A tribute to the Greta Thunberg generation.
“How dare you!” These are the words that rang out from the voice of 16 year old Greta Thunberg at the recent (September 2019) Youth Climate Summit. Her words were being hurled at the heads of states assembled in the USA, but they we’re equally applicable to the entire political class, the media and all complacent adults globally. She had chosen the least polluting means to ‘sail’ cross the Atlantic using a wind powered vessel to attend the conference, whilst her targets for criticism had used the most polluting form of transport available.
Private and state run fuel and resource-guzzling luxury jets were of course the transport of choice for politicians, businessmen, academics and media reporters attending the UN sponsored events. A group of many thousands who routinely cross and recross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along with continental land masses leaving pollution, ecological destruction and resource depletion in their wake. Yet despite this contrast in travel styles and personal ethos, young Greta has been enthusiastically ‘courted’ (ie used) by many of these elites and their publicists to promote their own ‘clean’ image and prolong their sell-by dates by association with this young eco-warrior. It was an obvious, but unconvincing, innocence by association strategy.
In a parallel way, the media circus has publicised her activities and courted her undoubtedly as a way to simultaneously increase or stabilise the circulation of their media outlets and enhance their own credentials as ecologically concerned citizens. These minimalist reporting activities follow the now jaundiced pattern of jet – setting investigative reporters who over decades have mounted countless resource consuming expeditions to far away places to show scenes of climate change or pollution. Many have made profitable careers out of talking to camera with a backdrop of Artic or Antarctic ice depletion, exceptional flood devastation, droughts, or hurricane disasters.
They have done this, and like their analogues in the space exploration industry, without an ounce of self-critical reflection, shame or embarrassment. For individually and collectively their affluent life – styles, their forms of transport and even the production of their documentaries add up to a substantial part of creating the disastrous effects they draw our attention to. But Greta is on to them. She knows their self – promoting game. In calm but forceful tones she exclaimed;
“HOW DARE YOU! …come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Empty words indeed! An awareness of the problems caused by industrial overproduction, resources depletion and climate change have been highlighted at least since Rachel Carson ‘s 1962 book, ‘Silent Spring’ and James Lovelock’s Gaia thesis of 1962 and beyond. However, for almost six decades (yes 60 years), the elites of all sectors of society, including a majority of academics and intellectuals, have ignored, downplayed or contradicted the symptoms of planetary damage in the same way as they have ignored the increasingly precarious welfare of the worlds working classes and the future welfare of our children. Human degradation as well as planetary degradation has been the continuous backdrop to the centre stage display of global production and consumption. And so when Greta pointed out that;
“….people are suffering…..people are dying..”…. “Entire ecosystems are collapsing.”
She was stating nothing new. This information has been available for decades. But the persistent sounds of almost universal distress had been drowned out by the orchestrated symphony ‘s of praise for the latest technological developments. The elites, in particular, have remained deaf and blinded – by their own relative success and affluence – to the high-tech coffin nails being increasingly fashioned – which if not stopped – will eventually be used to seal the lid on viable habitat and humanity.
What was new in 2019 was that a child who had not been born when the evidence was rapidly accumulating had taken the trouble to understand the problem and was determined to not just echo the research but to do something about it. And as Ms Thunberg correctly understands it, it is not just humanity which is threatened;
“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth..”….”.How dare you?” …”How dare you continue to look away and come here saying you are doing enough?”
Her devastating critique also included elements of analysis mostly missing from mainstream liberal ecological concerns – eternal economic growth and money – the two elements which are motivating and propelling the symptoms she had described. The motives behind the current capitalist domination of economic activity – growth and profit – are the cause of the current ecological problems and much more and so she hit the nail precisely on the head when she declared;
..”…How dare you pretend that this can be solved with business as usual and some technical solutions?”
The teen age Greta spoke candidly and forcefully to the elite at the youth climate summit but her message was to all adults around the globe to play our part. Alas I fear her message will fall on deaf ears in both camps. Just like the warning words of those who have campaigned before her. My own post-second world war generation have at least a basic idea of the existential problems, facing people and the planet, but I know only a few who are prepared to consistently speak out about it or do anything seriously radical to change things. Not all my generation of educated middle or working-class citizens even recycle or drastically cut back on activities which are a contributing factor to climate change and pollution, let alone impoverish other peoples. Those who can still afford holidays are still – without shame or embarrassment – jetting around the planet or planning their next luxury cruise.
Those who can no longer afford to ostentatiously consume in all the imaginative ways devised by cancerous entrepreneurial enterprises are invariably hoping to do so as soon as circumstances permit it. I would love to be wrong, but I fear Greta’s exact criticism of the myopic sentiments expressed by economic, financial and political elites ie (“..this can be solved with business as usual and some technical solutions?” ) are close enough to what the average adult citizen of industrialised countries have been persuaded to hope is the case. Unfortunately, it is likely to take a series of huge ecological catastrophes or economic collapses rather than Greta’s perceptive and prophetic words to shake people out of their left, right or liberal conservatism.
From my decades long experience as an anti-capitalist activist, the numbers who would advocate or even implement some really radical changes to how production and consumption have been taking place are well below any critical-mass necessary to trigger profound and effective action. Two world wars with deaths in tens of millions along with the devastation of countries and continents were not enough. Those historic tragedies only inspired slight reforms, before Greta’s “business as usual” observation returned to churning out more of the same.
So not dodging responsibility myself I do hope that Greta is typical of the new Global Climate Strike generation of young people. I really hope they will persist and rise to the revolutionary-humanist challenge facing humanity and do what previous generations, distracted by ideological and sectarian divisions or hypnotised by capitalist commodity fetishism, have failed to do.
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2019)