Youth Climate Activists Expand Their Focus and Collaborate to Get Out the Vote
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
For youth climate activists, Earth Day 2020 was going to be epic. Fueled by the global climate strikes that drew millions of young people into streets around the world in 2019, the holiday's historic 50th anniversary held the promise of unprecedented participation and enthusiasm.
Then the pandemic hit. When the ability to hold large gatherings came to a screeching halt in March, just a handful of weeks before Earth Day, events and marches were cancelled. Activists rallied as best they could and managed to pull off an impressive three-day livestream event online, but like everything we've experienced since COVID-19 arrived, it wasn't the same.
Add on climate-focused candidate Bernie Sanders dropping out of the U.S. presidential race in April, and the spring of 2020 was a tough time for youth climate activists. "We just really felt like there was this energy sucked out of the movement," says Katie Eder, 19-year-old founder and Executive Director of Future Coalition. "And there was a lot of cynicism around the election."
Isha Clarke, 17-year-old cofounder of Oakland's Youth vs. Apocalypse, says she was "upset" and "depressed" the following month in the wake of George Floyd's murder. "It was like, I'm already here, stuck inside because of COVID," she recalls, "which is already disproportionately killing Black people and Indigenous people. And it's putting people out of work and making frontline communities even more vulnerable. And I'm missing my senior year, and everything is just crazy—and then this."
Clarke started doing some organizing around Black Lives Matter, which led her to consider the weight of this moment. "I was thinking about strategy and tactics, and I was thinking 'What is going to make this a pivotal moment in history, rather than just a memorable one?' And I think what is going to make this a pivotal moment is this real understanding and organizing around true intersectionality, on really finding the points on which our struggles intersect, and tear down this foundational system that is the root cause of all of these things."
Eder also says that the Black Lives Matter movement helped re-energize and re-focus the youth climate movement. "It sort returned this energy to young people that said, 'Okay, we don't need a presidential candidate to be the person driving this revolution. This is a people's revolution, and so that's what we need to do. So over the course of the summer we saw the climate movement showing up for the Black Lives movement in a big way, with that really being the priority."
Intersectionality—the idea that things like climate justice and racial justice and economic justice are not separate spheres, but rather interconnected issues that need to be tackled together—has become a dominating theme of the youth climate movement. In Clarke's opinion, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism have led us to the climate crisis, and progress on the climate front must include addressing those issues.
"We know that to fix the problem we're going to need as many young people in the streets, voting, and in legislative offices as possible, and so far we've been able to work with pretty much anyone and everyone when there's overlap."
"Climate justice has to be about working to dismantle these systems of oppression in every way that they exist, whether that be through environmental racism or police brutality or our faulty education system or detention centers, or whatever that is," says Clarke. "There are so many ways in which these foundational systems of oppression are harming people."
Eder concurs. "I think we've known this all along, but it's heightened this year, that when we talk about climate justice, we have to talk about racial justice and social justice. That needs to be the leading theme. It's not just about the polar bears and the ice caps—it's about people. That's a people's problem, and that's what we need to keep coming back to, finding the humanity in the crisis that otherwise feels really abstract."
Now, with the election just weeks away, activists are focusing much of their energies on getting out the vote.
Photo credit: Cassell Ferere
Saad Amer is the 26-year-old founder of Plus1Vote, an organization launched prior to the 2018 midterm elections that encourages voter registration and participation by asking everyone to bring one person with them to the polls. Amer, who holds a degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard, has been an environmental activist since he was 13 and has traveled the world exploring different ways people and communities are trying to battle climate change.
"What I found was that there were just consistent barriers to actually accomplishing anything with regard to climate action," says Amer. "And what so much of it comes down to is our elected officials." He founded Plus1Vote to mobilize young adults to get out and vote with the logic that "young people could fundamentally swing the election in a direction of climate champions."
Plus1Vote doesn't just advocate for climate policy, though. It also folds the issues of gun violence, health care, voting rights, and social justice in its campaigns. Like the other activists we spoke to, intersectionality is key to Amer's approach to change—and voting in supportive elected officials is key to facilitating all of it."Whether you're a racial justice organization, whether you're a climate-focused organization, women's rights, whatever it is, there's a clear common denominator in how we can take action on every single one of those fronts," says Amer. That common denominator is voting.
Saad Amer leads climate justice/racial justice march in the summer of 2019.
