The Youth Section at the Goetheanum team visited the Fridays for Future march in Basel at the end of November. Here, protesters chant “black Friday, black future” while seating on the busiest shopping street in Basel.

The Fridays for Future movement was launched in Germany for the first time in September 2018 and has grown steadily ever since. Following the example of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the pupils go on strike on Fridays and visit the local protest action under the motto “Together against the climate crisis”. The influence of the movement can be noticed throughout the Western world and can no longer be ignored, no matter how one positions oneself toward the movement. What can be learned from this movement as a social phenomenon?

The current, ongoing and increasing strength of the movement attests that the youth have found a common ideal for which it is committed. The protection of the environment is a universal concern that needs to be addressed effectively and sustainably. The fact that young people want to work together to create a future in which coming generations can live a good life is an extraordinarily positive development that can be observed. In addition, an enormous change of consciousness is slowly but surely taking place in dealing with nature. If one looks back only a few years on the beginning of the climate movement, such a radical change of consciousness and historical upheaval can most likely be observed, which is comparable to that of the French Revolution. At the same time, this development shows how disappointed young people are by current politics. For this reason, the movement aims to persuade politicians to stand up for climate protection by boycotting schools on Fridays and by demonstrating in city centers, and in Germany in particular, for the withdrawal of carbon.

The simple and yet exciting question that the observer asks is the following: will the movement achieve its goal through Friday demonstrations only? In other words, will the movement be able to make the political authorities implement its demands without exception (because nothing else would be needed to avoid irreversible consequences)?

In the actions of the demonstrators there is a certain absurdity that refers to social contradictions when it comes to solving socio-political problems from a grassroots movement. The demonstration implies the attitude “those up there will judge it if we are only loud enough”. It can be observed that an infinite amount of energy is put into showing the government that it has to take care of the environment on behalf of the population. The very personal commitment to the environment and to climate change, however, usually remains flat, which is a pity when you consider how often and how big the demonstrations are. The protest is therefore an act of responsibility. The own task of responsibility for the environment is projected onto the state and thus externalized. The psychology of demonstration would therefore be as follows: to be confronted with a problem for which each individual is responsible; to notice helplessness because one is not able to deal with it; to join together with other helpless people; to become one in the crowd in a rapturous way; to give up responsibility; to trust in a higher authority; to calm one’s conscience with it for a short time.

But why is this the generally accepted way to implement the wishes of the population even though it is far from achieving the desired results? This is due to the general idea of the tasks that the state has. This idea of state and politics is often still based on that of the Enlightenment, namely that of Thomas Hobbes, which he describes in his work Leviathan: In order to protect citizens from anarchist chaos and guarantee them security, the state must be able to rule and create order. It is particularly important to consider that the state should also protect its citizens from itself, because ultimately the natural state of man is war. To sum up: the people need an all organizing state, otherwise it would not work. With Hobbes, the state is a biblical monster, a Leviathan, in the form of a royal authority. In the modern case, it is parliamentary democracy. Although the idea of a single ruling authority in persona is rejected today, the Leviathan is allowed to rule again in the form of a state apparatus with several members. Thus, the Leviathan has only changed his form, he has become a Hydra.

There is a massive latent fear of chaos, which is linked to the situation when the state does not regulate and organize everything. The trust is placed in the fact that all the interests of the citizens are represented and enforced within the state. One could almost say that with this internalized notion of the state as the caring super-father, the citizens willingly relinquish their responsibility. The final step in the demonstration is to wait for the government to change something. This action moves eternally in the foundations of the prescribed rules, because it cannot escape the mental framework of the prescribed political thinking space, because it is not even aware of it.

The massive problem that arises from this is that the citizen becomes incapable to act. These often-prevailing notions of political decision-making and enforcement almost make the citizen paralyzed. Another problem is the party system established in Germany, for example. It is obvious that the Green Party is celebrating great success in Germany since Fridays for Future has become an extensive movement. As long as the Green Party cannot achieve an absolute majority in the next parliamentary elections, however, the party will have to compromise in a coalition, which means that most likely cuts will be made in the area of climate change and environmental protection. After the election, citizens will not have any influence on who the party will form a coalition with and what decisions it will make if they do not want to become members of the party themselves.

The problem with the current party system is that it is more about party interests than actually about ideas and solutions. Especially in German politics there is a strong culture of compromise, whereby demanded climate agreements always fail or are only partially implemented. It is also noticeable that most of the time politicians demand bans and restrictions that restrict the freedom of citizens. The way of the will education over the medium of the politics leads in its nature of the present system to the incapacity of the citizen to decide and to its unfree act, out of legal obligation. Therefore, the question arises whether the current policy is the right place to solve the climate and environmental issues.

