Young Activists

The School Strike movement has posed stark moral questions about why the oil machine is still allowed to operate — with a remarkable level of clarity that scientists and other experts often struggle to achieve.

But what motivates so many young people to become politically active in this way, and what are the personal costs involved in taking on the oil machine at a young age?

Holly Gillibrand was born in 2005, thirteen years after the Rio Summit placed the climate crisis firmly on the global agenda. She started taking part in school strikes at the age of 13 and, like many school strikers, feels anger at having to do so in the face of inaction from her elders:

I feel like young people are taking responsibility for this more than maybe they should be and certainly more than adults in general are. I mean there are a lot of amazing adult activists, but I think that when you start trying to hold older generations responsible for their actions and saying they are not doing enough, in my experience they get quite defensive and annoyed at you.

The poor state of education on climate change in schools, argues Holly, makes taking a stand on these issues all the more challenging for young people.

A similar experience was related by North Lanarkshire school striker Rachael Alexander:

“It was quite isolating and I remember even one time I was referred to as a communist in front of my entire French class because I was campaigning [...] Everyone would just roll their eyes like here Rachael goes again because I was quite outspoken in different classes particularly around climate change.”

Both Holly and Rachael’s concerns speak to the worldwide emergence of eco-anxiety amongst children and young people. Although not a diagnosable condition, the medical community is increasingly aware of the profound implications of the climate crisis for the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

The School Strike movement has posed stark moral questions about why the oil machine is still allowed to operate — with a remarkable level of clarity that scientists and other experts often struggle to achieve.

However, as Rachael explains, this requires young people to confront often traumatic visions of how fragile their futures will be if the status quo continues:

I’m not very hopeful for my future personally because there are so many things happening in the world right now that I’m honestly not sure I could face bringing even a child into the world. I don’t believe that it would be worth it because their entire, even their childhoods are going to be completely destroyed.

In 2020 a survey of child psychiatrists in England found that 57% are seeing children who are distressed about the climate crisis. In 2021 the Lancet surveyed 10,000 young people in ten different countries and found that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change, with 45% of respondents saying their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.

While eco-anxiety stems from a palpable and general fear about the future and witnessing or experiencing climate change impacts — apparent indifference from those with the most power and influence in society is a factor that seems to compound this distress.

Holly says that the scale of the oil machine makes young people feel a debilitating lack of agency in the face of its drive to maximise profit and continue expanding:

In terms of my own personal awareness of North Sea oil and fossil fuel extraction in general, it just makes you feel quite angry and also a bit helpless because these are massive corporations that are determined to extract these things and destroy the natural world for their own profit. It can feel like you are up against something that is so massive that’s got the support of governments and people who are so much more powerful than you, it’s quite difficult sometimes to know what you can do to change that.

For Edinburgh medical student and climate justice activist Mikaela Loach, understanding the climate crisis from a health perspective is a powerful way to reframe the debate:

“As a medic, I care so deeply about health, and I think that from the lens of health we can actually achieve a climate just and a better world for all of us because when we realise that health; oil and gas is affecting health and pollution in the air is affecting health and therefore if we stop this polluting we also increase health. [...] The only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning every day is this completely audacious idea that we can create this better world — that we can change things.”

Crucially, like so many young people today, collective action has become the key to stopping the oil machine, whilst also providing a sense of empowerment and control in the face of climate chaos:

I always say to people the best climate action you can do is join your local community and start organising and start putting pressure on these big companies and, and on government because that will have so much more impact than going to 10 stores to get plastic free groceries and also it is more likely to create a better world for, for all of us and not just kind of pat yourself on the back for being like super eco.”

Although Holly might sometimes feel ‘emotionally numb’ about these issues, she still continues her activism regardless:

I don’t think giving up is really an option — even though these are massive companies that have so much more power than you.

What’s been happening since filming THE OIL MACHINE

The issues raised in the film have become even more urgent with recent upheavals in energy security, the cost of living, and our climate. At the same time, the new UK government is rushing to put out 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration. One year on from the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, we’ve been going back to the film’s contributors to ask them how recent global events have shaped the ongoing debate about oil.

play_circle Playlist of catch-up interviews

What you can do after THE OIL MACHINE

We have to act now and make sweeping changes that move our societies away from dependence on fossil fuels. What will you do to help? What are your demands from those in power? We've asked the film’s contributors to share their suggestions to get you started:

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