The Boomers had their hippies. Gen X had its unwashed, nihilistic slackers. Millennials have our phone-obsessed, narcissistic avocado toast munchers. Gen Z — it seems — has its VSCO Girls.
Today, thousands of people in cities around the country are joining a strike for the climate, inspired by the Fridays for Future movement sparked by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, whose at-first solitary strike outside the Swedish Parliament building in Stockholm has spawned an international movement.
VSCO Girls are among its ranks.
Named for a photo editing app, VSCO Girls’ footprints live mainly on that platform, plus Instagram and TikTok, where they appeared to have emerged this summer first in a series of parodies. It’s highly curated, relentlessly positive, and tongue-in-cheek, ensconced in the kind of self-aware irony that digital natives have come to perfect. Like most overarching generational stereotypes, VSCO Girls — pronounced “visco” — are hardly representative, skewing white, thin, wealthy, and brand-obsessed. Unlike trend pieces lamenting that millennials don’t buy enough diamonds, Gen Z is mostly in on the VSCO Girl joke — as no shortage of TikToks skewering them can attest. It’s not clear how many people earnestly and proactively identify with the term, and none of the people I interviewed did. All, though — a self-selecting group, all who’ve organized in one form or another to make today’s strike happen — said they shared traits with its platonic ideal: oversized T-shirts, scrunchies, mom jeans, puka shell necklaces, Birkenstocks, and more. There’s a latent environmental consciousness running through VSCO Girl hallmarks too, expressed mainly in the form of metal straws, reusable water bottles, an appreciation for nature, and (especially) turtles.
For the strikers I spoke with, the trend’s greener elements are less endemic to VSCO Girls themselves than to a more general politicization among young people growing up in a world that seems increasingly hostile toward their future. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one in seven U.S. teens have participated in a school walkout related to the climate crisis; after including writing letters to elected officials and participating in protests and rallies, that number jumps to one in four. Seven in 10 teenagers and young adults say climate change will cause “great or moderate harm to people in their generation.”
Abby Leedy, an 18-year-old co-coordinator of the Sunrise Movement’s Philadelphia hub, graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia this past summer. She first got interested in activism her freshman year, and in the time since — marked by Donald Trump’s election, and the upswing in youth activism following the Parkland school shooting (an inspiration to Thunberg) — has seen it go more mainstream, reaching beyond the usual suspects. “There’s just a lot more people, and it seems a lot more socially acceptable,” she said. “It’s cooler to care about political stuff, which is really exciting. Participating in March for Our Lives was not something that you were going to get shit about. People post about it on Instagram all the time.” At a recent hub meeting in Philly, Leedy’s co-coordinator, Rachie Weisberg, 26, estimated that 20 of the 50 people who showed up were high schoolers — many of them with at least some VSCO Girl traits. “Dressing or acting like a VSCO girl puts you in the mainstream. You don’t stand out that much in a high school space,” Leedy said , telling me that she acted “more like a VSCO girl” before she got involved in organizing.
It’s not as if all VSCO Girls are sleeper climate champions. But as climate organizing has come to involve more and more people, it’s sucking the trends of the day up with it, as those trends in turn reflect the concerns and anxieties of the generation from which they’ve sprouted.
Sunrise’s sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office last November helped shoot the Green New Deal policy framework into headlines and exploded the group’s membership around the country. They and the wider array of climate strikers, including the Youth Climate Strike, are pushing for structural change and to hold corporations and politicians accountable for their role in fueling climate breakdown. But they don’t see that as a reason to swear off potential VSCO comrades whose point of entry for curbing emissions might be a Hydro Flask or turtle sticker — quite the opposite.
Leedy sees the phenomenon’s environmental consciousness as an organizing opportunity. “I see people being excited about things like metal straws and I think, you are movable on this. You are excited about it. You want to be able to do something. You want to be able to take action you feel like is helping. It feels less like a matter of changing their minds about the correct course of action and more a matter of presenting people an opportunity to get involved,” she told me. “I’m just very excited to see more unorganized high schoolers getting involved, especially VSCO Girls and other people we don’t necessarily think of as being organizers.”
Matthew Fleming is an 18-year-old high school senior with Sunrise’s Acton Hub in rural Massachusetts. “I am a boy, but have been called a VSCO girl many times,” he told The Intercept. “I would hope that the VSCO manifesto is not about personal lifestyle changes to stop climate change. I think that’s kind of what the identity is at the moment. I hope we can shift it to be more left and more revolutionary.”
Strikers aren’t using that term casually. Fleming also helps run his school’s Young Democrats/Young Democratic Socialists of America, or YDSA, chapter. With a few exceptions, he and its other members are hoping to officially turn it into a YDSA chapter (“It’s pretty ubiquitous within the chapter,” he says). At their meeting a few hours before we spoke, they had discussed the GM strike now being undertaken by United Auto Workers; just after that strike was announced, the national Sunrise Movement released a statement of solidarity.
