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  • Youth Climate Activists Trading on Time:Temporal Strategies in Xiuhtezcatl Martinez's We Rise and Greta Thunberg's No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference
  • Rachel Conrad (bio)

"People say that we're the future right, that we're going to inherit this planet, and in the future we're going to be able to make a difference. And it's amazing to see young people stand up and say 'We're not going to wait until then, we're going to do something now.'"

—Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (in Kid Warrior, a film by Vanessa Black)

Here, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a climate activist in the United States who was fifteen years old when he spoke these words, refers to contrasting ways that adults and youth conceptualize and position young people in relation to time and action. To adults, according to Martinez, youth are "the future," with an emphasis that suggests a blend of promise and dismissiveness, with more weight on the latter. Young people invested in intervening in climate issues interrupt this view and their ascribed temporal positioning: they claim a platform "to do something now" rather than "wait until then." In doing so, young people bypass typical childhood roles, if being a child means trusting in adults to promote one's well-being and help secure one's future, and they work directly toward securing their future. In their speech and writing, youth climate activists can critique child and adult roles, and adults' performance as adults. When they insist on acting "now" rather than "then," young activists invoke time strategically as a rhetorical driver of an argument for their right, capacity, and necessity to take climate action in the present. [End Page 226]

Young people's temporal rhetoric is often a primary element of their climate activism. It makes visible the dangers of anthropogenic climate change now and for the future; it frames the immediate necessity of climate action; and it enjoins youths and people of all ages into the current effort.1 Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg are prominent youth activists who deploy temporal rhetoric strategically in relation to the climate crisis. This temporal discourse is sometimes mirrored in the significant media attention each has received, as in the titles of "We the Future" and "Now or Never," an exhibit and article featuring Martinez and Thunberg, respectively, both of which include portraits by artist Shepard Fairey.2 Martinez is a program facilitator for the Indigenous Youth Leadership Initiative (and former Youth Director) of the youth environmental organization Earth Guardians (Earth Guardians). He is one of the young plaintiffs in the climate lawsuit Juliana versus United States, suing the US federal government over violating young people's constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property that, they argue, include the right to a "stable climate system" (Juliana versus United States, "First Amended Complaint" 99). Thunberg is well-known for her "school strike for the climate" (Thunberg et al. 219) initiated in August 2018 and afterwards for spearheading the global movement Fridays for Future. Both cases provide examples of how young climate activists take on major social and political institutions—school, government, legal system, codifications of human rights—as part of their activism. Martinez and Thunberg have each produced books drawing on their climate activism: Martinez's 2017 book We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet3 and Greta Thunberg's 2019 collection of speeches No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.4 In this essay, I analyze Martinez's and Thunberg's use of time and age in these texts, their considerations of age-based social roles of children and adults in terms of maturity and responsibility, and their critiques of discourses of youth and futurity. I demonstrate how young people's temporal standpoints as children provide unique vantage points on the climate crisis and climate activism. Specifically, I explore how Martinez and Thunberg trade on time, or manipulate temporal terms and references in strategic ways as key components of their arguments for the necessity of action in relation to environmental policies and politics.

In scholarship on youth activism, it is imperative to consider the opportunities and pressures...