Youth Environmental Activism: Background information when reading Bewilderment

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A Novel

by Richard Powers

Bewilderment by Richard Powers X
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2021, 288 pages

    Nov 2022, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

Youth Environmental Activism

This article relates to Bewilderment

Print Review

Young people marching with sign that says Youth for Climate Action NowIn Richard Powers' Bewilderment, nine-year-old Robin Byrne is distressed at the plight of endangered species and commits to painting as many of them as he can, as well as undertaking one-kid protests outside the Wisconsin statehouse and in the nation's capital. He specifically emulates a character called "Inga Alder," who is clearly based on Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, has been in the public eye since 2018, when she encouraged students around the world to join her on school strikes, walking out of their classrooms on Fridays to draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis. Millions participated. Since then, she has met with world leaders and made speeches before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations (UN). Her organization, Fridays for Future, is also supported by UNICEF.

Thunberg is not the first youth activist to be given an international platform. In 1992, Vancouver's Severn Cullis-Suzuki, then just 12 years old, gave a speech at the United Nations climate conference in Rio de Janeiro, earning the nickname "the girl who silenced the world for six minutes." She urged delegates, "You must change your ways...Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market."

According to the UN, there are now "1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 [and] 24 — the largest generation of youth in history. Young people are increasingly aware of the challenges and risks presented by the climate crisis and of the opportunity to achieve sustainable development brought by a solution to climate change." Because, in many cases, they are still too young to vote, direct action is a way for youth to participate. In July 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres formed a youth advisory panel made up of seven representatives from Brazil, Fiji, France, India, Moldova, Sudan and the USA.

Although Thunberg has captured the media's attention, many other young people have come to the forefront of environmental activism, including people of color and those from indigenous backgrounds. For instance, Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced Shoe-Tez-Caht) Martinez, of Aztec heritage, grew up in Colorado and has been a climate activist since the age of six. Also a hip-hop artist, as the youth director of Earth Guardians he was one of 21 young people to sue the Trump administration in 2019 for its inaction on climate change. In places like Bangladesh, Dominica, Nigeria and the Philippines, the effects of climate change are already particularly evident — with crop failure, drought, flooding and hurricanes becoming increasingly common — and young people have spoken up about the need for action.

What Martinez has to say about his childhood is reminiscent of Powers' character Robin: "My father taught me to see the magic in everything. Growing up, magic was in the sunrise and the rainfall. In every expression of life, no matter how small...[This] gave me the perspective to see what was behind the dysfunction of our society, of our broken world, our dying ecosystems and corrupt leaders."

Like Thunberg, the character Robin is autistic as well as passionate about the environment. Thunberg has theorized about how her neurodivergence and commitment to climate activism are connected: "For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white. When it comes to the sustainability crisis, everyone keeps saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before. I don't understand that, because if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival."

Youth Climate March in Washington D.C., 2018, courtesy of Greenpeace

Filed under Nature and the Environment

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to Bewilderment. It originally ran in September 2021 and has been updated for the November 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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