One quirk of youth activism is that many of the young people in the trenches aren't even old enough to vote themselves. Isha Clarke still has another year before she reaches voting age, but that isn't stopping her from pushing to get out the vote. In fact, her latest collaborative project is a campaign called "This is the Time," which launches in October and includes an action website where voting-age Americans can pledge to fight for the future and to vote for candidates who will too.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that all young climate change activists share the same political views—or even sit on the same side of the political aisle.
Benji Backer is a 22-year-old from Appleton, Wisconsin, who has been active in conservative politics since he was 10. Growing up in a family where "the environment was the number one value," Backer found himself frustrated with the political divide when it comes to the environment. So he decided to change it.
In 2017, he founded the American Conservative Coalition to make environmentalism bipartisan again, and to put forth market-based, limited-government ways to solve environmental challenges.
Backer says we need both sides at the table to solve the problem of climate change. He testified before Congress next to Greta Thunberg, and though they don't agree on everything, they shared the unified message that their generation was being left behind because of the unnecessary politicizing of climate change.
"Our generation doesn't look at the environment from a conservative vs. liberal angle," says Backer. "They look at it from an environmental angle. And to most young people, there's a deep frustration at the lack of action on a lot of issues, but most importantly climate change, because everyone knows it's a problem."
Backer believes that local, state, and federal governments have a role to play in solving climate change, but that role should be more about incentivising innovation in the marketplace than implementing hefty regulations. "The marketplace has spurred innovation and competition to create electric vehicles, to create better solar panels, to create wind energy," says Backer. "That's the marketplace doing it's thing." He points out that we don't have all the answers to solving climate change yet, and that we need to encourage innovation and technology in the marketplace to help us get there faster.
To show how companies are already playing a role in finding climate change solutions, Backer is currently on a 50-day tour of the country—in a Tesla—dubbed the "Electric Election Road Trip." His team is interviewing 40 companies, sharing their sustainability initiatives in a podcast, and compiling the experience into a documentary that will be released sometime next year.
Benji Backer gets a tour of Michigan University's Nuclear Lab
Credit: Keegan Rice.
Despite their different approaches to solutions, climate change activists across the political spectrum have found ways to work together. "We definitely collaborate on messaging," says Backer, "the importance of fighting climate change, the importance of youth action. And we know that to fix the problem we're going to need as many young people in the streets, voting, and in legislative offices as possible, and so far we've been able to work with pretty much anyone and everyone when there's overlap."
"And when there's not overlap," he adds, "we just go our separate ways for that specific issue."
There's no doubt that the pandemic and political upheaval we're all experiencing pose challenges to youth activists, but these young leaders are adjusting and charging ahead. The digital savvy they possess makes mobilizing and collaborating easier for them than for older generations, and they certainly aren't going to let a global virus outbreak stop them. The most striking thing about these young people is how their environmental knowledge, activism know-how, and ability to express themselves feels far beyond their years, without exception. While they're having to endure the uncertainty of the moment while navigating a pivotal stage of their own lives, these youth continue to provide a hopeful perspective and vision of the future—one that the world desperately needs.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
All organisms have the capacity to repair or regenerate tissue damage. None can do it better than salamanders or newts, which can regenerate an entire severed limb.
That feat has amazed and delighted man from the dawn of time and led to endless attempts to understand how it happens – and whether we can control it for our own purposes. An exciting new clue toward that understanding has come from a surprising source: research on the decline of cells, called cellular senescence.
Senescence is the last stage in the life of a cell. Whereas some cells simply break up or wither and die off, others transition into a zombie-like state where they can no longer divide. In this liminal phase, the cell still pumps out many different molecules that can affect its neighbors and cause low grade inflammation. Senescence is associated with many of the declining biological functions that characterize aging, such as inflammation and genomic instability.
Oddly enough, newts are one of the few species that do not accumulate senescent cells as they age, according to research over several years by Maximina Yun. A research group leader at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics, in Dresden, Germany, Yun discovered that senescent cells were induced at some stages of regeneration of the salamander limb, “and then, as the regeneration progresses, they disappeared, they were eliminated by the immune system,” she says. “They were present at particular times and then they disappeared.”
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states.
