Climate

This Young Climate Activist Has Her Hands in the Soil and Her Eyes on the Future

Published by
Twilight Greenaway

A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of the Deep Dish, our monthly newsletter for members. Become a member today to receive the next issue.

Young climate activists have done an impressive job of claiming the spotlight and making their voices heard in recent years—and for good reason: The climate crisis is already impacting their lives and shaping their futures.

In Uganda, 23-year-old activist Vanessa Nakate has urged world leaders to leave the oil in the ground as a way to safeguard food and water supplies in Africa, the continent most vulnerable to climate change. In Canada, 17-year-old Anishinaabe activist Autumn Peltier has fought for clean water for First Nation communities and has made “We can’t eat money and we can’t drink oil” her catchphrase. And Greta Thunberg—whose Fridays for Future campaign has helped embolden youth across the globe and points to farmer suicides due to rising climate strife as reason to strike—worked with Mercy for Animals on a video that reached 1.5 million people, imploring her audience to look critically at large-scale animal agriculture and eat plant-based diets.

But here in the U.S., aside from the Sunrise Movement’s focus on the Green New Deal and its brief mention of agriculture, few young activists appear to be drawing a direct line between the climate crisis and the food system.

That’s what makes Ollie Perrault one to watch. The 15-year-old activist is growing up on an organic community supported agriculture (CSA) farm in western Massachusetts, where she and her family have spent the last two years responding to extreme weather. In June and July 2021, the farm saw 16 inches of rain—“more rain in the first two months of harvesting than we normally get in an entire season,” recalls Perrault. “And then this year, we experienced a level-three emergency drought throughout most of the summer.”

At age 11, Perrault attended a Youth Climate Summit through Mass Audubon’s Youth Climate Leadership Program that catalyzed a shift in her worldview. “I realized that if I want a shot at a livable future, and if I want a future for my family’s farm, I need to act, I need to get involved, and take a leadership role in my community,” she says.

Perrault, who has been home-schooling since second grade, has spent the last few years focusing much of her energy on climate activism—a kind of full-time version of a Thunberg school strike. Then, last year, she founded her own local organization, Youth Climate Action Now, which her parents see as a key element of her education. The entirely youth-led group fluctuates from seven to 20 members, depending on the meeting, and it is focused on organizing, building power, and providing a place for youth to commiserate about what it’s like to grow up in the face of a massive global crisis.

“I realized that if I want a shot at a livable future, and if I want a future for my family’s farm, I need to act, I need to get involved, and take a leadership role in my community.”

“We were looking for a space to be loud, and a space to let others know that we are angry and that our anger is powerful,” says Perrault. “We wanted to make a ruckus, spark social change, and feel accepted and safe while doing so. Also, we wanted to feel like we had a community of other young people who have our backs.”

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And while her group is focusing on influencing state-level legislation, supporting local farms in the region, and building a composting program, its members are also clear that they want the adults around them to start thinking big and finding ways to work toward radical systems-level change.

Their thinking aligns with a recent journal paper written by 23 youth climate activists about their hopes and feelings at this pivotal moment. Young people “are often unfairly portrayed as the world’s ultimate saviors” and “seldom given platforms by their governments or corporations to share their ideas, feelings, and hopes,” the paper reads. However, it adds, “their creativity and unique perspectives, along with their limited vested interest in the status quo, mean they can be catalytic in helping societies to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.”

Between farm work and homework, Perrault is still learning about the finer points of things like carbon sequestration, but points to agriculture’s sizable contribution to climate change, as well as the potential solutions it can bring if done right. “I really believe that agriculture can present a solution to the climate crisis,” she said. “It should be an integral part of our steps to move forward toward energy efficiency, carbon sequestration, eating locally, composting, etc.—there are so many levels of change that can come through working with sustainable agriculture.”

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Twilight Greenaway

Twilight Greenaway is Civil Eats' senior editor and former managing editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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Twilight Greenaway

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