jeanne is the only one of her siblings who is an “active-activist” as she calls it. She has founded a local Youth For Climate and is actively networking with other organisations and strikers.

“Many people think that I’m brainwashed, but this was just my choice. They say to my mum ‘oh let her be a child and do child things, let her go to school’ and blah, blah, bla… Yeah the internet just goes on and on about this, it’s getting annoying”, says ten-year old Electra. During my first strike with her, her mother makes the analogy with a child that misses school because he or she is training to become a top athlete. “Nobody has a problem with them missing school and they typically miss more than just one hour a week” she says with a short laugh. Electra’s school sees her activism as “her project”, just like they would with a top athlete indeed.

A Concern for Others

Evironmentalism is “a concern for the quality of life of human beings and other species” according to Milton (1996: 35). The young activists I spoke are environmentalists in this sense. They are concerned about the future. Partly about their future and their (grand)children’s, but as it turns out, they worry much more about people and species they don’t know. They fight for justice, and not only intergenerational justice as I had thought the emphasis would be upon, but for intercontinental and socio-economic justice. Even though the concept of global equity was never mentioned, it is an important aspect of their motivations. The IPCC (2014: 76) has already concluded that that is necessary to succeed in staying under a 2 degree warming.

“I think in Mozambique for example they really didn’t deserve this and it really sucks. I think it is just unimaginable, for me it has always been very abstract, but for them it is an actual tidal wave coming through the streets that washes away everything and drowns people. I think it is so unimaginable, that makes me panic the most I think, it is really bad. But I’ve never been afraid of my own life.”

According to Jeanne the process of climate change is very abstract, it’s unimaginable. Swim et al. (2009: 27) write that people nowadays do not experience climate change themselves. Nothing seems to have changed in daily life. Instead climate change is represented in the media. Jeanne describes hurricane Idai that destroyed large parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. One of the consequences of global warming is floods, because of the rising sea levels, but also more and bigger hurricanes due to changing weather patterns. So this event is consequently interpreted as a manifestation of climate change by Jeanne and others (ibid.). This unimaginable, abstract scientific process of climate change is illustrated with flooded streets and faces, with real people who are suffering from a disaster that might be caused or exacerbated by climate change, albeit mediated by a screen. And thus the abstract, unimaginable process becomes a series of tangible, disastrous events to be feared.

Growing up in a crisis

A feeling of responsibility, whether personal or collective, is generated by a concern for the earth and its inhabitants. These feelings of concern and responsibility generate action. I have not yet met anyone who felt comfortable during discussions of climate change, but most people don’t take it to the streets, let alone organise strikes themselves. So, young climate strikers are influenced by something that makes them use their agency to resist.

Robbins and Moore (2012: 8) write about anthrophobia in the academic context. They describe anthrophobia as a fear for the “negative normative influence of humans on the earth” (ibid.:4). There is a sense of urgency, tragedy, irreversibility and sometimes panic over human induced transformation of the earth. I argue here that this also holds for young climate activists who strike or demonstrate. They worry about the future in the face of an existential threat.

Electra received the green square that's pinned on her jacket from Jeanne, it's a symbol of climate resistance from the students for climate movement.

When I ask Electra about her understanding of the word “climate crisis” she tells me it is the “sixth extinction” and the “dramatic rise of the oceans” which will “definitely submerge” the Netherlands amongst other countries and turn them into an “Atlantis 2.0”. She worries that “evolution might spiral out of control. Ecosystems completely destroyed. And the circle of life is completely out of balance.” as a consequence of global warming. She has a view of earth heavenly transformed by climate change and describes this as “terrifying” and “scary”, thus fearing the results of a changed global climate system.

Jeanne paints the Youth for Climate logo on a banner that displays the collaboration between multiple grassroots organisations and the end result used during a die-in at Utrecht Centraal.

All activists I’ve spoken to share the same sense of risk, fear, panic or urgency. Thunberg has decided to use those feelings and convert them into action.