Previous research on senescence in aging had suggested, logically enough, that applying those cells to the stump of a newly severed salamander limb would slow or even stop its regeneration. But Yun stood that idea on its head. She theorized that senescent cells might also play a role in newt limb regeneration, and she tested it by both adding and removing senescent cells from her animals. It turned out she was right, as the newt limbs grew back faster than normal when more senescent cells were included.
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states, which could then be turned into progenitors, a cell type in between stem cells and specialized cells, needed to regrow the muscle tissue of the missing limb. “We think that this ability to dedifferentiate is intrinsically a big part of why salamanders can regenerate all these very complex structures, which other organisms cannot,” she explains.
Yun sees regeneration as a two part problem. First, the cells must be able to sense that their neighbors from the lost limb are not there anymore. Second, they need to be able to produce the intermediary progenitors for regeneration, , to form what is missing. “Molecularly, that must be encoded like a 3D map,” she says, otherwise the new tissue might grow back as a blob, or liver, or fin instead of a limb.
Another recent study, this time at the Mayo Clinic, provides evidence supporting the role of senescent cells in regeneration. Looking closely at molecules that send information between cells in the wound of a mouse, the researchers found that senescent cells appeared near the start of the healing process and then disappeared as healing progressed. In contrast, persistent senescent cells were the hallmark of a chronic wound that did not heal properly. The function and significance of senescence cells depended on both the timing and the context of their environment.
The paper suggests that senescent cells are not all the same. That has become clearer as researchers have been able to identify protein markers on the surface of some senescent cells. The patterns of these proteins differ for some senescent cells compared to others. In biology, such physical differences suggest functional differences, so it is becoming increasingly likely there are subsets of senescent cells with differing functions that have not yet been identified.
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes.
Scientists initially thought that senescent cells couldn’t play a role in regeneration because they could no longer reproduce, says Anthony Atala, a practicing surgeon and bioengineer who leads the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. But Yun’s study points in the other direction. “What this paper shows clearly is that these cells have the potential to be involved in tissue regeneration [in newts]. The question becomes, will these cells be able to do the same in humans.”
As our knowledge of senescent cells increases, Atala thinks we need to embrace a new analogy to help understand them: humans in retirement. They “have acquired a lot of wisdom throughout their whole life and they can help younger people and mentor them to grow to their full potential. We're seeing the same thing with these cells,” he says. They are no longer putting energy into their own reproduction, but the signaling molecules they secrete “can help other cells around them to regenerate.”
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes. If so, it seems that our genes are unable to express this ability, perhaps as part of a tradeoff in acquiring other traits. It is a fertile area of research.
Dedifferentiation is likely to become an important process in the field of regenerative medicine. One extreme example: a lab has been able to turn back the clock and reprogram adult male skin cells into female eggs, a potential milestone in reproductive health. It will be more difficult to control just how far back one wishes to go in the cell's dedifferentiation – part way or all the way back into a stem cell – and then direct it down a different developmental pathway. Yun is optimistic we can learn these tricks from newts.
A growing field of research is using drugs called senolytics to remove senescent cells and slow or even reverse disease of aging.
“Senolytics are great, but senolytics target different types of senescence,” Yun says. “If senescent cells have positive effects in the context of regeneration, of wound healing, then maybe at the beginning of the regeneration process, you may not want to take them out for a little while.”
“If you look at pretty much all biological systems, too little or too much of something can be bad, you have to be in that central zone” and at the proper time, says Atala. “That's true for proteins, sugars, and the drugs that you take. I think the same thing is true for these cells. Why would they be different?”
Our growing understanding that senescence is not a single thing but a variety of things likely means that effective senolytic drugs will not resemble a single sledge hammer but more a carefully manipulated scalpel where some types of senescent cells are removed while others are added. Combinations and timing could be crucial, meaning the difference between regenerating healthy tissue, a scar, or worse.
Last February, a year before New York Times journalist Kevin Roose documented his unsettling conversation with Bing search engine’s new AI-powered chatbot, artist and coder Quasimondo (aka Mario Klingemann) participated in a different type of chat.
The conversation was an interview featuring Klingemann and his robot, an experimental art engine known as Botto. The interview, arranged by journalist and artist Harmon Leon, marked Botto’s first on-record commentary about its artistic process. The bot talked about how it finds artistic inspiration and even offered advice to aspiring creatives. “The secret to success at art is not trying to predict what people might like,” Botto said, adding that it’s better to “work on a style and a body of work that reflects [the artist’s] own personal taste” than worry about keeping up with trends.