“It’s not a protest. It’s not just a march. It’s us not going to school and refusing to take part in day-to-day life itself,” Fleming said. “It’s important for us to think about our history and the history of worker movements, and us calling it a strike does that.” As he’s been leafleting at train stations and among classmates the last few weeks to get people to go on strike and head down to Boston for today’s action there, he’s jokingly called friends opting not to participate “scabs.” “People know what it means,” he said when I asked if the jab left any of his classmates confused. Fleming said his history class the day we spoke was covering the Progressive Era, and his teacher led the class through a survey of where they stood on economic issues. “A very good portion of the kids,” he relayed, “said that workers should own the means of production and made arguments for that. It was really hopeful.”
Sila Inanoglu, who asked presidential candidate Julián Castro a question about fracking at CNN’s climate town hall earlier this month, helped start the Acton Sunrise chapter after meeting members of the larger Boston hub. She, Fleming, and other members have been helping recruit people to the strike, both in their high school and at the local train station, and chalking around town to spread the word. As of Thursday night, they had between 30 and 40 confirmations, and expected more to join. She says of VSCO Girls (she’s not one herself), that its social media focus means that “people are being accountable for what they’re doing,” particularly around plastic use. “It’s intriguing to other people, and it’s super trendy and hip. I think it’s great that people are reducing their plastic usage. What would be even better is if we use that VSCO Girl power and orient it to other parts of our agenda, like carbon footprints.”
“‘Save the turtles’” — a common VSCO Girl mantra — “is all cute and on brand,” she added, “but eventually you do start to become anxious about the fact that we have plastic that is hurting our environment. All organizing starts small,” noting that her first work in Sunrise was writing social media posts for the group’s Twitter. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Karla Stephan, 15, first got interested in climate work by reading a social media post from her friend who was joining the Youth Climate Strike on March 15. Soon after, she became a lead for the action in Washington, D.C., near her home in Bethesda, Maryland, and is now the group’s national finance director. “We’re striking from school for a day so we can fight for the rest of our lives,” she told The Intercept. “To strike symbolizes more than just a civic demonstration, because it means you’re disrupting the norm of what’s happening for more than what’s comfortable.” Asked about how her generation is engaging in politics, she said, “I don’t want to say Generation Z. We want to be known as Generation GND” — referring to the Green New Deal — “because we don’t want to be the last generation.”
For many getting involved in the youth climate movement, groups like Sunrise and the Youth Climate Strike provide an outlet not just to take action, but to process the heavy reality of the climate crisis together. “Knowing that even in the best case scenario we win and are able to establish ecosocialism the future still will be pretty tough. And that’s best case scenario,” said Fleming, who got involved in Sunrise about a month ago and came to left politics through Twitter and watching left-leaning YouTubers like Contrapoints. “I spent a lot of the summer pretty in the dumps about climate change and the future in general. Sunrise has lifted me out of that, and the organizers at the Acton hub have gotten me out of that spiral and helped me realize that I could be a part of the change.”
“Once the climate crisis becomes super real to you, it becomes so awful if you don’t have a community to be with,” Inanoglu said.
Neither Sunrise or the U.S. Youth Climate Strike has made an endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary. But everyone I asked about 2020 was clear that they supported Bernie Sanders. “At least the people that I talk to, it’s definitely a, ‘We do not want Biden. Biden should drop out immediately and stay far away forever.’ There are a handful of guys who would call themselves ‘Yang Gang,’” Fleming said, “and then it’s really just a constant debate between Warren and Sanders. Most people are pretty happy with one or the other.” He said he hoped to travel up to New Hampshire in the coming months to canvass for Sanders. Inanoglu said, “Climate change is definitely my number one issue” in this election. “I also think confronting climate change is also connected to confronting our capitalist system, so I naturally lean toward Bernie Sanders.”
“I’m a Bernie supporter, but I love Warren too,” said Stephan. Among the things she likes about Sanders is that he’s “been standing up for these things from the very beginning. That’s something that’s very important when looking at candidates, at their past voting history,” she added. “That can just expose how they’re going to act. Some people may love Biden for how he was during Obama’s administration. He’s a cute little sidekick and a meme or whatever, but if you look at his past votes, some of them are extremely racist.”
Leedy, in Philadelphia, was enthusiastic about Sanders in 2016 and still is. “It really does feel like he is the candidate who has plans that are at the scale of the problems I see in my community and that I’ve seen in other communities,” she said. “I’m definitely gonna vote for him. I’m really excited about his vision for a Green New Deal.” Within that framework, she said the policy that’s most important to her is the federal job guarantee, and “I trust him the most on that.”
“It feels like the part that’s going to have the most positive material impact on Philly. It’s the poorest big city in the country,” she noted, and said she is hopeful that “family-sustaining green jobs … could take the place of the shitty retail work people are forced into now. And a complete moratorium on fossil fuel infrastructure would be so sick,” referencing part of Sanders’s Green New Deal plan.
Many of those striking Friday, of course, aren’t old enough to vote yet. They plan on holding whoever the next president is accountable regardless. Even if Sanders or Warren are elected, Stephan reasoned, “the solutions aren’t just going to come right away. It isn’t going to stop our fight. It would be a huge win to have the president on our side, but what it really comes down to is the Senate and the House because they’re actually creating and passing the laws. I think it would definitely be a plus for us,” she added on electoral wins, “but it wouldn’t be the end of our organizing.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.