"We are Rising Up"

Emma Parkin – entrepreneur, publisher, and mountain climber – reflects, as mother of two young girls, on the recent #ClimateStrikes.

Today, over 1,700 events are expected to take place across more than 100 countries as the #SchoolStrike4Climate movement reaches a peak in its momentum. In a letter published in The Guardian on 1 March 2019, the organisers clearly stated their aims:

“We are the voiceless future of humanity. We will no longer accept this injustice. We demand justice for all past, current and future victims of the climate change crisis, and so we are rising up.”

Never have I felt more relieved that the future of our planet lies in the hands of the next generation. The day before this powerful and eloquent message was published by the young people behind the climate strikes, a pitiful handful of MPs turned up in the UK parliament to debate climate change. The message is clear – if adults aren’t going to do anything about it, children around the world are going to take action themselves.

This feeling is evident at a global level, too. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate change activist from Sweden, dominated the headlines after appearing at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Her speeches are infused with humility, a deep understanding of her subject, and a poignant sense of urgency. Greta initiated the strikes with a lone protest back in August 2018. Momentum has been building ever since with strikes taking place every Friday during school time. On 15 February 2019, an estimated 15,000 students were striking in the UK alone. In the face of criticism about wasting lesson time, Greta responded, “Political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. That is slightly worse”.

There are strong young personalities like Greta appearing in all corners of the world. Hannah Testa is another 16-year-old who has dedicated much of her time to fighting issues that impact the planet.

In her home state of Georgia, USA, she has been taking the battle against plastics into her local restaurants. In her own words, Hannah describes her feelings as her efforts start to pay off, “I remember when I went to the restaurant and saw paper straws for the first time, I was so excited, knowing I made an impact on the environment and the community”. Hannah’s confident and influential voice has seen her take on speaking engagements around the world and she has even spearheaded an Annual Plastic Pollution Awareness Day in Georgia.

Closer to home, I don’t have to look beyond my own family to see how children are taking the future of our planet very seriously. In her letter to Sir David Attenborough last year, my then 9-year-old daughter explained:

“I am writing to tell you about my deep concern about litter being put into the ocean. Blue Planet 2 has touched my heart so I want to make a difference to the world.”

That was well over a year ago and, spurred on by a handwritten message back from Sir David himself, there has been no let up in her conviction to take steps towards protecting our planet. She has written letters to magazines she subscribes to encouraging them to change their packaging, she is constantly vigilant about what plastic enters our house and how we can avoid it and she is desperate to do far more. While the rest of us are prone to falling back into the convenience of single-use plastic, my daughter remains committed, vocal, and passionate about every person’s duty to play their part.

Herein lies an interesting debate regarding how we tackle the current assault on our planet. Are these changes at an individual level actually making any difference at all or is it simply easing the conscience of the consumption-hungry middle classes? Some argue that individual action is meaningless in the face of the scale of societal change that is required. My daughter may remind me to avoid plastic as I buy fruit in the supermarket, but until all large food outlets stop using plastic packaging, our small-scale efforts will not make a sufficient difference. But we do see grassroots change making a real impact. The charge for plastic bags has made a material effect on the amount of single-use plastic in circulation in the UK, and increasingly, a similar societal disapproval is being channelled towards non-recyclable coffee cups. Large-scale behavioural change is best engineered through individual and group action leading to an evolution of the political and regulatory landscape, and then, ultimately, the coming together of international action.

This debate has even entered the world of children’s publishing where I spend much of my time, both for work and for pleasure. There is a school of thought that suggests that books for children encouraging individual acts of environmentalism, such as recycling and reducing personal plastic use, are in fact over-simplifying the problems. Unless children learn from an early age about the importance of activism to prompt wider political and economic change, they will never fully get to grips with how a larger scale environmental shift will ever take place.

I take a slightly different view on this. If the literature that my daughters are reading now is encouraging them to appreciate that their individual actions matter, that gives me great faith for the future. As we see the likes of Greta Thunberg and Hannah Testa becoming more vocal, there seems to be no lack of understanding in the next generation that activism is an essential part of prompting change for the good. In my mind, a child reading books now that imbue a sense of responsibility for the planet at any level will only make them more sensitive and thoughtful leaders in the future.

Our bedtime story the other night was The Lorax and I never cease to be amazed by how far ahead of his time Dr Seuss was with his environmental messaging. Originally published in 1971 and coming well before a wider ‘green agenda’, the book tackles the issue of not protecting the natural world head on. In our house, we still can’t get past the ‘Unless’ page, without a lump in the throat. When everything seems lost for the future of the planet, the Once-ler explains the significance of the Lorax’s ‘Unless’ message:

“UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.”

This is a perfect example of the immense power of children’s literature, whether to encourage small-scale changes at a personal level or to raise awareness of the need for large-scale change at a global level. Thankfully, as we watch the strikes take place around the world today, we can be reassured that something is working – the next generation are most definitely rising up.

Emma Parkin runs a publishing consultancy with her colleague, Jo de Vries, in parallel to a part-time role as Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press. Emma’s passion has always been in books, from eight years as Group Publishing Manager with global independent children’s publisher, Barefoot Books, to more recent involvement with the charity, the Pelican Post, to translate, print and ship bilingual books to Ghana.

Emma and Jo founded Conker House in 2015 as a small publishing consultancy and literary agency with the core aim of bringing books into the world that have a positive and profound message. They work with a wide range of publishing houses and with prestigious organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Sabre Education. They have been particularly proud to have collaborated with Roz Savage in the development of the Sisters website.

When Emma isn’t immersed in books, she tends to escape to the mountains, but also ensures she spends plenty of time with the other three book critics in her life – her husband and two daughters.

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