Move over millennials, there’s a new generation in town and they don’t compromise on the climate. The world is burning – a fact that we millennials were aware of our whole lives – so why didn’t we do anything? Even though the gap in years between teens and twentysomethings is small, the gap in activism is clear. Gen Z’ers have taken to the streets in school strikes across the world, following the lead of The Almighty Greta and many other young climate heroes. When we see this up-for-it agit-youth, it brings a tear of pride to our eye. But it also makes us feel like that scene in 21 Jump Street where Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill go back to high school and realise it’s now cool to be vegan and wear your ruck-sack “two-strap”: old.
To test the freakonomics of Generation Climate Kid – and to mark the start of Extinction Rebellion’s fortnight of protests –we checked for variables by choosing pairs of siblings from different sides of the generational divide. On the agenda: the impending apocalypse, to protest or not to protest, and whether it’s possible to sort all that out during family discussions, drunken or otherwise. And, as we investigated Gen Z’s all-empowering wokeness, we learned how to efficiently tease your brother with an anti-nuclear power tote bag. Because, ultimately, annoying your sibling will always be the most sustainable source of pleasure, right?
Neve, 17, in London studying A‑levels
I’ve recently started Year 13 but I’ve spent the last few months complaining that I’m done with education. I don’t think university is the path for me because all I seem to care for is shouting about how badly we’ve treated this planet.
The question, “Are you an activist?” bothers me. We’re at a point, a sixth mass extinction point, in which you can’t just not care.
My big sister dresses and prides herself as the “alternative” type: floaty, tie-dyed dresses, wears no shoes to be at one with the ground. You can picture it. But I do ask myself how much Bella is actually doing for the actual ground. Since joining the nine-to-five work system I have seen nor heard little action from her. She’s given 20 holiday days a year, but so far she has spent every one jetting around the world to different festivals.
Meanwhile, I miss school stomping through Westminster with a placard and do my best to flood the family group chat with petitions, articles and photos of me climbing trucks at a Fridays for Future strike.
I’m not claiming to be Neve Thunberg. I’ve given up milk, meat and fish, but still struggle to turn down the last bite of a friend’s chicken burrito. I justify this by saying I’ve not actually funded the meat industry and I’m reducing food waste in our society. But, yes, I need to practice what I preach a bit harder.
Growing up entirely with social media has played a massive role in this difference of outlook. Clips, solemnly narrated by celebrities, of starving polar bears and raging forest fires fill my screen time. A constantly updating reel of the “current best available science”, as Greta calls it, is frustrating to read if no action follows. My micro-generation is angry. Maybe it’s because our supposed role models are doing so little. Or because we are so frequently denied a voice in issues that will most certainly affect us for decades longer than the babies in suits that are currently leading our world into the flames.
If we’re lucky, we’ll get those decades. And I’m not planning on wasting them. As the planet and its youth become increasingly fired up, I hope my sister puts on some shoes and joins the march.
Bella, 24, in London working in TV production
My precocious little sister’s probably said I’m a fake hippie. That I flounce around in my blown-out trousers and my Indian silk and I’ve long since located my chakras. But I’m a fraud, right? What am I really doing to protect the earth I love, other than dance around on it barefoot every summer?
Definitely not enough. But I promise, I do try. I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time – since before it was cool – but I can’t bear to lose the joy of cheese just yet. I’ve had a bamboo toothbrush before, but hell, they can get expensive. And, as we’ve all been reminded, cocaine isn’t vegan, guys.
To get serious for a moment – at a time when I know we must – I’ll admit it: the older I get, the easier it is to be pacified by these bite-size chunks of eco-goodness. I’m becoming increasingly complacent, one oat-milk latte at a time.
The sad truth of it all is that adult life in the city moves too fast to stop and think about every change I could be making. I barely have time to look after my houseplants, let alone the planet. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped trying altogether, just that maybe 17-year-olds have a bit more time on their hands to fuck around with multi-coloured Sharpies? And when little sis starts paying rent in London, then we can talk about buying shampoo in glass bottles.
It’s not like I’ve never marched for something I believe in. Were you even alive for the Iraq war march, Neve? I marched against Brexit (on a Saturday, I’ll admit). I marched against tuition fees. I remember how fun it is to be kettled (let’s not pretend). But it’s a lot easier to walk out of school than the office.
It’s soul-destroying to realise that each of these tragic political decisions have steamrolled through without my generation’s voice making much of a difference. Which makes it incredible – miraculous, even – that the generation coming up behind us remains so unflinchingly optimistic.
With that in mind, if it forces me to up my eco-game, maybe a little sibling rivalry is a good thing. I’m glad this fierce little imp is on my shoulder, poking my hippie-ocrisy. After all, one day our own kids will be climbing trees together. And it would be good if there were still some left to climb.
Theo, 17, in Copenhagen studying Sound Design
I’ve been into climate stuff ever since my 7th grade (Year 8) physics teacher taught us about climate change and alternative energy sources – including nuclear power. I do my bit for the climate, like not eating meat and wearing second-hand clothes. But mainly I’m pro-nuclear power as a sustainable energy source. Even the idea of it is so taboo here – my parents are of that Seventies generation who’d grown up hearing that anything nuclear was just straight-up bad and dangerous. They thought I was a total radical just for bringing it up, but I think they’re coming around to it now. Especially since I talk about it at any opportunity.
