Earlier today, students all over the world walked out of school to participate in Climate Strike. Led by 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the strike is meant to raise awareness about climate change. While their intentions may be noble, there are some serious problems with this form of activism and with doomsday prophesying in general.
Let's start with the most obvious problem: Walking out of school. This literally accomplishes nothing. Neither the planet nor the students benefited from today's strike.
While a symbolic gesture like a student strike can certainly play a positive role in any activist movement, we are well beyond the point of symbolism changing any minds in the climate debate. If we really are facing an existential crisis as many people believe, then it is far more productive to learn and to act smartly, not mindlessly march down the street. As Todd Myers of the free-market think-tank the Washington Policy Center said, "The Climate Strike should be an opportunity for students and adults to learn about ways to cut CO2 emissions immediately, rather than waiting for politicians."
Indeed, there are ways to do just that. You can support nuclear and hydroelectric power. You can take mass transit instead of driving a car. You can plant trees. (A study in Science said that planting one trillion trees would help fight climate change. To put that number into perspective, it is thought that there are just over three trillion trees on Earth.)
So instead of walking out of class, wouldn't it have been better if students stayed in school, learned about climate change and the latest technologies to address it, and then took a field trip to the local park to plant trees? That would have been a productive day.
Helplessness: The Biggest Problem with Doomsday Prophesying
Accomplishing nothing is actually the least of the problems with Climate Strike and other types of doomsday prophesying. Rather than being empowering, such behavior engenders a sense of helplessness. That is crystal clear when Ms. Thunberg says, "Why should we study for a future that is being taken away from us?"
In other words, why prepare for the future if there is no future? That is neither motivational nor inspiring; it is defeatist. Such an attitude may explain why Extinction Rebellion, another activist group, sought to raise climate awareness by breaking windows and committing other acts of vandalism. Cathartic though it may be, it is highly doubtful that these messages resonate beyond the environmental activist community.
The other big problem with doomsday prophesying is that it is divisive. On one side are the true believers; on the other, mockers and scoffers. There is likely a large majority in the middle who would like to address climate change in a sensible way, but a Climate Strike only serves to alienate them.
As it turns out, changing the world is hard work. Marching and protesting is easy, but learning about science and taking meaningful action -- like planting a trillion trees -- requires substantial intellectual and physical effort. No wonder so few are willing to do it.