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Children are increasingly being drawn into the climate change debate, with internationally-coordinated school walkouts and protests this year capturing headlines in Australia.
What should we make of these protests, and the increasing engagement of children and young people with a cause that incites fear and anger in many?
Skipping a generation
It's natural for people who believe in and feel strongly about climate change as a global existential crisis to impart their fervour to their children.
At the same time it's also a tried and true strategy of activists and ideologues to target children and young people, because their worldviews are not yet fully formed, they tend to have fewer vested interests in the status quo, and their youthful enthusiasm can be powerful and inspiring (or even threatening) to the public at large.
But before we rush to criticise progressives for indoctrinating kids, bear in mind that the formation of children is also a priority of religious faiths, and marketing to children is a major strategy of business, not only as a way of getting parents to shell out money on their kids' behalf, but as a way of building lifelong brand awareness and loyalty.
Even if we think our children are free from indoctrination, this is never the case. Indoctrination doesn’t mean “brainwashing”; it used to just mean “teaching”. Call it inculturation, socialisation, or just becoming a functioning member of society on “the same page” as everyone else – this is how we end up with shared values as a society.
Children do not grow in a vacuum. Implicit and explicit cultural, economic, religious and political messages are the very stuff of life no matter what your age. Like learning our first language, we learn by participation in it, and we typically learn it so well we don't even think of it as just one language among many unless or until we are exposed to alternatives.
Most of us can't hear our own accent. We talk “normal”, it's everyone else whose English sounds weird.
The current culture and all its sub-cultures and subsidiaries are no different. Like it or not, we are all children of the present era and whether we rail against climate activism or climate skepticism, we are ourselves just another part of this cultural phenomenon.
Discerning as a society
With the assumption that children are being indoctrinated always and everywhere, on what basis can we distinguish between benign and harmful influences?
It's up to responsible adults to help guide and nurture our children in directions that bring greater value and happiness. That is, after all, the intent behind religious teaching or formal indoctrination of children.
What's the difference between a parent teaching their children about God so they can enjoy the benefit of that faith and worldview, and a parent who teaches their children radical individualism or liberal humanism with a similar motivation?
The difference is in the content of what is taught (obviously), but ultimately happiness must be the standard by which these contents are judged. Most people don't convert to a religion because it makes them feel worse about themselves and others.
When it comes to the climate change indoctrination of children, it's hard to fault the ideals that often go along with it. Children and adults who care about the environment, care about human life, and care about future generations are laudable.
But not so much the negative messaging that often accompanies climate change activism.
You might have already read here on MercatorNet about the 16 year old figurehead of the Fridays For Future protest movement, Greta Thunberg, who said in a recent speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos:
“I don't want your hope, I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
And that's one of the nicer parts of the speech. The whole is framed in terms of catastrophe, convenient “lies”, and “disaster of unspoken sufferings”. It is an explicitly “black and white” perspective where we as a civilisation are failing because of our own greed, cowardice and complacency.
This catastrophisation is not just confined to climate change per se. Religious believers from the very same denominations can offer loving and life-affirming, or scrupulous and fearful accounts of one and the same doctrine. Businesses can add value to people's lives, or con them into buying egregious junk.
When it comes to children we should err on the side of happiness and hope and trust, because they are self-evidently what we all desire. Besides, nobody functions well mired in anxiety, fear, panic and despair. The activist notion that we need to “get angry” is a self-defeating message, and runs counter to the best examples of social change in our history.
I've learned these lessons through my own experience, coming off an intense focus on all the evils in the world that began when I was little older than Greta. No one purposefully indoctrinated me, but I was receptive to messages of disillusionment and pessimism with regard to the economy, the global political order, and the mercantile corruption of all humanity.
It's quite likely that my kids will be exposed to a number of current political and social fads and doctrines I don't abide by. I won't try to convince them they are all false; it's more important to convince them to be happy regardless.
After all, seeing children and young people caring and idealistic about the fate of the whole world is not a bad thing. It doesn't help to scoff or bemoan their enthusiasm and conviction. We were the same once, and we didn't take kindly to having our elders roll their eyes or express concern that we had fallen under the sway of ideologues.
What wins people over
Assuming climate change is being accurately predicted and described, I still won't worry because my own experience has shown me that worry and fear are entirely counter-productive.
Perhaps it's my own faith that allows me to let go of these anxieties and trust that everything will work out? But everything is and has been working out for millennia. Not always in the way we would like, but life continues nonetheless.
I've been in a place similar to young climate change activists: when it seems like the solution is obvious and the consequences of inaction are dire, and the complacency of the whole world sparks a kind of existential horror and dread.
It takes time to make peace with the way things are, and accept that there is much, much more to the story of humanity than our own efforts to save our world and control our fate. And if you still feel called or inspired to an issue or challenge, go to it with a sense of hope for what is possible and appreciation for what has already been accomplished rather than trying to panic others into sharing a vision of doom.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.