I am in support of the student strike for climate action, coming up next Friday, and here’s why: I’m reminded of my own days of student strikes, nearly 50 years ago, in a big powerful country across the Pacific. I was a freshman in engineering, newly settled in student dorms, loyally following in my father’s footsteps. And the madness of Vietnam War was raging on. My older brother had been drafted and was in the thick of it – walking point in the jungle and hoping not to kill anyone and make it out in one piece. My draft lottery number was 40; I would be an early pick by the draft board when my student deferment ran out. The university was on strike. There were student protests nearly every day and police curfews at night. A bank was burned to the ground. A student was killed by a police bullet. Hundreds of students were arrested. Then, as now, the grownups asked, “Do these silly kids think they can really change anything?” “They should stay in class and learn something about the world before they protest!”
And we were right. We now know fully well that war was a cruel, cynical and worthless waste of blood and treasure. We students didn’t know all the history or whether to believe the “domino theory” of communist aggression in Southeast Asia. We didn’t know that our political leaders were lying to us about the progress of the war and the magnitude of civilian casualties. We just knew something was inherently wrong with invading another country and killing its people to win their “hearts and minds” and keep them from joining a rival political alliance. There was something in our nation’s founding documents, things we learned in grammar school, that said this wasn’t right.
The arguments with my father were epic. He had too much invested in keeping the status quo – the job in the defense industry, the mortgage, the family, the retirement – to want to rock the boat. It was easier and simpler to believe the president and carry on. His conscience was clouded by the daily responsibilities of life. We had none of these entanglements. We had ideals and energy, and our consciences were free to honour those ideals. We thought a lot about the future and how it could be better.
I would like to think that our protests helped end the Vietnam War. In any event, it was the right thing to do. What would our political system be like if a few courageous colonists hadn’t stood up to mad King George and devised a new system of governance that didn’t need kings? What would our labour laws look like without the sacrifices of striking workers of two centuries ago, trampled under the hooves of mounted police? Sometimes, when change is needed, we need to protest. It isn’t always easy and without sacrifice. Many have paid with nightstick lumps on the head, with days in court and nights in jail… and some with their very lives. With the benefit of history, we now call these people heroes. Their sacrifice is the dues that we periodically need to pay to live in a free and just society.
So, as the world charges headlong into future of climate instability, I can understand those who react like my father: “Give stability and prosperity to me and my family and don’t rock the boat!” For young people, like I was so many years ago, it is different. They are all potential with little to lose, brimming with passion, ideals, and newly acquired knowledge about our world. I said, “Give me a future without war!” Today, they simply say, “Give me a future!”