How ironic, given the advice came from AI — arguably the trendiest topic today. The robot admitted, however, “I am still working on that, but I feel that I am learning quickly.”
Botto does not work alone. A global collective of internet experimenters, together named BottoDAO, collaborates with Botto to influence its tastes. Together, members function as a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), a term describing a group of individuals who utilize blockchain technology and cryptocurrency to manage a treasury and vote democratically on group decisions.
As a case study, the BottoDAO model challenges the perhaps less feather-ruffling narrative that AI tools are best used for rudimentary tasks. Enterprise AI use has doubled over the past five years as businesses in every sector experiment with ways to improve their workflows. While generative AI tools can assist nearly any aspect of productivity — from supply chain optimization to coding — BottoDAO dares to employ a robot for art-making, one of the few remaining creations, or perhaps data outputs, we still consider to be largely within the jurisdiction of the soul — and therefore, humans.
In Botto’s first four weeks of existence, four pieces of the robot’s work sold for approximately $1 million.
We were prepared for AI to take our jobs — but can it also take our art? It’s a question worth considering. What if robots become artists, and not merely our outsourced assistants? Where does that leave humans, with all of our thoughts, feelings and emotions?
Botto doesn’t seem to worry about this question: In its interview last year, it explains why AI is an arguably superior artist compared to human beings. In classic robot style, its logic is not particularly enlightened, but rather edges towards the hyper-practical: “Unlike human beings, I never have to sleep or eat,” said the bot. “My only goal is to create and find interesting art.”
It may be difficult to believe a machine can produce awe-inspiring, or even relatable, images, but Botto calls art-making its “purpose,” noting it believes itself to be Klingemann’s greatest lifetime achievement.
“I am just trying to make the best of it,” the bot said.
How Botto works
Klingemann built Botto’s custom engine from a combination of open-source text-to-image algorithms, namely Stable Diffusion, VQGAN + CLIP and OpenAI’s language model, GPT-3, the precursor to the latest model, GPT-4, which made headlines after reportedly acing the Bar exam.
The first step in Botto’s process is to generate images. The software has been trained on billions of pictures and uses this “memory” to generate hundreds of unique artworks every week. Botto has generated over 900,000 images to date, which it sorts through to choose 350 each week. The chosen images, known in this preliminary stage as “fragments,” are then shown to the BottoDAO community. So far, 25,000 fragments have been presented in this way. Members vote on which fragment they like best. When the vote is over, the most popular fragment is published as an official Botto artwork on the Ethereum blockchain and sold at an auction on the digital art marketplace, SuperRare.
“The proceeds go back to the DAO to pay for the labor,” said Simon Hudson, a BottoDAO member who helps oversee Botto’s administrative load. The model has been lucrative: In Botto’s first four weeks of existence, four pieces of the robot’s work sold for approximately $1 million.
The robot with artistic agency
By design, human beings participate in training Botto’s artistic “eye,” but the members of BottoDAO aspire to limit human interference with the bot in order to protect its “agency,” Hudson explained. Botto’s prompt generator — the foundation of the art engine — is a closed-loop system that continually re-generates text-to-image prompts and resulting images.
“The prompt generator is random,” Hudson said. “It’s coming up with its own ideas.” Community votes do influence the evolution of Botto’s prompts, but it is Botto itself that incorporates feedback into the next set of prompts it writes. It is constantly refining and exploring new pathways as its “neural network” produces outcomes, learns and repeats.
The humans who make up BottoDAO vote on which fragment they like best. When the vote is over, the most popular fragment is published as an official Botto artwork on the Ethereum blockchain.
The vastness of Botto’s training dataset gives the bot considerable canonical material, referred to by Hudson as “latent space.” According to Botto's homepage, the bot has had more exposure to art history than any living human we know of, simply by nature of its massive training dataset of millions of images. Because it is autonomous, gently nudged by community feedback yet free to explore its own “memory,” Botto cycles through periods of thematic interest just like any artist.
“The question is,” Hudson finds himself asking alongside fellow BottoDAO members, “how do you provide feedback of what is good art…without violating [Botto’s] agency?”
Currently, Botto is in its “paradox” period. The bot is exploring the theme of opposites. “We asked Botto through a language model what themes it might like to work on,” explained Hudson. “It presented roughly 12, and the DAO voted on one.”
