Climate Action

Can’t strike for the planet? Digital striking provides an alternative

Youth around the world are on strike for the planet — inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, many young people are skipping school and taking to the streets every Friday to demand climate action through climate striking organizations like Fridays for FutureEarth Uprising and more.

Despite its relative infancy (Fridays for Future founder Thunberg didn’t start striking until early 2018), climate striking has caught on in a big way. On September 20, 4 million took to the streets worldwide to call for greater political action on climate change. The next week another 3 million turned out in cities around the world.

But there’s another story under the surface, and that’s what’s happening online: digital striking.

“Digital striking is basically a solidarity action for those that can’t strike every Friday from school, so they can show their support for Fridays for the Future through the Internet,” says Iris Zhan, a 16-year-old climate activist from suburban Maryland.

By definition, striking requires a physical presence and sacrifice — one must have a routine or activity that they are striking from — usually in the form of missing school or work to strike. But not everyone can afford to pay that price. That’s why Zhan, a member of Fridays for Future USA, started digital striking several months ago together with George Zhang, a 16-year-old from outside Los Angeles.

Zhang had similar difficulties skipping school to strike — in his case, his school has a strict attendance policy he couldn’t get around. His parents also weren’t too eager to see him skip school.

In some schools, striking is forbidden altogether. Schools don’t allow excused absences for climate striking, leaving students who physically strike forced to often take a hit academically. That’s what happened to Washington native and highschooler Jerome Foster II, whose grade point average started dipping after he started striking weekly outside the White House.

“[Digital striking] gives an extra voice or periphery to the movement and more inclusive to people who may not necessarily be around where the strikes are or whose parents are super strict,” says Zhang.

Digital striking is simple: Take a picture of yourself holding a striking sign (digital or physical) lending support to the Fridays for Future movement (most messages are something along the lines of, “I stand with Fridays for Future,” but signs can also include traditional climate slogans, like “The seas are rising and so are we,” “There is no planet B,” or the OG climate strike message, Thunberg’s “Skolstrejk för Klimatet”).

Next, you upload the photo to Instagram, tagging and using the #digitalstrike and #fridaysforfuture hashtags. Zhan and Zhang then compile these photos into collages every week on their personal pages, as well as the account.

The digital striking movement is only about four months old but has been growing each week. Part of Fridays for Future’s success is rooted in unity, consistency and visualization. To deliver success, the movement needs individuals to strike on a weekly basis, not just occasionally. Digital striking helps to remove barriers to entry and create that consistency.

“We want to emphasize weekly action and not just waiting for the next big strike,” says Zhan.

Another benefit of digital striking is that it gives a voice to people outside of major cities. Often, national media limits their coverage of striking to big cities like New York, D.C. or London. Zhan is from suburban Maryland, with no public transportation — a big deal for teens without licenses — and no high-profile government buildings to strike outside of. Social media provides the time and the place for everyone to strike, regardless of where you’re from.

We want to emphasize weekly action and not just waiting for the next big strike.

Iris Zhan, 16-year-old climate Activist

Digital striking also provides another supportive community for these youth climate activists. In my talks with climate activists the last several months, I’ve learned that this community is integral to the success of the movement. It’s not just the physical support; it’s also the mental support.

“The biggest challenge for me has been my mental health,” said 17-year-old Jamie Margolin, founder of climate organization Zero Hour, on a panel co-hosted by Earth Day Network and Twitter earlier this year. “The climate anxiety is really real for me.”

In September, Foster II told me he relies on comfort and healing calls — a way to “let it out” and “rant” to other activists in the movement. Fridays for Future and the digital community give him an outlet to combat the frustration associated with striking in the face of government inaction on climate change.

Encountering a challenge as enormous and existential as climate change, youth leaders are pulling out all the stops, using every resource they have to sound the alarm on the urgency of this crisis and the desperate need for global action. Digital striking serves as one more factor in the growing climate movement that its proponents hope will coalesce into an unavoidable force of change.

“I personally believe the change will come eventually,” says Zhang. “The facts are starting to add up, and people are starting to be more and more aware of what is going on around us.”

Meanwhile, activists like Zhan and Zhang will continue to digital strike on behalf of the Fridays for Future movement and their future. To them, there’s no other way — they feel compelled to strike. If your future was on the line, wouldn’t you?

“We don’t just want to stay silent — we want to show that we are out here still being active in the climate movement and still demanding climate action,” says Zhan. “I know that a lot of kids can relate to that.”