“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader” – Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin
Populism – a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups–is in the air. We see it threaded through today’s U.S. presidential campaigns, across Britain and other countries in the European Union, in Latin America, and elsewhere. Often in the implementation it’s a rhetorical tool cynically wielded by elitist leaders who drape themselves in its mantle as a means to snatching power.
But sometimes populism appears in a purer form, as an (almost) spontaneous outpouring of concern. Something like that was demonstrated in yesterday’s Global Climate Strike. Millions of children in over one hundred countries worldwide ditched school and hit the streets to demonstrate their concern about climate change and to press the adult generation to act. What an extraordinary event! Eight takeaways:
1. The power of K-12 STEM education and critical thinking. The climate-change issue is complex, scientifically and socially challenging, and features shades of grey as opposed to black-and-white. The young people we all saw yesterday had to learn what they obviously know and articulated so well from somewhere. All you teachers out there? Give yourselves a pat on the back. Your years of effort and dedication are paying off.
2. The clout of IT and social media. This critical infrastructure for so much of today’s living has emergent flaws that we debate daily (threats to privacy, contributions to the attention-deficit, trolling, fake news, and more). But yesterday it proved its mettle. Imagine pulling together the Global Climate Strike without IT and social networks. (The same could be said of recent protests in Hong Kong.)
3. The butterfly effect and the power of the individual. One year ago, Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, began striking every Friday demanding climate action, virtually alone. Yesterday showed the first fruits (more is likely to come from this remarkable person in years ahead) of her commitment and perseverance (as memorably captured in these juxtaposed images).
4. The nature of leadership and vision. As the Ledru-Rollins quote above reminds us, leadership is not about getting society to do a 1800 turn; instead, it starts with listening to people as they share their powerful but pre-existing concerns, finding the main notes and commonalities, giving those voice, and offering a framework for action. To the extent that leadership is about dreaming a dream and sharing it, then it is about dreaming a great dream, not an inconsequential one. By coincidence, yesterday’s news also drove home that point. An effort to mobilize yesterday’s “storming” of the secretive U.S. Area 51 (said to hold specimens and other proof of aliens) brought fewer than 200 people to the facility’s gates.
5. Parents and others of the older generation should beat themselves up. As younger people have forcefully reminded us, the Global Climate Strike was necessitated by our years of inaction in the face of this clear and present danger. Shame on us!
6. Parents and others of the older generation should congratulate themselves. Beat ourselves up? Not so fast! Why did the young people notice the problem? They heard the older generation talking about it.
Who encouraged the young people to participate? Who helped them with the signage? Who ferried some of these young people to and from the marches and demonstrations? And whose dinner conversation over the years reinforced the concerns the kids were bringing home from school? Whose efforts to recycle, buy high-mileage vehicles, and encourage vegan lifestyles showed young people by example how to walk the walk? Parents, join the teachers in giving yourselves a pat on the back.
7. Follow-through. It’s often said that climate change is a daunting problem because it is slow-onset. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s rapid onset compared with the time for eight billion people to reach agreement on what to do about it. Yesterday’s Global Climate Strike was a milestone in the world’s dialog. But it’s incumbent on all of us, young and old and everywhere in between to follow-through. One place to start is at the polls, to prove what politicians (a supremely intelligent lot) are already beginning to suspect:
8. Political leaders fail to get on board and in front of this issue at their peril. Enough said.
Some attribute this quote to Mahatma Gandhi, but it seems to date back to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin. For years, Jack Townsend, a deputy administrator of NOAA under Robert White, had this quote displayed in his office.