When 17-year-old Blue Sandford picked up the phone to me one recent week, her voice was soft and clear at the other end of the line. It certainly wasn’t the voice one would expect of a “crusty left-wing anarchist”, as Boris Johnson has described members of the international environmental group Extinction Rebellion (XR). Nor from hardened “eco-crusaders turned criminals”, as the same group has been labelled by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Instead Sandford’s hesitant simply sounded like those of a thoughtful, bookish teen: slightly shy, slightly world-weary, yet unashamedly earnest.
“I think for me it’s really about not being told the truth: by the government, by the media, by schools,” Blue (short for Bluebell) said of the decision to name her new book Challenge Everything: an Extinction Rebellion youth guide to saving the planet. “There needs to be understanding and working things out for yourself.”
This youthful prerogative to question the world comes with its own kind of momentum – and is one that has leant itself powerfully to the climate fight.
On Friday 25 September, young people resumed school strikes for climate in at least 3,500 locations around the world (while taking care to socially distance in view of Covid-19). Their call for rapid emissions reductions followed the wave of youth protest that began with Greta Thunberg’s demonstration outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018, and has since gone global through the “Fridays for the Future” movement.
Others, such as Sandford, who was arrested in October for blocking a London road during one of XR’s creatively-disruptive street protests, have pushed that prerogative even further. As the fresh-faced teen notes in her book about the role of youth activism: “We’re actually a lot more of a threat in terms of making an impact [than older people] because we carry a lot more emotional power”.
Yet challenging everything also comes at a price. In traditional bildungsroman stories, young heroes go on quests for knowledge about the world, standing up to misguided assumptions and trailblazing new hope along the way. But they also usually do so with certain, external securities intact. Now, in a world quite literally “on fire” owing to 2020’s record-breaking wildfire seasons, many of those foundations have been pulled away.
“It’s hard to describe. I feel just really hopeless and really scared,” Blue said of her fear that society might break down entirely in the face of increasing climate instability. “I have gone through a really intense kind of climate-grief and depression” she explained. “All my school friends are picking unis and deciding what they want to do – and I don’t know – I sort of feel like there’s no point.”
Nor has school been a place Sandford has felt able to turn to for structure and support. She recently dropped out of the independent King Alfred School in London, where she was unhappy and felt she wasn’t “taught the truth about climate change”, in order to focus on activism and writing Challenge Everything. “They tell you this is what global warming is, and this is how it happens – but there’s nothing further than that,” she said of the curriculum; “there’s no this is what we need to do to stop it”.
Distancing from mainstream education, due to a sense of pressing ecological emergency, is a question that hovers around the wider youth climate movement’s edges.
It doesn’t involve giving up on education entirely: Thunberg has now ended her “gap year” and returned to school in Sweden. As for Sandford, she plans to do her A-levels from her homes in London and the Isle of Gometra in the Hebrides, and then perhaps progress to an art-foundation course and university. And in United We Are Unstoppable, a collection of essays edited by journalist Akshat Rathi, 16-year-old Aditya Mukarji from India writes movingly of how her “main job is being a student just in case the planet survives and I need a career”.
Yet there is also a sense of regret that such interruptions and concerns about education are necessary at all. While supportive of Sandford’s decisions, her parents are “heartbroken”. Her father, a sheep-farmer on the off-grid Hebridean farm on which she grew up, has a saying she told me; that facist and communist regimes “can take everything away from you, but they can’t take your education”. It is a value on learning that Sandford appreciates and shares – and yet it doesn’t override her belief that raising climate awareness must be her priority for now. “I’m in this situation where I can’t trust other people to act for me,” she explained.
This lack of trust between one generation and the next raises questions around the health of the political ecosystem too. As my colleague Lola Seaton noted in a recent article on XR, pitching a movement as “beyond politics” can risk alienating potential sympathisers. And while the illustrations of skulls used to illustrate Sandford’s book work well in the context of youthful protest-art, there is also something unsettling about their wider nihilist undertones.
Sandford notes in her book that XR believes real change can be affected if just 3.5 per cent of people actively participate in its cause. When I asked if pursuing this strategy risked alienating the majority, she replied that the world is “running out time” to take action on the issue (UN scientists say the world has until just 2050 to achieve net-zero emissions and a relatively safe temperature rise). “If we only need 3.5 per cent, then I don’t think it’s worth convincing others if that will take longer.”
She is not a fan of party politics as such: of “the people saying things they know you want to hear”. At present she feels profoundly dispirited that none of the parties are “doing enough” on climate.
But Sandford is also trying to learn more about each, so that when she is soon old enough to vote, she’ll be able to make an informed choice. And nor does she believe that Extinction Rebellion, for all she acknowledges it has brought her in terms of awareness and community, has all the answers either.
Even inside the UK organisation, which operates as an autonomous and decentralised body, there exists a challenge around finding consensus, Sandford notes. She points out that a poll showed that many within the movement disagreed with the small group who disrupted the London Underground in October 2019.
“I think XR’s model works really, really well on a small scale, like when XR was first starting up. And now it’s much bigger and there’s so many different people going in different directions, it’s really difficult,” she remarked. “There’s always people trying to get power in the movement and there aren’t always ways to check that.”
What runs through Sandford’s last observation is an awareness of two conflicting narratives circulating within the climate movement: the need for global-scale collective action, but also an emphasis on cultivating self-sufficiency in case such collective action fails and the worst unfolds.
That self-reliance can include everything from learning to grow your own food, to mending clothing, to being arrested for non-violent civil resistance – all of which Sandford outlines in her book. Yet it also involves a radical hope that others will take action too, especially on a global political level, so that the need for such self-sufficiency can be reduced. In other words, it involves a constant oscillation between radical hope and radical fear.
Trying to balance that oscillation can be exhausting. Sandford hopes that the “system” on which successful climate action depends – including things like school, democracy and law – can be drastically improved. But the fear that they might not, and that societal breakdown could accompany climate collapse, means narratives of extreme self-sufficiency still have their place in her thinking: it “would be awful,” she says of such a scenario, “but at least we won’t be extinct”.