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Environmental activism in 2021: a global human rights issue

Posted by Breggie Hoffman on 20 January 2021 8:40 PM SAST
Breggie Hoffman photo

Post Written by Zah'Rah Kahn

 The youth will lead. Adults must play their part.

The 2010s ‘decade of disruption’ saw youth across the planet capture our attention with their hard-hitting, authentic brand of environmental activism.

Who can forget the bold efforts of 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, who started skipping school in 2018 to strike for climate action outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, or Somali-American high schooler Irsa Hirsi, who co-founded the U.S. Climate Strike?


In a summation of the current face of climate activism, University of Maryland sociologist, Dana Fisher, claims that while discourse on climate change is nothing new among the youth, the current cohort of protestors is ‘’louder and more coordinated than its predecessors’’.

So why is environmental activism gaining more traction now, and why should every active citizen start to care in 2021?

A new focus for a new future

Back in 2019, Harriet Thew, an environmental social scientist at the University of Leeds, UK, said that Thunberg and other young climate campaigners were not ‘’conventional, tree-hugging environmentalists’’. Climate change, for them, had become a matter of generational social justice. This approach had proven more effective than a ‘’purely environmental message’’.

“More and more, they [youth climate campaigners] are talking about the problems for people and really recognising that human–environment connection,” she stated in an article appearing in the eminently readable Nature Research journal. “They are not just concerned about the polar bear.”

Thew’s words ring true today: protection of the most vulnerable people on Earth through climate activism is - and has always been - a fundamental human rights pursuit. This shift in thinking is what gives this already legitimate cause the gravitas to propel ordinary people to act.

Decolonising activism, pioneering African youth

Scientists have predicted that climate change will have the most harmful impact on food security in Africa. In light of this perturbing reality, pioneering African youth have joined their contemporaries in making positive change for the planet.

In the same Nature Research article, ladosu Adenike, a 25-year-old in Abuja, Nigeria, chillingly describes the effects of global warming in her country. “Internally displaced peoples, farmer–herdsmen clashes, insecurity — are all driven by climate change,” she says. “Also the increase in food price, floods sweeping away farmers′ land, droughts affecting the yield of crops, and excessive rainfall.”

Twenty-two-year-old Vanessa Nakate, who spends 66 hours a week selling solar batteries in her father’s shop in Kampala, Uganda, also worries about the effects of climate change on the rain-fed agriculture that supports most Ugandans.

It is easy to see how many African economies heavily dependent on agriculture are set to suffer a similar plight. With scientists clearly sounding the alarm on the imminent climate crisis in our own backyard, what are we prepared to do to engage with this issue?

Schools at the forefront

Our children spend six hours a day, five days a week, in arguably the most influential environment of their lives - school. Creating more sustainable schools is not only beneficial for the environment, but helps mold our children into responsible members of a greater global community.

According to Professor of International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco, Monisha Bajaj, edible school gardens teach young people to grow fruits and vegetables in environmentally sustainable ways. These gardens become community hubs that feed families and nourish the community’s relationship to the land. At a macro level, school gardens contribute to the climate change solution by teaching children how to innovatively mitigate climate risks.

A shining example of this in action is Baraneng Primary School in Atteridgeville, Tshwane. This PfP school has cultivated three award-winning organic fruit and vegetable gardens since 1998, which it has used to supplement its school nutrition programme, as well as creatively teach subjects like mathematics and science. Over the years, leaners have been exposed to recycling processes, and have gained a deeper understanding on topics such as nutrition and soil erosion.

It is widely acknowledged that corporate entities account for the vast majority of emissions, and it is governments that must hold them accountable. This is where advocacy comes in: learners, teachers, and parents can play an integral role in demanding accountability from lawmakers and elected officials.

In 2019, we witnessed a rallying call, led by the youth, for urgent climate reform. A tumultuous 2020 saw this activism take back seat, as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked unprecedented havoc around the globe. Perhaps 2021 is the year that the youth rediscover their voice on this issue. We, the adults, are duty-bound to support them.

About the author:

Zah’Rah Khan complements Symphonia for South Africa’s communications team as a copywriter. She has a keen interest in education, politics, law and research.

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