“What we need now more than anything is panic, because panic leads to action. … Because if you really realize that this is about our lives, our world, than I hope people panic”

Jeanne says. The IPCC reports are alarming about the time we have left in our carbon budget to keep warming under 1,5 or even 2 degrees, as was promised in the Paris Agreement (Eickhout 2019). This information leads to a feeling of despair (Swim et al. 2009: 83). A feeling of hopelessness in the face of a looming problem that seems “to big to fix”. The IPCC reports convey the message that we are indeed in a crisis. Despite the urgency the crisis is almost invisible when one chooses not to engage with it. The climate strikers who are educated about the current state of global warming experience anthrophobia-like worrying, although some more intense than others. The climate strikers thus aim to convey this urgency and panic to the politicians and adults in general, they urge them to take the action that is needed to curb global warming.

Visual Climate Discourse: An Uncertain Future

Striking and demonstrating is, next to the auditive chanting of slogans, a profound visual performance (Pearse, Goodman and Rosewarne 2010). Protests signs are held up in the air, banners are dropped, clothes in symbolic colours are worn, all proclaiming the nature of the strike or demonstration. This aspect gives the environmentalist movement a climate discourse that is partly a visual discourse. It consists of messages, symbols and icons written or painted upon signs that are immersed with meaning. The visual aspect of any strike or demonstration is crucial for its aim: visibility in order to attract attention or raise awareness.

Signs of activist during a march through Amsterdam and the Fridays for Future march in Utrecht, the sign on the top says "isolate climate deniers".

This visual climate discourse is prominently about the uncertainty of their future and of the next generations. The future has always been unknown, but for the young generations it also comprises a great deal of uncertainty regarding a changing natural world and its consequences for human lives. This uncertainty is one of the motivations for most to take it to the streets. It is experienced as an intergenerational injustice (Hiskens 2015). The younger need to “clean up the mess” made by previous generations, while they have benefitted from the use of fossil fuels. It is generally easier for the elder generations to close their eyes for problematic behaviours and decisions than for young people who know that having children themselves will pose a serious ethical question.

intergenerational justice

Intergenerational justice is the theme and motivation of this movement of young climate strikers. Worry, fear, anxiety, anger and frustration, are expressed in the signs and slogans the young strikers use during demonstrations and strikes. Uncertainty about the environment of the future is the injustice. Young generations are frustrated that politicians, who in Europe are predominantly middle-aged white men, are not showing more action on the climate crisis. Anuna de Wever, a famous school striker from Belgium, keeps emphasizing that climate change is not a left or right issue. It is a political issue that needs to be acted on as soon as possible, or her generation will have to suffer the consequences. “You act as if time hasn’t become a luxury product” she writes in her book (De Wever, Gantois and Olyslaegers 2019: 18), referring to “adults” who should take their responsibilities.

A sign at the march in Amsterdam that conveys the urgent message of being the generation that has to fix the problem that seems "to big to fix".

The uncertainly of a future on a planet in which the natural world will probably change so rapidly that humans cannot adapt to them fast enough leads to anxiety, as I have described above. Anxiety is described by Robbins and Moore as a suffering of absence, a “lost orientation point” (2012:11). In this case the lost orientation point is a certainty that whatever happens in the future, one should not have to question the existence of his or her own country (threatened by rising sea levels) or climate in the future. Climate change is unlike any other challenge humanity has ever faced. No generation yet has grown up with the message that in the next couple of decades entire ecosystems will change and if we don’t stop emissions now the greater the changes will be. Scientists make predictions and prognoses to estimate what will happen in every scenario imaginable, but there are so many variables that no certainty can be given (Hausfather 2018). The only thing this generation knows for sure is that the more greenhouse gasses are released by humans, the greater the impact and thus changes will be.

Sign at the global march for future in Utrecht: "If we don't do this who will?"

Anthropology and Photography: A Reflection

In this photographic ethnography I have tried to use my photography as a setting, a visual context that tells a story text cannot. My photography support the analysis and stories in the written parts of the ethnography. However, I hope that for most readers the photos on its own also tell a story. A story of the people I’ve met, the young activists that have opened up to me about their worries and fears and the world they live in. My aim was to portray the young activist, to tell their stories. To enhance this I have decided to combine the portraits with the words of the activists; I wanted to let them speak for themselves. Of course these photographs and quotes are mediated by me. I’ve made conscious and unconscious decisions on the aesthetic and technical elements of the photographs and put the activist in an “unusual communicative routine”; the interview (Briggs 1986: 2). Moreover, most of the quotes I have had to translate from Dutch.