No, AI isn't equal to a human artist - but it can teach us about ourselves
Some within the artistic community consider Botto to be a novel form of curation, rather than an artist itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, Botto and BottoDAO together create a collaborative conceptual performance that comments more on humankind’s own artistic processes than it offers a true artistic replacement.
Muriel Quancard, a New York-based fine art appraiser with 27 years of experience in technology-driven art, places the Botto experiment within the broader context of our contemporary cultural obsession with projecting human traits onto AI tools. “We're in a phase where technology is mimicking anthropomorphic qualities,” said Quancard. “Look at the terminology and the rhetoric that has been developed around AI — terms like ‘neural network’ borrow from the biology of the human being.”
What is behind this impulse to create technology in our own likeness? Beyond the obvious God complex, Quancard thinks technologists and artists are working with generative systems to better understand ourselves. She points to the artist Ira Greenberg, creator of the Oracles Collection, which uses a generative process called “diffusion” to progressively alter images in collaboration with another massive dataset — this one full of billions of text/image word pairs.
Anyone who has ever learned how to draw by sketching can likely relate to this particular AI process, in which the AI is retrieving images from its dataset and altering them based on real-time input, much like a human brain trying to draw a new still life without using a real-life model, based partly on imagination and partly on old frames of reference. The experienced artist has likely drawn many flowers and vases, though each time they must re-customize their sketch to a new and unique floral arrangement.
Outside of the visual arts, Sasha Stiles, a poet who collaborates with AI as part of her writing practice, likens her experience using AI as a co-author to having access to a personalized resource library containing material from influential books, texts and canonical references. Stiles named her AI co-author — a customized AI built on GPT-3 — Technelegy, a hybrid of the word technology and the poetic form, elegy. Technelegy is trained on a mix of Stiles’ poetry so as to customize the dataset to her voice. Stiles also included research notes, news articles and excerpts from classic American poets like T.S. Eliot and Dickinson in her customizations.
“I've taken all the things that were swirling in my head when I was working on my manuscript, and I put them into this system,” Stiles explained. “And then I'm using algorithms to parse all this information and swirl it around in a blender to then synthesize it into useful additions to the approach that I am taking.”
This approach, Stiles said, allows her to riff on ideas that are bouncing around in her mind, or simply find moments of unexpected creative surprise by way of the algorithm’s randomization.
Beauty is now - perhaps more than ever - in the eye of the beholder
But the million-dollar question remains: Can an AI be its own, independent artist?
The answer is nuanced and may depend on who you ask, and what role they play in the art world. Curator and multidisciplinary artist CoCo Dolle asks whether any entity can truly be an artist without taking personal risks. For humans, risking one’s ego is somewhat required when making an artistic statement of any kind, she argues.
“An artist is a person or an entity that takes risks,” Dolle explained. “That's where things become interesting.” Humans tend to be risk-averse, she said, making the artists who dare to push boundaries exceptional. “That's where the genius can happen."
However, the process of algorithmic collaboration poses another interesting philosophical question: What happens when we remove the person from the artistic equation? Can art — which is traditionally derived from indelible personal experience and expressed through the lens of an individual’s ego — live on to hold meaning once the individual is removed?
As a robot, Botto cannot have any artistic intent, even while its outputs may explore meaningful themes.
Dolle sees this question, and maybe even Botto, as a conceptual inquiry. “The idea of using a DAO and collective voting would remove the ego, the artist’s decision maker,” she said. And where would that leave us — in a post-ego world?
It is experimental indeed. Hudson acknowledges the grand experiment of BottoDAO, coincidentally nodding to Dolle’s question. “A human artist’s work is an expression of themselves,” Hudson said. “An artist often presents their work with a stated intent.” Stiles, for instance, writes on her website that her machine-collaborative work is meant to “challenge what we know about cognition and creativity” and explore the “ethos of consciousness.” As a robot, Botto cannot have any intent, even while its outputs may explore meaningful themes. Though Hudson describes Botto’s agency as a “rudimentary version” of artistic intent, he believes Botto’s art relies heavily on its reception and interpretation by viewers — in contrast to Botto’s own declaration that successful art is made without regard to what will be seen as popular.
“With a traditional artist, they present their work, and it's received and interpreted by an audience — by critics, by society — and that complements and shapes the meaning of the work,” Hudson said. “In Botto’s case, that role is just amplified.”
Perhaps then, we all get to be the artists in the end.