Skipping School to Save the World
Illustrations by Eddie Stok
DON’T LET THEIR AGE FOOL YOU. Anuna De Wever and Adélaïde Charlier, 17 and 18 years old, are leading their generation in an urgent quest to save the world.
In December 2018, the morning after Belgium refused to sign a declaration on climate change at the COP24 in Katowice, Poland, Anuna googled Greta Thunberg. Then she decided to skip school and to exhort her peers across the nation to join her on Belgium’s streets. Ever since, tens of thousands of youth march every Thursday to pressure politicians into bolder action to combat climate change.
It’s a superhero’s mission, but not everyone sees her as one. Including, surprisingly, many of her classmates.
“They hate me,” she told me between yawns when we spoke on a spring morning in a park near her school in Mortsel, Belgium. The school’s willingness to let her postpone her work and some tests—a result of her status as somewhat of a celebrity—may be part of the reason why only a few of her classmates joined her at the marches. Case in point: the night before, she stayed in Belgium’s parliament until 2 A.M. to witness yet another climate law get voted down. That same morning, she had presented her end-of-year project in front of her classmates.
But Anuna has taken the resistance she has gotten from politicians and her peers as a character-building opportunity. Now, she is pushing for others to rebel against a political system that she deems unrepresentative of youth and women, and which fails to see the urgency of climate change. For her, politicians—even young ones—who choose not to break with party lines in order to push for stronger climate action lack courage.
“Fuck that, I also went against the grain, but that’s what you got to do in life,” Anuna said. “We could be the generation that is not going to think in terms of political parties and are just going to work together constructively on problems instead of pointing fingers.”
But rebelling didn’t always come naturally for Adélaïde, Anuna’s francophone counterpart.
Sitting on her sister’s couch in Namur, Adélaïde confides that “at first, missing classes on Thursday was scary,” especially as she needs to work hard to keep her grades up. But when she realized that she could spur tens of thousands to march in the streets, she grew an appetite to rally youth protests, clamor into a megaphone, convince politicians and do interviews with journalists. In Adélaïde’s school, climate activism has become cool, and she feels supported by her peers, unlike Anuna. Her me-time includes training for an international triathlon held in Barcelona next September. She’s the kind of person who loves a challenge, and climate change is a big one.
Anuna and Adélaïde put their trust in numbers: the key to change is massing so many bodies that they cannot be ignored. Concerts, laughter, humor and fun are important ingredients for this, because civil disobedience does not mean depression.
“If we go out in the streets and say it’s the end of the world, people will say ‘okay there is nothing left to do then’,” Adélaïde said, pondering on the fine line between hope and despair. It is something she treads on often. She makes a point to keep the demonstrations youthful, musical and fun, but insists that “if we have too much hope, we won’t move.”
Anuna, on her part, looks forward to the demographic shift in activism and politics—the replacement of the “old, white-haired men”—that will herald a change. “There are so many strong women that are finally having a voice,” Anuna said with glee, referencing the other leaders of the young climate movement, like Holly Gillibrand, Harriet O’Shea Carre, Milou Albrecht, Rebecca Hamilton, and Kyra Gantois, and female politicians who inspire her, like Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
For Anuna, democracy is about thinking independently and not being afraid to not fit into boxes as others have defined them, whether it be on climate, gender, or otherwise. She does not, however, see herself entering party politics because she believes every party should be climate-friendly.
“And I’ve done things faster just shouting on the streets than [I would have done] in the parliament,” she noted.
These Belgian climate leaders, who communicate daily with fellow young activists around Europe and the world through WhatsApp groups, have pledged to march until the European elections.
“But that does not mean that after May 26 we will close up shop and go home, go back to school and stop thinking about it,” Adélaïde made clear. “No, after May 26 we will still keep an eye on these issues. It’s now we have to do something, let’s move, go!”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue