[Book Review] An ode to the young voices echoing the earth’s call for help

  • ‘United We Are Unstoppable’ is a collection of first-person accounts of sixty young climate leaders from across the world.
  • These short essays and other accounts were edited and compiled by Akshat Rathi, a London-based reporter for Bloomberg News, who specialises in climate and energy.
  • The book speaks of these young leaders’ unwavering spirit and their determination to seek involvement from the decision-makers and stakeholders alike in the fight against climate change.

United We Are Unstoppable is a book that started as an attempt to recognise and appreciate unsung heroes fighting against human abuse of natural resources and climate change. It attempts to amplify young voices, striving to uplift the climate struggle to a world stage.

The 60 climate leaders documented in the book are bubbling with energy and are dreaming of the future. They come from across the globe and belong to a dynamic age group – from an 11-year-old Lillith Electra Plath (The Netherlands) to Adrian Toth (Belgium) and Sebenel Rodney Carval (Eswatini) who are in their 30s. The book is thought-provoking. There are moments when you are hit by a pang of inexplicable guilt-for not doing enough or being too careless.

Some of these accounts speak of experiencing “climate anxiety.” The predicted rise in global temperatures and sea-water levels, the depletion of fossil fuels, rampant deforestation, and freshwater shortage are together leading to an uncertain future, building stress on these young minds.

In India, 16-year-old Aditya Mukarji is campaigning against single-use plastic. India generates 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, and the plastics processing industry is expected to grow by 22 million tonnes a year, starting from 2020. Mukarji’s campaign urges people to #RefuseIfYouCannotReuse plastic carry bags, bottles, disposable cutlery, straws, among others. He draws knowledge and resources from his father, who has worked with industrial giants and understands the magnitude of the problem.

Mukarji and his contemporaries’ collective vision seems to echo a cry for help coming from all parts of the planet, for protection and preservation of planetary resources, and to keep it habitable. Their inspirations are myriad. Some have drawn inspiration closer at home – benevolent and knowledgeable parents, efficient teachers, charismatic political figures, former United State’s Vice President Al Gore’s book – An Inconvenient Truth, and the documentary based on it. For a few others, impactful and traumatic incidents led to a firm resolve to save the planet.

Sixteen-year-old Theresa Rose Sebastian, who now lives in Ireland, happened to be in Kerala, India, during the devastating floods of 2018. With over 400 deaths and more than a million people displaced, this was the worst flood Kerala witnessed in a century. When Sebastian and her family were stuck there, they at least had a roof over their heads but had to swim out to fetch essentials. Many others were not so lucky. The floods caused property damage to the tune of Rs 310 billion (31,000 crores).

Aditya Mukarji and his contemporaries’ collective vision seems to echo a cry for help coming from all parts of the planet, for protection and preservation of planetary resources, and to keep it habitable. Photo by Akshat Rathi.

Italian climate activist Federica Gasbarro’s account of a dead dolphin floating ashore and spitting out its entrails entwined in plastic refuse moves you. For a moment, you find yourself stepping into the shoes of a teenager, frolicking on the beach, and then stunned, horrified, and in tears on witnessing the dead animal wash ashore.

“I started striking from school not so much for humanity but for all the animals that we are dragging off the cliff with us,” said 15-year-old Holly Gillibrand at the Scottish Greens Conference in April 2019. Holly campaigns against wildlife persecution, while Gasbarro managed to move millions into climate strikes and they have together “won the European Union’s pledge to spend billions on climate change over the next decade.”

While some of them acknowledge that they are fortunate enough not to experience the direct effects of climate change and can practice advocacy from a position of privilege,  for others, it is a fight for survival. This also regulates which niche of the climate struggle they take up for campaigning.

The contrast between Brandon Nguyen and Vivianne Roc’s stories is compelling and intimidating at the same time.

Nguyen, a 20-year-old from Canada, is campaigning for accessible climate education by pointing out the discrepancy between the public’s will to learn and the unavailability of teachers or guides. On the other hand, 22-year-old Roc lives in a slum in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. She is seeing her people lose lives due to dengue, malaria, famines, and other natural disasters. These people occupy the lowermost rungs of society’s economic pyramid. They perhaps contributed least to this climate crisis but are bearing the brunt of it. So, Vivianne Roc is fighting for her future and the survival of her people.

