Comment  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate - the floodgates are open

Exeter is one of the smallest cities in Britain, yet it has produced some of the country's biggest youth strikes. Climate activist Sophie Sleeman recounts the story so far and explains what it means to the young people who are creating a global wave of change.

Climate crisis   Youth strike 4 climate   Fridays for future   Uk student climate network  

Exeter’s youth eco-activist movement burst onto the city’s streets in February 2019 when a thousand children, students and young people gathered at County Hall. We were inspired by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg’s protests, which began outside the Swedish parliament the previous summer and had already seen her berate the world’s political leaders for behaving like children at the United Nations climate conference in December.

We occupied a platform beside the council’s offices. Our spontaneous speeches flurried in the air. Council workers flocked at their windows, probably wondering what force had suddenly reclaimed (I’d like to say rewilded) County Hall’s grounds. We were met by the bizarre spectacle of Devon County Council leader John Hart explaining to the assembled crowd that without oil there can be no water.

In response, the crowd became fluent. We flooded the air not with the fossilized language of business as usual but with the crystal clarity of truth. Underneath the fervent chanting lay something darker: children as young as five voicing fears of wildlife loss, weather storms and air that is impossible to breathe.

We’re no longer letting such fears daunt or silence us. We’re using them for collective fuel, co-ordinating together behind a set of four clear demands.

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate Sea is Rising chalk pavement art Photo: Martin Redfern

Demand 1: The government declares a climate emergency and implements a Green New Deal

A climate emergency has now been declared, but back in February it was our simplest call. It echoed through the streets, linking us all beyond the invisible boundaries of friendship groups, united by the need for urgent action. The hum of change rang everywhere. Girls carried heavy speakers; boys expressed their fears in speech and song. Stereotypes ebbed away and all the usual ways of defining people dissolved.

Together we swept onto Exeter’s high street, surging down it like a great wave, the most fluid disruption I’ve ever seen. As we took over the tarmac, people stood and stared. Some put down their coffee cups and left cafes to clap. I remember a bus driver leaning out of the window to join us in a chant. Chain store facades crumbled as we broke the advertisers’ spell and shop window mannequins cheered us along our way. For a long, liberating moment the call for climate justice captured the mood of the high street.

Sometimes it’s not frustration and anger that lies at the fringes of our disruption. Sometimes we seem to expose everyone’s yearning for something to change.

Now, four months on, things no longer seem so simple. It was easy for the councils to say they recognised the emergency. We thought that would mean they would do something about it. But Devon refused to commit to a 2030 zero carbon deadline and Exeter removed all five references to a climate emergency in the watered-down motion they passed.

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate protestors with banner Photo: Tom Kingsnorth

Demand 2: The government communicates the severity of the ecological crisis and the necessity to act now to the general public

When, in March, we arrived at Exeter City Council’s door, it seemed no-one inside would meet us at its threshold. The tidal wave of the crowd had reached the flood barrier of local government. Shouting drowned out Rachel Sutton, the council’s deputy leader, as she emerged to tell us that the council had installed solar panels, not on every home in the city, but on its own offices.

There’s no doubt her intentions were good, but we don’t have time for surface fixes. We need our government, local and national, and that means all our MPs, to take action which addresses the climate crisis at its core.

Outside the civic centre one school striker, Natasha Pavey, read an open letter we’d written to those in authority: “The scale of this transition is huge, but so is our ability to change. We have seen rapid transitions before - in the second world war the entire economy was focused on fighting the threat of the day. If the threat is great the response must be proportionate. We need change now!”

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate protestors with placards Photo: Tom Kingsnorth

Demand 3: The Government recognises that young people have the biggest stake in our future by bringing the voting age down to 16

Natasha then read out our demands, making clear that we were serious, had specific aims and were setting the agenda for change.

Sometimes we must make people in power feel uncomfortable. At others we must become that power: the ceaseless cry of a future which cannot remain a void in which the waste of the present is dumped.

Taking part in the youth strikes has changed the way we see the future. People who will inhabit the planet thirty years from now must be heard in the decisions that are made today. We need the vote at sixteen to embed our voices in law. We speak for both present and future: decisions that include us will never be submerged by short-term economic interests but will instead rise to the responsibilities required by the climate crisis.

But both city and county council prefer to tell us what they’ve already done: the fantastic achievements of the past. Our campaign is called Fridays For Future for a reason.

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate protestor with placard Photo: Vanessa Miles

Demand 4: The national curriculum is reformed to address the ecological crisis as an educational priority

The school curriculum seems designed without active citizenship in mind, piling tests on students so it becomes impossible to swim against the current of continuous examination. Besides airbrushing over the real, raw human effects of the climate crisis - the upheaval of coastal towns, intense migration, the potential for famine - schools do little to encourage us to act, less still to act collectively.