But how can we escape from the dilemma outlined above? A first step would be to honestly observe one’s own thinking, e.g. in relation to the following questions: What is a self-determined person? What is true democracy? And do I really know what is going on in current politics and what determines it? In the “Philosophy of Freedom” Rudolf Steiner describes the observation of one’s own thinking as a state of exception, through which the deterministic chain of causality is broken and inner freedom begins. Thus one can certainly come to other results than the author in the process of observation of thought.

There are two ways of approaching environmental protection and climate change: Resignation and Action. Philosophically, this is like Kant’s questions about freedom: freedom whereof? And freedom for what? On an individual level, it is usually possible to renounce to something, so that the environment is burdened as little as possible, which sometimes leads to the idea, consistently and purely scientifically thought, that man is harming the Earth with his very existence. An example of this is Verena Brunschweiger with her book “Kinderfrei statt kinderlos” (“Free of children instead of childless”). Brunschweiger pleads for not having any more children for the sake of the environment, as these are the greatest burden on the environment. As an incentive for it each woman, who did not have a child up to 50 years of age, should receive 50,000 euro from the state, so Brunschweiger.

At this point, renunciation should only be rejected where it takes on life-despising features. There is no doubt that proper renunciation is an important tool for protecting the Earth. Kant, on the other hand, says that only he who answers the question of “what for freedom” can also achieve true freedom. This is the core question; what should one use one’s own freedom for? If one frees oneself on Fridays from school, university or work, for what purpose would one use this freedom? What is the actual goal? Is it the goal to convince politicians with all one’s means? Or to do something for the environment by joining forces?

In Rudolf Steiner’s social tripartite structure, ecology belongs in the area of economic life and not in legal life. If there is a need among people for the preservation of the environment, associations must be formed that take care of their concerns in their own projects or in larger cooperations. Where would we be if the demonstration movement were to form local and regional associations in which something very practical is done every Friday? Legal life can only determine through laws and prohibitions not to pollute the environment to this or that extent. The construction and reconstruction of the environment, however, can only take place through the free action of man, beyond the state. If the state itself does not show enough initiative in our time, then it is up to each individual citizen to act himself, regardless of whether the state or social ideas approve this. In response to John Henry Mackay’s question as to whether Steiner would call himself an individualistic anarchist, Steiner reluctantly affirmed this in an open letter of 1898. So anyone who always only does what is given by the state will not achieve his goal here.

When the French Revolution broke out at the end of the 18th century, Goethe rigorously rejected it, not because he did not support its endeavor, but because he rejected the politicization of the masses. Goethe recognized that mass protests put people into a state of intoxication and promote the emergence of lower instincts and cloud the sense of truth. For Goethe, in such a case there is always the danger that the protesting mass will become the plaything of a few agitators. For Friedrich Schiller, the French Revolution was a bitter disappointment. He had placed great hopes in it until the masses finally resorted to violence. Schiller then began to develop an aesthetic therapy in order to cultivate the inner freedom in man, ultimately to create fertile ground for a free state. This is how the aesthetic letters arose, which first make people mature and then act socially.

Not least to show something very practical and implemented: a luminous example of a forward-looking project is the work of art 7000 Oaks by Joseph Beuys. In 1982, Beuys greened the city of Kassel with 7,000 oak trees and the help of volunteers, according to the motto “Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung” (city forestation instead of city administration). A social-plastic design of conditions according to common ideas, as Beuys sketched it out, could well become a salutary process of society. According to the much-discussed study by ETH Zurich from July 2019, trees are even the most effective measure to stop climate change.

In the future, such project-based action will become increasingly important when it comes to environmental and climate protection. Some of the things that climate scientists have demanded to already have been prevented are already happening. To live with these consequences will be our task. Finding solutions as to how to deal with them will be more necessary in the future than the current gesture of wanting to prevent, as Harald Welzer says in his book “Alles könnte anders. A Utopia for Free People”. (Everything could be different. An Utopia for Free People.) Nothing is achieved with fear and panic. Not even with splitting political discussions. What will be required is an individual, but common and social shaping of the environment in order to meet the challenges of our time with dignity.

Nicolas Nicolas Blaue is from Dortmund in Germany and is 20 years old. He is currently studying at the Goetheanum and is a member of the February Days 2020 “Bound to Earth: Freedom, Responsibility and Destiny in Times of Climate Crises”, youth winter conference. 

This article was originally written for and published by the German magazine Erziehungskunst. Many thanks to Nicolas for letting us also publish it in English here.