The wave rose up from the heart of the city and spilled into the street, up to the boulevards and past the undressing trees, and it just kept going. It was a foot-powered flood, an undammed human stream, and for more than an hour it showed no signs of stopping.
As the march passed through downtown Winnipeg, the chants ricocheted off the stoic office buildings. They were raised by children, many no more than eight or nine years old, who took to the call-and-response rhythm with the relentlessness of youth who have not yet surrendered to the cynicism that muffles hope.
What do we want?
When do we want it?
This was us, and it was beautiful. A cross-section of Manitoba, united in purpose: from schoolchildren to scientists, from Indigenous elders to medical students. They raised signs, printed or painted or coloured with vigorous flourishes of marker; they laughed as they strolled down the streets, pushing babies in strollers.
In the crowd, a woman, her silver hair tied in a neat bun, raised a sign that said: "I’m having hot flashes, so let’s cool it down." Nearby, another woman, perhaps 30 years her junior, held up a placard that drew on a term from pop culture: "This isn’t what I meant when I said I wanted a hot girl summer."
Between those two expressions, a reminder of what is at stake: the Earth itself is the most fundamental inheritance we leave for our children, the most certain bridge between generations. It is also what most transcends the various squabbles of fragmented nations; we cannot build borders between ourselves and the planet.
So, in Friday’s moment, Winnipeg was not alone. The movement flowed here from across the continent and beyond the ocean, from Mumbai to Madrid, Stockholm and London. They rolled down city streets from Bangladesh to Baltimore and all points in between, as united in cause as the world has ever been.
To think, the movement began life 58 weeks ago as a lonely school strike by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teen.
Now, in the wake of Friday’s marches, it is worth considering why Thunberg’s stand caught global attention in ways other activism didn’t.
After all, in calling for climate action, Thunberg had not said anything countless advocates, young and old, had not said before.
So, what was different?
With her staunch reluctance to tone down her flinty rhetoric, Thunberg gave voice to anger. It’s an emotion adults struggle to contend with in youth, but the unmitigated fact of her anger speaks for a generation that has every right to feel it, and every reason to sing it clear.
Youth should be angry at global leaders who dithered while storms grew more extreme and seas began to rise. They should be angry at a society which has collected so much evidence of the dangers of anthropogenic climate change but consistently dragged its feet on taking decisive actions towards mitigation.
That anger, maybe, will drive a paradigm shift. By Friday afternoon, more than 6.6 million people worldwide had taken to the streets during a week of global climate action. It was, organizers said, one of the largest co-ordinated global protests, on par with the 2003 marches desperately trying to prevent the American-led war in Iraq.
In that fact, there is an electric sort of potential — and also a lesson that ought to be heeded.
The Iraq War protests, massive as they were, did not stop the invasion. The war’s architects never faced any real consequences, even after it became clear how they’d manipulated public sentiment to justify an invasion that destabilized the region and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Someday, if things continue on their course, we might look back on how the world handled this juncture of climate change’s progression much the same. Someday, students on a struggling planet may read about the marches that swept the globe and wonder why it led to nothing, and why nothing substantive changed.
What will we say to them then?
The truth is, by the time the worst of climate change’s effects strike, most of us living today will be gone; the message we are leaving our descendants is the one we are speaking now. Will it be of another global movement that sought justice, but failed to knock its way past political barriers?
Another path is yet possible.
The math that underpins our understanding of climate change is complex, but the calculations of taking action are simple. Once the cost of inaction becomes greater to political leaders than the potential gain, then — and only then — they will start making the firm policy choices that need to be made.
So, if we believe in a brighter future, it starts with holding the line.
Friday’s marches were not the beginning of that movement, and they must not be the end. The calls for justice that hummed through Winnipeg’s streets must rise again and again, until the great ship of human development makes its most critical course correction.
As the long march snakes down Assiniboine Avenue, back to the Manitoba legislature grounds where it began, a small boy, perhaps 10 years old, slips between lines of adults. He raises his voice, and it rings clear and unwavering through a quiet section of the crowd.
"Climate change is not a lie," he chants. "Do not let our planet die."
The crowd stirs around him, young and old. They are echoing his words, giving them volume and depth, raising them up with each crisp syllable, and each forward step.
Updated on Friday, September 27, 2019 at 10:13 PM CDT: Adds photo