Alec Loorz is a 17-year-old high school student in Ventura, California, who believes his generation is poised to inherit a world where mass production, environmental degradation and the burning of fossil fuels has put the future of human society at risk. He is one of seven youth plaintiffs currently suing the federal government on behalf of youth everywhere in an attempt to take Washington to task on climate change. The atmosphere, they argue, belongs to the public and our leaders must protect it for future generations. On May 11, a federal court in Washington, DC, will decide whether young people have standing in such a case against the government.
As a young teenager, Alec founded the group Kids vs. Global Warming to empower and educate young people. His organization has held workshops, actions and marches across the country to help youths realize that they have the power to take on an issue of global proportions.
Alec’s journey into climate activism began when he saw Al Gore’s «An Inconvenient Truth» at the age of 12. In order to convince a skeptical friend that global warming is real, Alec began researching climate change and soon put together a presentation for his classmates. Since then, Alec has addressed about 300,000 people with speeches and presentations across the country and is known as one of the prominent youth voices in the climate-change debate. When Alec is not busy with activism, he writes, blogs, makes music and works and interns at a jet propulsion laboratory. Truthout recently interviewed Alec about the federal lawsuit, the role of youth in the climate struggle and his vision for the future.
Truthout: Do you feel like climate change and also the sustainability of our society is a more pressing issue for young people? Do you feel like young people see this as a more immediate thing on which to act?
Alec Loorz: I really think so and I’ve seen that first hand after talking to thousands of young people and meeting thousands of youth. I’ve just really seen that we have this sense that this is the movement of our time, the crisis of our time … it’s our future we are fighting for, it’s our survival that’s at stake. I feel like we just have the authority to look past any politics and financial talk and really get to what this is really about. We have the authority to say, «this is about our survival, this is about our future, does our future matter to you?» We have this kind of authority that other people don’t have. So, I feel like we, even if people don’t understand it or realize it, we have this kind of sense inside of us that is just waiting to be sparked and waiting to be lit up. And that is really inspiring … I’m going to a kind of deeper level of awakening and just realizing that the issue we’re dealing with is bigger than just climate change and it’s more about this sickness we all have, this kind of mindset of growth and the Earth belonging to us as a resource to be conquered and people as consumers and enemies, and if you want to stop climate change you have to start with that.
TO: How do your peers receive your speeches and how have adults reacted to your campaigns and presentations? Do a lot of people get inspired to get active after seeing you speak?
AL: Yeah. In the past, it’s pretty much always been extremely positive. With adults, a lot of times, at least in the past when … I was just kind of a cute little kid just sort of doing this thing, it was really just kind of like, «oh look at what this young person is doing, it’s really inspiring.» But with young people, it’s been more of a, hey, I can do it and so can you kind of thing. The fact that I had been doing something and that I had gotten involved was just as, if not more inspiring, than what I was saying because it just shows them that we as youth, we really have the power to stand up for what we believe in. In some ways, it was more a kind of like youth empowerment and empowerment to get involved in what we care about more than the actual specifics of climate change. But it’s always been extremely positive and there’s always been young people who have come up to me after presentations and said, you know, «before this I thought I couldn’t make a difference and now I am ready to start a club at my school.» And people just get really excited about starting community gardens and starting campaigns in their school to reduce carbon footprints and stuff.
TO: I’ve seen your stuff online and it seems like you’re really going after our consciousness as a society as opposed to just the politics.
AL: Exactly. In the past, I’ve always been this kind of gung ho climate activist that uses words like «gung ho» … and just kind of saying, «hey lets change our light bulbs and ride a bike and lets march in the streets.» I’m just realizing now that like, although changing light bulbs and marching in the streets and, you know, standing up for what we care about is important and are extremely vital parts of what needs to happen, it only takes us part of the way. It seems like if we actually want to solve climate change or any of the issues that we’re facing, it needs to be a change in the way we think. Climate change is just a symptom of this sickness that we have, whatever you want to call it, this sickness, this mindset that we’ve kind of like bought into over thousands of years and it’s this mindset and we are higher than nature and we have the right to do whatever we want to it for our own personal gain. It feels like we all have to kind of deal with some sense of denial with all of this because like, there are warnings and calls for action thrown at us daily, constantly one after another and another and all this talk about tipping points and it’s all going to crash … so we have to live with some sense of denial in order to keep us sane. Even us who are in the movement, in the trenches, we have to deal with some sense of denial in order to stay alive … climate issues are just a symptom of bigger issues like war and poverty and hunger and disaster … all this stuff is just symptoms of the same thing, regardless of the background that we’re coming from, we’re all victims of this same sickness … really what needs to happen is we need to somehow break free from this sickness that we all have fallen victim to. And I think the first step is recognizing it as a sickness, recognizing that it’s there … it’s a kind of a much deeper kind of emotional level of understanding and change that I think … is really important.
