It is often said that Western culture worships youth. Yet this cult of youth worship has started to mutate into something a bit weirder, as it increasingly seems that ours is a society that now worships children. This year, for instance, has seen the rise to global ascendency of the 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg. She has become the child-saint icon of the environmental movement, whose apocalyptic scorn is fawned over by liberal politicians and woke-conscious big business.
Her teenage acolytes bunk school, with the blessing of their teachers, to raise awareness as to the plight of climate change. Elsewhere, we are told that it is imperative to hold a second Brexit referendum 'for the sake of the children' (and even, to make the point clearer, 'our children's children'). And in the latest development, it was announced this week that the Royal Shakespeare Company is to sever its links with its sponsor BP, thanks to a mass boycott by teenage climate change protesters.
The long-running anti-BP campaign was given a boost last week when students organised a school strike against climate change, asking their teachers and heads to end trips to RSC events, because BP 'is actively destroying our futures by wrecking the climate.' Its open letter added that 'the Royal Shakespeare Company needs young people far more than it needs BP', repeating that children are 'the audience of the future'. Finally, the RSC sighed on Wednesday that it 'cannot ignore' these cries, and announced that it was capitulating.
This cult of 'the children' and its connected narrative of 'the future' is a constant theme of political discourse today, especially when it comes to climate change. On Tuesday, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau told a crowd in Toronto: 'Today we marched for our planet, our kids and for their future'. But it's not just consigned to environmental rhetoric. Talk of 'the children' has played a central role in demands for a second Brexit referendum, owing not only to the fact that millions have come of voting age since 2016, but that such an important decision on Britain's future will most of all affect 'our children'. The same argument is made for lowering the voting age: it's all about their future, you see.
This cult of 'the children' is literally juvenile. We all know how base and emotive the word is. It's why politicians and charity fund raisers invoke 'the children' whenever possible. It's a word that grabs people's attention, pulls the heart strings and opens purses. It's why no newspaper coverage of a political demonstration is complete without a child holding a placard reading something to the effect of 'Mummy is worried about my future' – a placard clearly not written by the child herself.
There is something exploitative in offloading one's personal politics and views onto a child or teenager. Whatever your views on the man, president Putin was right when he said on Wednesday: 'I'm sure that Greta is a kind and very sincere girl... but using children and teenagers for even such noble aims...is wrong'. And this obsequiousness over the pronouncements of children, let alone taking their views seriously, betrays a sad reality that we no longer take grown-up politics seriously. The brain and mind of a 16-year-old is not equal to that of an adult, and to treat them on a par is to diminish the status of the latter.
Most scientists in the relevant field agree that at the age of 16 the brain has not fully matured. This is why smoking cannabis at this age is especially dangerous: a raw brain is a vulnerable brain. As to the mind's age of maturity, opinion is more subjective, although many scientists believe that you aren't fully an adult until about 25. Even if the law in this country considers you an adult at 18, most of us, in retrospect, probably wouldn't look back on the behaviour and immature concerns of our 18-year-old selves as that of adults, let alone ourselves as 16-year-olds.
There are two ironies about the whole sorry RSC-BP affair. The first is that was BP the first of the 'supermajors' to expand into areas beyond fossil fuels, establishing an alternative and low carbon energy business in 2005. One shouldn't punish a corporation that has been making moves in the right direction in recent years.
Secondly, BP has funded a scheme at the RSC which has provided 16 to 25-year-olds (even BP agree that 25 is the age of maturity) with discounted tickets costing £5 for productions. This scheme is unlikely to survive without its support. So by indulging the views of children, ultimately it is children who will literally pay the price.
All this because adults are made to feel guilty for the presumed doomed future of 'the children'. Conscience makes cowards of us all.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)