This month Isca Academy tried to prevent pupils from leaving the school by barricading the doors with chairs. One escapee told the crowd at the strike that they “pressed the exit button and ran for it”.

There is no space for activism within our schools, no space to display a sense of citizenship that goes beyond the bake sale. At our strikes in April and May we did the opposite, reclaiming Bedford Square and forming a natural stage by sitting down to listen to speeches. Chalk was shared amongst the crowd, kids covered the ground with their messages. We filled the centre of the high street with a chalk crime scene outlining the corpses of the first human victims of climate breakdown: kids.

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate child holding placard with elderly onlooker Photo: Vanessa Miles

The hopes and dreams of young people are being battered as the stories we were read as children collide with the reality beyond our windows.

We ache and yearn not just for a future free of geopolitical scares and rising seas, but for one which is wild and free and alive.

Rather than trying to pour oil on troubled waters, we must treat the climate crisis like the crisis it is.


The fifth Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate will take place on Friday 21 June.

More information: Fridays for Future Exeter, Youth Strike 4 Climate and UK Student Climate Network.


 is an eighteen year-old climate activist, writer and student.

 

 contributed visual materials to this article.

 contributed visual materials to this article.


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Musical director Roz Harding invites us to join an Exeter College Music Academy student collective in a one-night-only experimental exploration of in-the-moment improvisation.

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Extreme Imagination - inside the mind's eye exhibition at Exeter RAMM

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Extreme Imagination - Inside the Mind's Eye

University of Exeter research fellow Dr Matthew MacKisack guides us through a RAMM exhibition that explores works by artists, writers and makers with widely varying visual imaginations.

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Molly Scott Cato at the European Parliament

Profile  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Is EU membership essential to our ability to deal with the climate emergency?

Molly Scott Cato, Green Party MEP for the South West, visited Exeter during her re-election campaign to explain why the EU and its Green Group is leading the way on a wide range of progressive policies.

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Exeter College students in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Barnfield Theatre

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Playing with gender expectations at Barnfield Theatre

An Exeter College interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream transforms it into an enchanting contemporary gender-adapted tale.

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Front elevations of proposed development at Mount Radford Lawn

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Mount Radford Lawn development proposals conflict with St Leonards community vision

Exeter Deaf Academy hopes to sell a school playing field to developers who plan to build luxury homes. Local residents have other ideas about how best to use the land. A dispute is looming over an historic green space driven by prospective profit from planning gain.

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Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

Preview  ⁄  Arts & culture

Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

A new collaboration between X-Plore Youth Devon, Exeter College LGBTQ+ society, Natalie McGrath of Dreadnought SW and Dr Jana Funke of the University of Exeter explores gender and sexual diversity across time, place and culture by reimagining objects from the RAMM collections.

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Exeter City Council city centre wards map

News  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter Labour loses local elections in all three city centre wards

Voters in Exeter yesterday elected three new councillors to represent them in the key wards that cover the city centre, with all the city's ruling Exeter Labour group candidates missing out despite the party's confident campaign.

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Exeter Clifton Hill sports centre

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Clifton Hill sports centre – the background

Storm Emma met the Beast from the East and dumped a huge amount of snow on the roof of Exeter's Clifton Hill sports centre, setting off a chain reaction which has ignited two campaigns and put Exeter City Council's approaches to competence and openness into sharp focus.

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Jemima Moore campaigning in Exeter local elections

Profile  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Local resident stands as independent candidate in Exeter elections

Jemima Moore is a 36 year-old part-time primary school teacher and mother of two young children with little political experience. So why has she decided to stand for election to Exeter City Council on 2 May?

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Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

What does your council know that you don't know you don't know?

Extracting information from councils is hard work but increasingly necessary for local democracy.

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Greater Exeter Strategic Plan banner

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Is the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan GESPing for air?

The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan has been a long time in gestation. When it finally arrives, will it deliver?

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Extinction Rebellion climate emergency protesters in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter Extinction Rebellion stages climate emergency protest

Today around 70 people joined the Exeter branch of Extinction Rebellion on the city's streets to demand urgent action to minimise the risk of catastrophic impacts from climate change.

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Kaleider Mikrofest Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter Princesshay

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Out of sight, out of mind

A performance of From The Light of The Fire, Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter for Kaleider Mikrofest appears to favour illusion over truth in a confused rendering of Plato's cave allegory that leaves both performers and audience in the dark.

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Exeter St James period housing stock

Comment  ⁄  Planning & place

Exeter St James regeneration

How can the supply of low-cost, incrementally investable city centre accommodation be stimulated to attract and retain creative, technically-skilled young entrepreneurial talent?

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Historic Exe Bridge traffic

Comment  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Streets are for people, not cars

Cars adversely affect economic output, air quality and wellbeing, take up valuable space when parked and discourage people from walking and cycling when driven. Reducing their use would enhance Exeter's retail and leisure offer, improve public health and attract needed workers to the city.

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