From a solitary striking teenager sitting outside the Swedish parliament last year the student ‘strike for climate’ movement has mushroomed beyond imagination. On March 15 student strikes took place at more than 1000 locations in more than 100 countries around the world. Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old who started it all, has just been nominated for a Nobel Peace prize and the movement in a very short space of time must have succeeded her wildest dreams. A combination of the dire future threat, the relative powerlessness of a generally well-informed youth and their mastery in the social media has fuelled this amazing phenomenon. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” said Greta, “I want you to panic.”
A similar, but localised situation, occurred in my youth. In 1964 conscription was introduced in Australia for 20 year old males, chosen by lottery, to help fight the Vietnam War. It radicalised a generation of youth and fortunately I was balloted out in the second draw. But because of this from an apolitical position I became firmly opposed to the war and conscription only to be temporarily disheartened by the failure of the opposition during the 1966 scare campaign election. An election in which I was too young to vote as were those conscripted who came after me.
The gains of the anti-conscription movement at first came slowly. With the protests of conscript mothers (Save our Sons) and a number of conscientious objectors being jailed – in particular Pasco Vale postman John Zarb – the movement snowballed. The “Free John Zarb” graffiti remained along various Melbourne train lines for many years. This initiative was later taken over by the Draft Resisters Union and the media grabbing antics of Michael Hammel-Green and others. Two hundred and two conscripts later paid with their lives in the war – approximately 40% of all Australian fatalities.
The momentous “climate emergency” is before us. It is affecting us now but the future for youth, if nothing is done is grim indeed. It is not known how many Gippsland students participated in the Melbourne strike but following an earlier strike in November last year news of the strike for climate has proliferated through the social media. A group of students from the Baw Baw shire attended the Melbourne event asking fellow students and supporters “Let’s show the pollies in the big smoke what Gippslanders are made of! Meet us on the train to the Melbourne event!”
Whilst there will be many ups and downs a new generation of activists is with us. From the first draft to the end of conscription and our involvement in Vietnam took seven years. With the assistance energy and urgency of the ‘climate strikers’ the path to climate emergency action will be achieved more rapidly. It is time for us all to ‘panic’ and then to act.