A group of five young climate activists are entering their ninth day of a hunger strike to demand that Democrats in Congress pass meaningful climate legislation as part of the Build Back Better agenda. Hunger strikes have a long, varied history as a tool to fight injustice and demand rights—but this climate strike is unique in the way it shows a gap between generations.
Hunger strikes put the body through immensely difficult, painful, and life-threatening conditions. One striker, Kidus Girma, 26, was hospitalized over the weekend. Doctors allowed him to return to the strike only after keeping an eye on him overnight.
“I’m honestly feeling pretty terrible,” one of the strikers, Ema Govea, said on Thursday. “I’m really tired and can’t walk very much.”
Govea was stationed in front of Congress on Thursday with her fellow hunger strikers to urge progressives to hold the line against Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s attempts to force a vote on the infrastructure bill. She turned 18 just a day before the strike began.
“This is a very, very hard experience, and it’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she said. “It’s been very tiring and physically and emotionally draining. I’m a person where it’s hard for me to not be able to walk anymore, to not have my autonomy or energy. I like to be able to do things and be working as much as I can. It’s been really hard to be away from home now. It’s my senior year of high school, and I should be in class right now with my friends. That’s been really hard. I’d love to go home.”
Historically, the efficacy of hunger strikes has depended on a few specific factors. Hunger strikes are often considered a protest of last resort. That makes them a particularly effective form of political protest in prisons, which is where many of history’s most high-profile hunger strikes have taken place, from incarcerated IRA members in Belfast in the 1980s to Black political prisoners in apartheid South Africa to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay during the Obama administration.
Outside of prison, since hunger strikes often rely greatly on publicity and public sympathy to enact change, it helps if one of the strikers has a high profile to draw attention to the cause. Mahatma Gandhi’s various fasts over the course of his political life, including his successful hunger strike in protest of the British support of the caste system, are perhaps the best-known examples. And strikes often work best, as journalist Brian Palmer wrote for Slate in 2013, when there are clear and limited demands being made on the powers in place—demands that can be met in the timeframe of the human body’s ability to last without food.
These strikers aren’t incarcerated nor were they known to the wider public before the strike began last week. But there are some key things that stand out. The strikers are incredibly young people putting their lives quite literally on the line for this cause; Girma is the oldest striker, and he’s just 26 years old.
What these young people are doing is unique in the history of hunger strikes, though, because it shows a rift in how younger generations think about climate change. Those on strike have clear knowledge that their lives will be forever altered for the worse by climate inaction. Volumes of research show the risk if politicians fail to reduce emissions in the coming decades at a rate unheard of in human history. That’s led to sharp confrontations with politicians, and those interactions show there’s a divide here.
“Joe Manchin, if the United States of America does not cut our emissions by at least 50%, I have to grow up in a nonstop climate emergency,” one of the strikers, Abby Leedy, who is 20, said to Manchin on Tuesday as she confronted him at an event in Washington, DC, while speaking from her wheelchair. “I have been on a hunger strike for seven days.”
“Call my office,” Manchin told her.
The interaction shows how politicians—many of whom are much older—don’t see the strikers’ urgency or view climate change as an existential threat. And it isn’t just Manchin who has shown little sympathy for the future of the planet (and made a mint from their fossil fuel industry ties). Even the Biden administration, which has been flying the flag of climate progressivism since taking power, seems barely aware of the strikers who have spent days in front of the White House. When asked about the strike at a press briefing on Wednesday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki seemed confused as to what the protest was for. She gave a lukewarm response that “the President admires the activism and the energy of young people who are out there advocating for what they believe in.” In other words, activists view this as a life and death situation while the administration and Manchin see it as “love your passion” moment.
I asked Govea about if she thought that the older politicians on the Hill fully understood what she and her fellow climate strikers were demonstrating was at stake.
“We’ve made it very clear that they know the science just as much as we do,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is [to have] them to see our humanity and understand that it’s our futures at stake and millions of other people’s futures at stake. I think that the politicians care more about their fossil fuel money, but I don’t know how to understand what’s going on in their minds.”
Young activists are often waved away by older pundit types as being too dramatic about the climate crisis, blowing up what some see as a run-of-the-mill policy battle into an existential struggle. But for the strikers, and this is a last resort action to protect their wellbeing and the wellbeing of future generations. Not to be crass, but most of the politicians debating the Build Back Better Act will be dead in a few decades while the young hunger strikers will be entering what is supposed to be the prime of their lives. But the decisions of politicians today will decide just how much the planet is ready to welcome them. The strikers have decided it is worth putting their health on the line for now to have a shot at a better future.
“Part of why we’re here is to make them understand we’re fighting for our survival,” Govea said. “At the end of the day, that is what we’re doing. We’re fighting for our survival, and we’re fighting to live.”