And then there’s my sister… Hannah is supposedly against nuclear power, but I kind of think she wears her pro nuclear-power tote just to bug me. Whenever we end up discussing the climate at home it always ends with bad vibes; it can literally ruin an evening. But how am I meant to be sure of my opinions if I can’t use them to nuance my family’s views? They think I’m chatting bollocks about stuff I don’t know about, but the fact is: I’ve got the facts. I’ve got an arsenal of facts. If you want I can send you some links.
Hannah, 23, in Copenhagen studying Anthropology
I grew up knowing all about climate change but it was never something I seriously acted on: I knew it existed but I didn’t know it in my bones.
All families have their little roles and I used to just put my younger brother into this box as “the stubborn one” because he insisted on not flying or eating red meat. I figured he was just being a typically difficult teenager. The other day we were all having dinner and he was talking about a trip he’s taking to Norway. As the helpful big sis that I am, I told him I knew a website with cheap flight tickets. Theo just rolled his eyes: “Obviously we aren’t flying.”
I get the sense he thinks my parents and I are hypocrites who romanticise climate-friendly behaviour like buying organic food when it benefits our self-image as a progressive family. Basically, he thinks we’re uninformed and a bit ridiculous. For example, I wear this “nuclear power, no thanks” tote, which I think looks cool. Theo literally refuses to look at it when he comes over. What I’m impressed about in him and his generation is that they are dealing with this deep-rooted climate anxiety in the calm and rational way that we never did. Him and his friends are all so… earnest about it that they might actually manage to turn this thing around. God, it’s annoying though.
Neena, 21, in Cambridge, studying French
Climate change was always a secondary consideration when we’d talk about social justice stuff in school. I’ve been into feminism for ages and that seemed much more pressing at the time. Climate change was abstract and even sort of tame. I think my little brother Seb’s generation came of age when politics as usual got disrupted, when Trump – a literal climate-denier – got elected.
That’s why Gen Z is less intimidated to be political: if none of the politicians are making sense, you don’t have to have super eloquent arguments before you speak out, either. When I was a teenager I don’t think we even saw it as an option to go out and protest, and it wasn’t necessarily cool to be politically active. It sounds bad but when I was 14, posting something environmentalist online was perceived as a bit lame. Now I think it’s normal, and even trendy.
And Seb? Seb goes about climate change in his very Seb way – more fact than feeling.
Seb, 17, in Brussels doing A‑levels
My sister and I are very different. It sounds weird but she’s much more emotionally driven. She really cares about people’s feelings and that’s what drives her politics. She’d get really affected by testimonials of people having to evacuate their houses, whereas I worry about the numbers and science behind it all.
I think because there is such a substantial movement now it feels less intimidating. And we’re more pragmatic – for sure Greta has helped rally the youth, but, honestly, she just said what we were all thinking. Millennials aren’t old enough that I can be mad at them, but Gen X – don’t get me started on Gen X. They knew for so long and didn’t do anything because they were more interested in short-term gains.
At school the climate is basically the main thing. People talk about it loads. The other day I asked the people who organise the school bus to stop printing out 250 pages of admin every day. Little things like that.
Social media got us here. But the fact that being engaged is considered cool also means that you now have the types of people that go to the marches to post it on social media – and then Uber home whilst eating a plastic-wrapped sandwich.
But that’s OK: their presence helps the cause either way. It’s funny when people think we are this boring generation who don’t go out and just sit at home typing up resolutions for the UN the whole time. We still go out, we still enjoy being teenagers, but we also enjoy going to protests and doing something about the climate. You can thank us later.
Cam, 23, in London training as a solicitor
I remember being introduced to an “inconvenient truth” early on but I never thought it would affect me, really. Climate change was a bit like ISIS: far away, very real, but ultimately not part of my life. I did become a veggie seven years ago but from the POV of animal rights – Paul McCartney saying “if slaughterhouses had glass windows” and all that.
The environmentalist focus on meat-consumption was later. That’s how my little sister was introduced to it; she just turned veggie recently. I’m really glad she’s finding a political cause to get into. When I was her age I got really impassioned by left-wing politics, but she always found politics really tedious till now. To quote her: “Ugh, why do I have to be so political? It’s really boring.”
So, yeah, I’m really glad she’s got a cause she cares about now. I read The Uninhabitable Earth recently, and I had to put it down because it’s so bleak. Honestly, if I think about climate change too much, it makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning because there’s just no way back.
People tend to find it depressing if I tell them over a glass of wine that capitalism needs to be totally remodelled for us to survive, that we’re all gonna die and should at least stop having children. The generation below us – I don’t wanna call them naïve but I think they’re unaware of this huge, established system that they’re up against. I haven’t had the heart to tell my sister. I don’t want to crush her budding idealism.
Iona, 17, in Surrey finishing A‑levels
My brother Cam is so dramatic. I honestly don’t see the point in thinking: the world’s going to explode, now I’m going to ruin my life worrying about it. People really need to look at the science. We need to keep thinking and researching. Who knows, maybe we could pull something out of the bag, like one of those giant CO2 hoover things.
The difference between my siblings and me is that I’ve always been more scientific than them. I’m the only one that’s done science at A‑level. I doubt most of the people who are getting so depressed about the climate have actually read the scientific reports and I doubt they’d understand them. Including my brother.
We were on holiday this summer and Cam got drunk and was, like, “the world’s gonna burn – we can never have kids!” I told him to stop preaching and walked off. But I thought about it after and realised he has a point.
Since then, I’ve been way more engaged with climate stuff, in particular in a marine biology sense – coral bleaching is something I really care about. But it’s not in the same doom and gloom way as my brother. I do believe it’s reversible. I’m applying for biology at uni and I hope I’ll be able to use what I learn there to help the cause. And yes, I absolutely do plan on having kids one day.