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Greta Thunberg emerged after five decades of environmental activism by youth in Sweden
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Greta Thunberg emerged after five decades of environmental activism by youth in Sweden


After 18 months of digital campaigning young people are back on the streets demanding climate justice. Their attention is now focused on the UN climate summit in Glasgow. protest marchNovember 5.

When a 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began her Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate) outside the Swedish parliament in 2018, few would have guessed that her initiative would spur worldwide protests. This movement has been called a “Global Movement of Change” because of its international impact. new form of political mobilisation, but such generalisations fail to consider the much longer history of young people’s global awareness and action. As historians who have done research environmental youth activism in Sweden “before Greta”, we argue that what you see today is rooted in a Scandinavian tradition of youth empowerment and global awareness.

We first want to note that children’s participation in social and political issues has been facilitated by specific notions of childhood in the Nordic countries. The concept of an autonomous and competent child was described. by researchers as a characteristic feature of the “Nordic model of childhood”, influencing child rearing and public policy for several decades. Although these elements are not unique in the region, they have had a lasting effect on many generations of Swedish children. They have taught them the value and importance of independence as well as how to make their voices heard.

There has also been a long-standing ambition in Sweden to foster young people’s global consciousness. While climate change is a major issue on the political agenda today, it is not the only global issue that young people need to be engaged in. In the early postwar years, children and young people were key players in developing development aid as a new area within Swedish foreign policy. According to polls, young people were more open to the message of international solidarity that older generations. This made them crucial targets for efforts to increase support for aid policy.

Older persons on trial

With the emergence of modern environmentalism and the “ecological turn” around 1970, when knowledge of a global environmental crisis became more widespread, children and young people were mobilised to take action.

One of the first major Swedish initiatives was the campaign “Front against environmental degradation”, launched by insurance company Folksam in 1968. The corporation was closely connected to the social democratic government. It launched a national competition in which young people were asked to document environmental problems in their communities. These inventories were the basis for a series public hearings that took place in 1969. Young people challenged older politicians, public officials, and industry leaders. These hearings were a public success with an average attendance of 500 people.

Poster of young man in trilby beside slogan

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 during the campaign finale – an “environmental parliament” in January 1970 – the Swedish minister of agriculture considered it ungrateful of the younger generation to demand change too rapidly. He argued that further environmental destruction could be prevented by persevering and tireless work.

Youth-led activism

Many examples of youth-led activism on international issues can be found in modern Swedish history. While Folksam was an initiative that was primarily organized by adults, many other campaigns and initiatives have been based on the self-organization of 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.

The field biologists began to take extraordinary direct actions and demonstrate in addition to hiking in the wild. They marched under banners such as “killing nature is suicide” and “your children protest against your short-termism”. In the 1970s, they sent cans and disposable bottles to the authorities to encourage recycling.

People wearing placards with anti-airport slogans

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

Another striking example was the annual campaign Operation Dagsverke, “operation day’s work”, that emerged in the early 1960s. The campaign was initiated by loosely organized student unions and quickly grew to involve tens or thousands of schoolchildren, raising funds for projects in Africa.

This campaign was based on two of the main resourcesChildren have used their time and spontaneity to mobilize in efforts for change. 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. The field biologists and operation day’s work both included a kind of age-integration, where older teenagers organised and coordinated the efforts of younger children, a feature that they share with contemporary activism.

A year after Greta Thunberg began protesting outside the Swedish parliament, climate protests took place globally and she was named “person of the year” by Time magazine. This movement’s impact was possible due to digital technology and social media platforms. However, it should be understood against the background of a more than 50 year-old political culture of environmental young activism.

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