Strengthen global consciousness by promoting global knowledge

When a 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began her Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate) outside the Swedish parliament in 2018, she sparked a wave of global protests. Do these protests mark a new form of youthful agency on global political issues? In our research project Knowing the world: Children, global education and environmental activism in Sweden after 1945, weexploreenvironmental youth activism in Sweden “before Greta”. In a recent article in The Conversation, we argue that contemporary youth activism on climate issues is rooted in a Scandinavian tradition of youth empowerment and global awareness.

Our research project is still ongoing, but examples from three different campaigns in post-war Sweden reveal certain continuities. First, we argue that children’s participation in social and political issues is facilitated by specific notions of childhood in the Nordic countries, involving the idea of the autonomous and competent child. Secondly, there has been a tradition in Sweden to encourage young people’s global consciousness, dating back at least to the early post-war era. Global awareness requires knowledge of global conditions. Today, climate change dominates the political agenda, but it is not the first global issue to capture the attention of young people. For example, children and youth in the early post-war era played a key role when development aid became a new area of Swedish foreign policy. One striking example was the annual campaign Operation Dagsverke, “operation day’s work”, that emerged in the early 1960s. Led by the national association of student councils, the campaign expanded rapidly and soon involved more than 10,000 schoolchildren, raising money for projects in the global south. By dedicating an entire day for fundraising, children took time off from school to invest in the future of humanity – a line of thought that has also been important in the school strike movement.

With the emergence of modern environmentalism around 1970, children and young people were also mobilised to take action against environmental degradation. One of the first major Swedish initiatives was the campaign “Front against environmental degradation”, launched by insurance company Folksam in 1968. The company launched a national competition where young people were given the task of documenting environmental problems in their local communities. These inventories formed the basis for a series of public hearings in 1969, where young people put an older generation of politicians, public officials, and industry leaders against the wall.

Anders Ericsson of the Folksam Youth Committee, presenting the campaign Front mot miljöförstöringen (Front against environmental degradation). Folksam journal, no. 1, 1969, Author provided

From a contemporary viewpoint, the young interrogators’ demands for clean air and sewage treatment appear modest, but the Swedish minister of agriculture considered it ungrateful of the younger generation to demand change too rapidly. With stubborn and tireless work, he argued, further environmental destruction would be prevented in due time.

These examples prove that modern Swedish history offer several examples of youth-led activism on global issues. While the Folksam initiative was adult-organised, Operation Dagsverke and other campaigns have relied on self-organisation by the younger generation. An early example of this was Fältbiologerna (literally: “the field biologists”), the youth division of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, which became a hotbed for environmental activism.

In addition to hiking in the wilderness, the field biologists started to demonstrate and make spectacular direct actions. They marched under banners such as “killing nature is suicide” and “your children protest against your short-termism”.

Field biologists protest the construction of Sturup Airport, late 1960s. Private collection of former field biologist Olle Nordell, Author provided

In 2019, Greta Thunberg was named “person of the year” by Time magazine. The rapid impact of her protest was made possible by 21st century social media platforms, but as we will explore further in the upcoming stages of our research project, the emergence of this movement should also be understood against the backdrop of a more than 50-year-old political culture of youth activism on global issues.

Adding to this research, Björn Lundberg has received funding from Birgit & Gad Rausing Foundation to study how the celebration of United Nations Day (October 24) was used to strengthen global consciousness by promoting ‘global knowledge’ in the Swedish educational system 1948–1989.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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