As I travel across America, I’m endlessly fascinated and make continual discoveries. Not only because I find that the country is infinitely diverse geographically, but because demographically it is a veritable palimpsest of worlds within worlds.
Not surprisingly, ideology, attitudes and beliefs are just as polarized. Whatever you are used to as an East or West coast resident seems to be irrelevant in the so-called “heart of the country”. Repeatedly, during many separate trips, I have seen that in the conservative rural states such as Wyoming, Nevada and New Mexico, to name just a few, it is not unusual to see signs that say: “NO TRESPASSING. BEWARE. I OWN A GUN AND A BACKHOE” ” or similar warnings. Outsiders of all kinds, those who are “different” in their racial, ideological or religious identity, are not welcome. This is conservative country. This is where Trump reigns supreme.
While visiting the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, to my surprise I came upon a demonstration by the Student Climate Strikers, a group that today embodies the deep divide between the Trump-led GOP position of climate change denial, and the liberal assertions that climate change may be reaching the tipping point of irreversible disaster. Utah is a well-known conservative enclave–hence my surprise—so I seized on the opportunity to speak to some of the students striking to find out how the Greta Thunberg-inspired movement is playing out in Utah, what they think of Greta Thunberg as an activist, and what their expectations are for the future of the movement, and of our planet.
I spoke to Raquel Juarez and Ari Grace, two passionate and articulate young women who have some very definite ideas to share with us. Their organization is “Fridays for Future Utah”, an organization that was founded in March of 2019. Raquel is the Youth Organizer and Artistic Director, and Ari is the Youth Organizer and responsible for Public Relations. The student strikers meet at the Salt Lake City State Capitol Building every Friday from 9 to 2.
GRB: How large is your group of student protesters?
Raquel and Ari Grace: Daily we have about 8 to 10 here at the Capitol, but we can muster anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 for a global strike, from around Salt Lake City and other cities in Utah. I’m from Ogden. We gather in front of any governmental building.
GRB: So, what do you think about Greta Thunberg and the speech she gave at the UN? Do you think that she is knowledgeable?
Raquel and Ari: We know that Greta says that she writes her very own speeches and we can see that she’s very passionate about this one thing. We believe exactly what she says.
Ari: Yeah, I think she really knows.
Raquel: She actually gets most of her facts from scientists that she’s close to.
GRB: I was reading somewhere that a Trump supporter called Greta “the little Swedish psycho”. How do you feel about that?
Ari and Raquel: Yeah, I think he called her retarded too. Because she has Asperger’s Syndrome the opponents use that to say that she basically can’t think for herself and that she’s being used as a political pawn, and there are a lot of conspiracy theories about her being retarded and just reading from scripts and that other have written. And even that she’s paid to do it.
Ari: There’s a lot of ignorance about mental health and autism too. I think that people who don’t believe in climate change target that and try to use that issue to discredit Greta and her cause. They use it as an excuse to discredit the theory of climate change.
GRB: Do you think that young people are into politics today? In general? Or only on certain issues?
Ari: I think kids are getting more and more into politics and activism these days, especially after the Parkland shooting and the gun control issue. I think that’s when kids really started to get into activism and now, with the climate change strike that is getting more popular too. But I don’t know if I would say that they’re really involved in politics. Kids are generally into their own lives.
Raquel: No, I think they are. It’s just that we care more about climate change because this is our future and what we are being left with. This is what we’re going to have to live with, and so this is something that we can put our energy behind, to fight for our future movement. But I just want to get back to a society where people talk about things, and try to find solutions.
GRB: Are you angry about the environmental situation? The climate change crisis?
Ari: I try not to be angry, because anger is not good. But then sometimes you see headlines about what’s going on and you realize…it just gets to you—what’s happening is not okay.
Raquel: I do feel that I don’t want to be angry, but it’s just that this is something that is being taken away from us. And this should really not happen, this is a planet that belongs to all of us and not just for the few people to benefit. That’s just not justice. And we want justice for all and that means climate justice too!
GRB: In your opinion, who is to blame for the situation that we find ourselves in, environmentally, on the global level?
[Raquel points to the Capitol behind her] Those people up there.
Ari: The ones in power who have been ignoring the science for decades in the interest of creating profit.
Raquel: They have the power to make changes. They are the ones that are supposed to be leading us and informing us, but they are not doing that.
GRB: Yet not everyone is ignoring the issue. It seems to me that the Democrats care enough to make it an important issue in the presidential campaign. Do you put the blame on previous generations? On only one political party?
Raquel: Well, mostly on previous generations. There are ambitious goals, but then you need laws to pass, but then once these go to Congress, they just wither away. They keep getting voted down. We blame those people who should have done something but have chosen not to.
GRB: What do you think will come out of this new young people’s activism? After all, it’s your planet and your future.
Ari: I like to look at other countries and the different laws that they have made, like carbon taxes. Some governments, especially in Europe, they’re starting to take action. Are they doing everything that they could be doing? No, but they’re starting to, and I just hope that here in Utah they will start to listen.
Raquel: We really just want to put climate change in the headlines, because once that happens then change can start to happen, because right now, we’re not talking enough about it, we’re just blindly going forward to disaster.
GRB: Do you think that more would be done about the environmental situation if we had a president who believes in science?
Ari: Of course! We believe that science is the entire backbone of why this is important. If you believe in science and look at what’s happening, it’s terrifying, and you would want to bring change, but people would rather not believe in science. We need our leaders to lead with science!
GRB: But you say “people don’t believe in science”. Does no one believe in it? Who doesn’t believe in it?
Raquel: Well, over in Europe, like Greta says, science is more of a fact. I’m sure a lot of people do know the facts of science, it’s just that they do nothing about it.
GRB: Are you aware of all the EPA rollbacks that Trump has put in place that affect water, air and energy supplies? And that now he’s thinking of opening up protected Alaskan territory to logging and mining?
Both: Yes, in this country we’re going backwards, and that’s definitely not what we need right now. Other countries “get it”. We’re supposed to be the leaders in the world. We have the technology and the money. Other countries don’t, but they do more with less. We should be showing other countries the way and yet, we’re not.
GRB: Are you optimistic about the future?
Raquel and Ari: With this movement, we’re a lot more optimistic than before. But we have to work hard to make it happen.
GRB: Well, Ari and Raquel, you serve as models for what all young people should be doing to save the planet, here in Utah and everywhere else. Good luck and thank you!