TO: How do you feel about being a plaintiff against the federal government?
AL: It actually definitely does relate to that kind of deeper stuff. With this lawsuit … we’re basically saying, with this lawsuit, we’re not asking the government for money or demanding power or to take way our rights as Americans or anything. We’re basically asking our government to recognize the atmosphere as a public trust that has to be protected for future generations. If anything that is like a concrete example of what this new mindset will look like, or what we’ve lost, or what we’re fighting for because we are basically saying to our government, we do have this real responsibility to protect our climate for our generation and for future generations and youth … you’ve allowed money and power and convenience and politics to be counted as more valuable and more important than our survival and we’re not going to take that. But it’s less of us fighting them over climate change and us trying to take over the ruling generation and more of just saying, yes, fossil fuels have gotten us to where we are now, we’re grateful for that … but unfortunately for all of us, burning fossil fuels at the rate that we are now and living in the way that we are now, valuing money and power more than anything else, is unsustainable and unjust and if we continue living in this way much longer we are going to face vast consequences that are in some ways irreversible. We’re saying on behalf of all of us, on behalf of the children of the oil lobbyists, we have to progress and evolve to something more sustainable.
TO: When we talk about a sustainable future, in your mind, what does it look like? Is it windmills, is it solar or is it something bigger?
AL: I think, for me and kind of with this recent thinking, it seems like there’s a few different ways to come at this. There’s how we live, there’s what we value and how we think as a community and I think … one of the most defining factor of this new sustainable world or new … way of living, is pretty much just how we think, what we value. It seems like if we learn to value nature and this generation as much as money and power or more than money and power, all the other things will naturally just follow. In terms in what that actually physically looks like, in some ways it’s hard to define, but in other ways it’s kind of crystal clear. It just means we … live in smaller communities, we’re more connected to our communities. We have to, in every aspect of our lifestyle, we have to consider the impact on future generations. So our energy comes from renewable resources, we don’t drive as much, we don’t use as much, we don’t buy as much, we understand that we’re just one part of nature and we live our lives in a way that … shows that or exemplifies that. And yeah, that does mean, you know, using energy efficient light bulbs and using reusable water pumps and buying solar panels and … eating organic healthy foods and not eating as much meat. That is what this world will look like and I can see it, I can visualize it and it’s really hard to put into words because I think that … all of those changes are almost secondary to this … deep level of awakening and that sort of becomes difficult when you start thinking into that territory.
TO: You could be criticized for paying lip service to an issue as opposed to taking more direct action. When you talk about this in terms of consciousness and empowerment of individuals and communities, it starts to make a lot more sense, your approach. Maybe you can tell me a bit about that and how it relates to the iMatter March and other mobilizations that you do.
AL: That definitely is something that I have already struggled with and people have pointed that out before. Even with the iMatter March … the goal of that is getting people involved and raising awareness rather than working on taking huge amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. On one hand, I’ve always struggled with, that it is not the right way to do it and we need to be doing things that actually … physically reduce carbon and we can count how much we are reducing, or planting trees or planting community gardens. There are a lot of people doing that kind of like physical, concrete sort of work, but I feel like my role, and our role as an organization is to kind of fuel the movement of empowered young people … if they decide to get involved in these marches and join kind of the like teams in their communities, they will begin to make those other decision in other parts of their lives secondarily. That is coming in through being involved in a movement and it seems like that is more important than anything, building the network … of young people and all people … who see the same and care about the same things. And we have, as a movement, to start going through this journey together … we will basically begin that transition and it seems like, if anything, these marches are just about youth feeling like they are a part of something because that’s sort of something that we have lost out on. And I think that one of the most exciting parts of our existence, of this mess that we’re in, we’re losing connection with one another and I think if anything this movement and this network … brings us back to this sense of community and being connected to each other and then as a community we will be able to spark change and from within. And then we can go out and begin to push for all these other, more concrete actions.
TO: If you’re a young person and you look at issue like global warming, which is by name and definition huge, but, you know, it seems like you’re making that accessible to people so they can feel empowered to tackle it, perhaps as a generation. Is that kind of how you feel about it?
AL: Definitively. My role has always in the past been taking these really complex issues and translating them into terms that are really easy to understand. That’s kind of what I’ve aimed to do with presentations and speeches and stuff, taking these huge concepts and … communicating them to young people and the general public … in terms that people can really care about, not just in terms that are scientific and vague and political. I’m really happy in seeing that as my role.
Fighting for the Future: Interview With Youth Climate Movement Leader Alec Loorz.