March 14th, 2019
Standing in front of Cork’s City Hall on an overcast morning
last Friday – as she has done every week for several months now – student climate
activist Saoi O’Connor isn’t holding up your typical protest placard.
The government isn’t implored to act, there’s no clever
wordplay or reference to dinosaurs’ perception of time. Instead, there is solely
a simple statement of fact in both literal and metaphorical black and white: ‘The
Emperor Has No Clothes’.
Many of those who pass by ask her about its meaning, and she
answers with a fairy-tale. “So the emperor gets this fancy tailor to come in
and make him the finest set of clothes that he can,” Saoi explains to The Green News.
“And the tailor says to him, ‘these clothes are invisible,
you can only see them if you are incredibly charming, wise, and talented’. The
emperor replies, ‘Oh yes, they’re wonderful, I can see them, they’re
beautiful,’” she continues.
The emperor, so the original Hans Christen Andersen fairy-tale
goes, wears the new garments to a procession and bellows to the gathered crowds
that his clothes can only be seen if you are the elite amongst the elite.
As he saunters down the street, a little boy proclaims that
the emperor has no clothes that he is – to everyone’s unspoken horror – naked.
“I feel like the story is quite illustrative of the climate school strikes,” Saoi says in reflection. “I like to see Greta [Thunberg] as the little boy saying the emperor has no clothes. Especially since it’s a movement of children calling out adults.”
Greta Thunberg, now a global household name, is a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who started a global climate movement by sitting on the steps of her Parliament one Friday during school term last August, demanding that policymakers take urgent climate action.
Fast forward a few months, and Fridays for Future school strikes have cropped up across the globe as students demand that their governments face the severity of what today’s youth as they blossom into young adults.
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to
act as if the house is on fire, because it is,” Greta infamously said in
January at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Saoi’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Swedish sensation.
In an interview with The Guardian last month, Greta referred to Saoi’s folklore-referencing
sign as “epic”.
And as a child, epics tales featured regularly in Saoi’s West Cork upbringing. “When I read Harry Potter as a kid, I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ Let’s rebel against the system,” she remembers.
“Now we’re like, ‘oh, okay. I just wanted the magic part. Not the teenagers-have-to-come-out-of-school-and-protest-the-government part,’” she adds with a laugh.
‘Dressed as a Fairtrade
Saoi was raised in a self-described “socially conscious” household that relocated from Dublin to Cork when she was three years old. Her parents were founding members of a local Fairtrade Committee and as a child Saoi would sometimes be involved in their efforts.
“For my first campaign when I was four, I was dressed as a banana in Skibbereen in the St. Patrick’s Day parade,” Saoi recalls. Despite this early activist debut, Saoi stresses that parents never explicitly instructed her to follow their path into activism.
The first march she organized was a Cork Solidarity March
last year with the US-based March for Our
Lives demonstration in the US against gun violence. “We all believe we can make the world a better place if each
of us stands up and is counted,” Saoi told the local The Southern Star at the time.
Riding on the wave of this belief, Saoi starting organizing Fridays for Future strikes outside Cork City Hall in early January, attracting anywhere between four to twelve protesting students each week.
“We’ve always been interested in climate change and climate
action, and when I saw this was happening I was like, ‘okay, gotta make a
banner,” Saoi say. “It wasn’t about would we do it, it was about when we do it
Two-hour bus journeys between Skibbereen and Cork City bookend the seven-hour-long strike, and the winter weather brings its own challenge. “It’s cold,” Saoi admits. “But we don’t complain until hour four. That’s our policy.”
While Saoi is encouraged to see the global mobilization of student climate protests, her actual experience of organizing and leading in the movement is one of mixed emotions.
“It makes me incredibly sad that we have to do this. I don’t
want to be here. It’s cold, and I would like to be able to be at school, but I
can’t justify being at school,” she says.
“If we don’t do this, nothing is going to happen and nothing
is going to change. Right now it is changing things, and it’s wonderful.”
And the attention is growing.
Over the past weeks, media outlets the world over have covered efforts like Saoi’s. Individual students have been profiled, demands have been clearly outlined and anticipation has been built-up for tomorrow’s coordinated global strike.
Just last week, Saoi spoke at an event in Leinster House and appeared on RTE’s Late Late Show. She also joined a group of European school children who travelled to Strasbourg yesterday to watch MEPs plenary debate on climate change.
Yet, in the flurry of the lead-up to tomorrow’s event, Saoi has
some reservations about the possible outcome of the attention. “I feel like
we’re being heard with all this media attention, but I’m not sure that we’ve
yet been listened to,” she finds.
“I think now people are saying, ‘we’re going to make the
kids aware of climate change’, and the thing is, we are aware. I don’t remember
where I wasn’t. We need action now,” she says.
Many commentators discuss the school strikes using nouns,
adjectives, and adverbs all rooted in the same four letters – hope.
The actions and gauntlet-carrying of younger generations are seen as a beacon of promise, but both Greta and Saoi reject sole declarations of hope, and instead, they are calling for tangible action.
“We’re not here to inspire hope,” Saoi says with conviction.
“If anything, we want people to panic so that they’ll do something.”
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