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Jean Hinchliffe
Photograph: Supplied

Time Out's Sustainability Future Shaper: Jean Hinchliffe

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

By Maxim Boon
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Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

For many of us in Sydney who lived through the bushfire emergency, it wasn’t just a horrifying ecological disaster, but also an inescapable assault on the senses. Waking to the acrid scent of smoke already in our nostrils; the stinging in our eyes and heaviness in our chests as we breathed the haze-filled air; the eerie sight of an otherworldly amber sky; the sensation of ash settling on our skin. As 2019 drew to a close, Australia had found itself on the front line of the climate crisis, and the world was watching. 

For eco-activist and leader of Australia’s School Strike 4 Climate movement, Jean Hinchliffe, the tragedy of the fires that incinerated millions of hectares of bush was not unexpected, but it could be the wakeup call our political leaders needed to finally enact the change that she, and many like her, had been campaigning for. But then in 2020, another crisis of the viral variety drew the public’s gaze from the charred outback and burnt koalas. Had we missed our moment to act?

Hinchliffe thinks not. While protesting in person has been all but impossible during the pandemic, she has continued to empower and inspire young activists via her new book, Lead the Way. Her how-to manual for young climate crusaders shares the tools, challenges and triumphs of her own activist journey, and as she's just 17, it’s a career in environmental justice that's just getting started.

You can purchase Jean Hinchliffe's Lead the Way – how to change the world from a teen activist and school striker here.

Are you worried that the pandemic stalled the momentum of the School Strike 4 Climate movement following the bushfire disaster?

The momentum has slowed to an extent, but I don't think that all that work has been for nothing. What happened during the bushfire disaster is that we saw a fundamental shift in the conversation, and in how important we deem the issue to be. But I think it's important to recognise that, even as we undergo an acute global crisis such as the pandemic, there is an even bigger crisis that has been going on for much longer. It’s understandable – it's difficult to focus on so many issues at once, particularly when your entire life has been flipped upside down. But that momentum that we all felt during the bushfire disaster is still there and it's starting to come out again. And ultimately, there're going to be terrible bushfires in the future, we're going to keep seeing more disasters. So the conversation will come full circle – we're not going to be able to escape it at the end of the day.

Are there any lessons we can learn from the way the world has mobilised to combat the health crisis that might be useful for the climate crisis?

I think you can draw a lot of parallels between Covid and the climate crisis. Seeing nation by nation, those that took pre-emptive actions, that recognised the scale of the danger and the potential for how bad things could get, that we're proactive and engaged in the issue at all sorts of levels, those nations weren't impacted nearly as much as those that delayed action or downplayed the risks. That feels very much like the climate crisis, and I think it's sort of funny in how, at the beginning of it, a lot of people – even myself – were guilty of not really understanding the scale or dimension of what was unfolding and so we weren't able to see just how bad it could become. It's kind of funny drawing that parallel, because the climate crisis is really the same thing. We're at that turning point where we can still take that preemptive action, and we can prevent it from turning into a total catastrophe if we act quickly, if we follow the science. There's an optimism in that, I think. Not necessarily from the fact that we seeing drastic changes happen through the pandemic, but more that we can see how virtually overnight, the world can completely transform and the status quo can be dramatically changed. Knowing that we are able to do that, I think that that gives hope, because previously I think some of the pessimism that is connected to the climate crisis came from the fact that it felt like things were so fixed in place that it would be impossible to change. The pandemic has given such tangible proof that things can change, and nothing is concrete and permanent.

You’ve been referred to as “Australia’s Greta Thunberg”, but was it activists like her who inspired you to start protesting?

At the beginning, there really wasn’t any particular guiding figure or thing that I saw that drew me into it. It was more just total frustration and just kind of blind motivation that I had to do something. But then, after getting involved, it's honestly been the other kids surrounding me all the time. I’m just in awe at the incredible things that other young people can do. Being part of what was quite a small collective of kids that grew into this national and then global movement, and how, ultimately, the conversation on climate action was driven by us, is what inspires me to continue. 

This spirit of paying it forward and inspiring another up-and-coming generation of young activists is at the heart of your book, Lead the Way. Why do you believe that young people have such power to affect real change?

I think that young people's role in the climate conversation has been about humanising the issue. A lot of young people have such intense feelings of despair and dread and hopelessness when considering their future. I remember being I think about 13 or 14 when I read that we had a 12-year deadline to reverse climate change, and at the time seeing that I was like, ‘Oh crap, I'm gonna be 26 and the world's already going to be ruined.’ So I think with young people entering these sorts of conversations, when we're discussing it as our futures, it turns from this clinical scientific issue, which is really easy to brush off, to an issue that has a face. But when young people have this desperation, because we can't vote and we don't get a say in the democratic process, naturally we get angry. And our messaging is so direct and strong and hard-hitting because of that. Emotion transforms the issue into something that is human and real, something that you can't ignore. That's why it's so vital to create a space to facilitate young people and their voices and their opinions. Because we suffer from a lack of democratic power, there are decisions being made that will directly impact the rest of our lives to a massive extent, and we're not even being considered or consulted. A movement like School Strike 4 Climate is unique in that it is purely kids who are under 18 [below voting age], and elevating those voices and creating a space for them is revolutionary. These kids who show up and skip school, they come with their banners, they're shouting, they're yelling, and they really believe in the call. This is what really helps drives social change, because everyone there knows that they're making a real and tangible difference by being part of something bigger than themselves.

Meet the Future Shapers

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