Island nations are most at risk – Curacao, the Philippines, Haiti, may be washed off the face of the earth in a few years if immediate action is not taken.  In 2009, the then president of Maldives, Mohammad Nasheed, held the cabinet meeting of his government underwater, to send a message across to the United Nation’s climate change conference in Copenhagen. This was a unique way to register a protest by a world leader.

However, the young climate leaders highlighted in the book do not have that level of influence or monetary support to pull off something of that grandeur. Most of them are regular school-going students, and many have found hope and reassurance through the movement that Swedish activist Greta Thunberg brought to the world stage.

They are dedicated participants of the #FridaysForFuture movement, organising climate strike protests on Fridays, instead of going to school. They express concerns about being treated as rebels, who have taken up activism as their excuse for ditching school. Their accounts vehemently speak against this narrative.

It is not unexpected that they have to start small. Many have adopted a bottom-up approach, diverting their attention to the grassroots level. They are working with local indigenous communities, regional NGOs, and other small organisations, for damage control sporadically. Many have gone on to establish small platforms and organisations with climate goals, in their localities, which now have gathered nationwide support – Plurielles in Haiti, JOCA in Argentina, Curitiba Climate coalition in Brazil.

A section of youth activists is trying to adopt a top-down approach. Their appeals are directed towards governments, and the way forward seems to be to get them on-board. These young leaders are demanding certain accountability from the world leaders, through strikes and protests. They want the difficult conversations to be brought to the table. They are aware of global economic and socio-political structures, and their approach is holistic. Most of them are not eligible voters, but they do realise that the power to make change exists in the hand of the elected representatives.

The young leaders are struggling to bridge the gap between two generations – the present owners and the future heirs of the planet. The decision-making authority lies in the hands of a generation of people who will probably not live to see the impending crisis. However, their decisions are playing a pivotal role in most of the progressive damage that we are currently witnessing. Our climate leaders do realise that their young age is becoming a barrier towards them being taken seriously by the world.

Impactful and traumatic incidents propelled many youngsters to resolve to save the planet. Sixteen-year-old Theresa Rose Sebastian, who now lives in Ireland, happened to be in Kerala, India, during the devastating floods of 2018 and experienced the devastation. Photo by Akshat Rathi.

Not surprisingly, a few of them have vowed not to bring children into this world.

A fascinating account is an excerpt from Zoe Buckley Lennox’s diary, which she maintained on her Antarctica expedition, to protest against krill fishing. The report has an action film climax nature to it, where Lennox describes how she and her team members stop the activities of a sizeable krill-fishing vessel, over ice-cold waters, at times risking their lives. But since the writing was intended as a personal account where she did not go into the explanation of the equipment used and nautical terminology, they seem to be a little overwhelming to the uninitiated.

The idea of including a diary entry is commendable though, as it gives a sense of events in real-time.

It is worth applauding that they have all achieved small or big milestones of some form. While we call them teenagers and 20-year-olds, we should keep in mind that these are people who have given motivational and encouraging speeches in some of the highest platforms in the world – like their parliaments and the United Nations. Some have run drives planting thousands of trees and have cleared tonnes of plastic refuse from the land and oceans. But the modesty in their accounts, their will to do more than is required of them, is truly remarkable. Their strong stands are backed by facts and driven by objectivity. Humility makes them even more appealing and inspiring.

Since these are first-person accounts, they are very authentic ground-reports. They bring out the worrisome details about local disasters, which we are unaware of. Catarina Surname from Brazil brings news of a fire in the Pantanal wetlands. It did not receive as much media attention as the Amazon fires in Brazil. But, it commands more attention because the burning of wetlands is suggestive of the extreme exploitation it has been subjected to.

These accounts are also stories of very supportive families. The parents, as well as the youngsters, are equally concerned about their academic and vocational future. Family support is playing an essential role in easing out this internal struggle of keeping up with activism while continuing their daily lives. These young people are finding a certain camaraderie through a common cause. They are inspiring each other and millions of others with their unwavering spirit of fighting towards a common goal. The title of the book could not have been more fitting – United We Are Unstoppable.


Banner image: ‘United We Are Unstoppable’ is a collection of first-person accounts of sixty young climate leaders from across the world. Photo by Akshat Rathi.

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