The ethnographic text that follows is largely empirical, but I aim to add depth and a different perspective to the photos and stories. The photos were shot on my six year old DSLR camera and post-processed in Lightroom. In the field I introduced myself as an anthropology student that wrote her thesis on young climate activists and usually asked later on if I could take photos. This was never an issue and it gave me an appropriate role for participant observation. Standing back and photographing made it easy to observe, but by actively pointing my camera and shooting I also participated in the demonstration rituals (Sontag 1973: 1). Many people were photographing during these events, so I drew no attention. It also saved me from awkward moments of talking to journalists. I shared some of the photographs on my Instagram profile, but the bulk was shared personally through e-mail. People seemed generally enthusiastic that I took an interest in their motivations, emotions and perspective. I’ve felt very welcome. I’ve also been transparent with about my personal interest in the climate crisis and that this prompted me to my research questions. I have changed the names of the activists in order to guard their privacy.

Electra and me at the march in Utrecht. Her mother made the picture and it appeared on the twitter of greenpeace and the instagram of fridays for future nl. So as Pink (2013) describes, I was also photographed in the field, were visual artefacts are important. The photographs are a visual reminder of my influence in the field.

Most of the framing of the photographs have been at a wide angle, because I wanted to visualize a situation. So following Bate (2016) these would be of an “objective” style; they are more contextual. The portraits on the other hand are not, they are close up, typically with a wide aperture and playful framing, and thus of a more “subjective” style. Some of the portraits are posed, but others are not. A story needs contextual elements and detailed elements, creativity and realism so I tried to include all of this to tell a visual story aided by written empirical data and analysis.

A serie of photo's I made of Electra's encounter with a girl who has a sign with the Lorax, which she was planning on using in her speech at the same march in Utrecht. The first is contextual, wide-angle and of an "objective" style. The second is more zoomed in already, we only see Electra's hand holding her own sign. The third is a close-up of the sign itself and more of a "subjective" style, because we can also see the strap of my camera, which makes me, the photographer visually present.

the conclusion: climate justice

Greta Thunberg started a worldwide movement that inspires young children to strike or otherwise demonstrate for political action to mitigate climate change. Motivations are personal for every activist, because everyone’s background is different. However, emotions around climate change and motivations to take it to the streets overlap. All young activist I’ve spoken to are predominantly motivated by inequity between continents, socio-economic statuses and generations. Climate change is an abstract concept, but (natural) disasters that occur geographically far away are experienced by the activists through the media. These events give the consequences of global warming a real dimension, it makes the consequences imaginable. The imagining of a prospective transformed earth leads to feelings of anxiety, since the orientation point of a certain environment feels lost. Feelings of urgency, panic and sadness are expressed by the activists. The environmentalist world view of human responsibility and the activists’ agency combined with these feelings generate action. Many young activist express frustration and anger over the lack of political will and action of older generations. They experience an intergenerational injustice which leads to questions on the effectiveness of the current democratic political system in which older generations get to decide over the future of the next generations to come.

Despite all these negative emotions, all my interviewees emphasized that they stayed active because of the fun they have. This was also my experience, all the people I’ve met were friendly, welcoming and easy to talk to. Despite the serious nature of the gatherings the ambiance was always happy and full of laughter. I’ve heard multiple people talk about how activism has helped them cope with feelings of hopelessness in the face of this crisis. It is a positive thing to do; to show up and let your voice be heard. This is also the reason many of my photographs show people smiling. The reasons may be dark and gloomy, but the people certainly aren’t.

More research could for example be done on intergenerational justice in our democratic system, the use of social media in activism, sustainability and education about climate change among young people and demonstrations as a ritual site for environmentalists.


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Guardian News. 2019 ‘I want you to panic’: 16-year-old issues climate warning at Davos. January 25, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjsLm5PCdVQ

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