Students forfeited chance to demand political action by skipping climate strike

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“I’m underwhelmed by the turnout, but I’m not surprised considering what this institution has turned into … ”

On Friday, I overheard an older man say these words to a woman about the crowd at the climate strike, which felt small compared to the gravity of the climate crisis. I nodded in agreement that there were not enough students out there. I was underwhelmed too.

When I arrived at the strike, I expected Sproul Plaza to be overflowing to the point where we could not even move around. After all, I thought everyone realized that the climate crisis is happening on an unfathomable scale and that our generation and the upcoming generations must face it head-on.

In my mind — and the minds of many of my classmates and professors — participation in the strike was not optional. Many of the environmental science, policy and management department’s classes had even been canceled, encouraging or requiring students to attend the strike instead. My Earth and Planetary Sciences 80 professor advertised the strike strongly during the week leading up to the event and discussed at length why our participation was important. I assume many other courses did the same as well, and yet, there simply were not enough people for my — or the older man’s — liking.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, banking on UC Berkeley’s rich history of political engagement to carry into climate action. This powerful, activist history was one of the things that piqued my interest when choosing UC Berkeley in the first place, which made me excited for this first protest in college. I assumed that other students would share this enthusiasm, but Friday’s turnout showed me that many did not. The most common reason I heard was “I couldn’t, I had class,” which I understand. We are here at UC Berkeley first and foremost as students, and with many of us juggling multiple responsibilities, it can be hard to take the time out of class without risking falling extremely behind. Yet, I also know many students who had the capacity to attend, but did not, not even for 30 minutes. What will the fate of our planet be if even the most politically engaged universities tend toward apathy at the impending climate crisis?

“I’m here today because I don’t want every day to be super hot, I don’t like the heat really … ”

I overheard an eight-year-old boy say these words as he was attending the UC Berkeley climate strike with his brother, cousin and mom. I nodded in agreement. I noticed his cute poster that said “Pro-World” with a chalk drawing of the Earth, and we started talking to each other about what we thought about climate change. It amazed me how aware these children were at such a young age, having grown up in a world increasingly aware of climate change. At age eight, I knew using too much water or electricity was bad, but concepts like global warming and climate change were still beyond me.

Talking to him made me feel both optimistic and dejected. It was easy to be hopeful seeing a group of children from elementary/middle schools taking the climate crisis issue so seriously that they were mobilizing at such a young age. Yet I despaired, looking again at the small turnout from my fellow students. If even 10-year-olds could show up to strike, why couldn’t we?

I kept hearing statements like “Why are we striking anyway? California is already progressive,” and “Isn’t it more effective to write to our representatives instead of just standing outside or marching?” These voices overlooked the desperate need for political activism, especially on climate.

Even amongst those that did attend, there was a feeling of underlying apathy. It seems they came to the climate strike just to give themselves a pat on the back, not for the motive of propelling change. I wish greatly that, as a student body, we will continue to do our part and participate in environmental movements. The ESPM classes wanted students to go to the climate strike, perhaps with the hope that it would light a spark within the students that were previously unenthusiastic. Unfortunately, I do not think that happened. People left as they came: unroused and unmoved, drearily going through their daily motions.

Many of these attendees asked the same questions as nonattendees, which is worrying. In an environment that encourages “slacktivism” — the practice of supporting sociopolitical causes only through low-commitment means such as social media — with activism, we have become a collective that will only talk, instead of getting things done. Essentially, the youth that are supposed to be driving change have become akin to Congress: the government institution that we often criticize for not accomplishing anything.

The point of the climate strike is to show just how large the numbers are, to show our leaders how much the masses care about having a healthy planet. Somehow, too many UC Berkeley students seemed to have missed the point, or they just do not care.

Anu Thirunarayanan is a freshman and a member of the Students of Color Environmental Collective.