Greta Thunberg’s father was right when he vociferously objected to one of the sentiments in the text the Swedish teenager had prepared for last December’s United Nations climate change conference in Katowice, Poland. He thought she was going too far, and would alienate too many people in the process. He was getting worked up, so the 15-year-old pretended to take the path of least resistance and scratched out the offending words. In her hearts of hearts, though, she had no intention of bowing to the patriarchy. So she memorised the sentences and incorporated them anyhow in her speech at Katowice. “We are about to sacrifice our civilisation for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money,” she said. “We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.” Karl Marx wouldn’t have disagreed. Nor is it likely he would have picked a quarrel with Greta’s subsequent declaration in the same speech: “And if the solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself?”
The Thunberg pater familias was correct in identifying such words as potentially problematic. The vilest of bile has been flung towards Greta in the interim, and it has only multiplied in the wake of her impassioned intervention at last month’s UN climate change summit in New York, where she declared: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
If Greta Thunberg’s trajectory from a solitary schoolgirl taking Fridays off to stage a protest outside the Swedish parliament to an international icon of resistance to an untenable status quo is remarkable, so is the brutality of the pushback, ranging from the condescension of “statesmen” such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to the undisguised hatred of the right-wing commentariat.
The latter trend suggests her unequivocal message is getting through, and it’s spooking the vested interests that have for decades known about the deleterious consequences of the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, but have chosen to do nothing about it. The eminent physicist Edward Teller was warning about the consequences of relying on petroleum back in the late 1950s. Official advisory bodies have been highlighting the dangers of carbon dioxide pollution in the 1960s. Environmental degradation was the main underlying theme of Rachel Carson’s 1960 bestseller Silent Spring, in which she almost poetically spelt out the risks of relying on pesticides such as DDT. Back then, Carson was castigated as a communist dupe and a Soviet agent.
Since the early 1970s, internal studies have informed oil giants such as Shell, BP and Exxon of where the reliance on fossil fuels would inevitably lead. Yet such multinationals generously funded so-called ‘scientists’ and ‘think tanks’ — including those who had taken money from the tobacco industry to undermine the idea that smoking was harmful — that were willing to push the absurd line that climate change was somehow a hoax.
That effort is yet to be suspended, but it has been severely undermined, not least by young protesters hearkening to Greta’s call. Then there are those who find school strikes easy to appreciate, but consider the disruption caused by the worldwide Extinction Rebellion (XR) too much of an inconvenience. Perhaps they will change their minds when it’s too late. Greta repeatedly points out that those who are disinclined to listen to the children who are shocked by the prospect of their future being so decisively blighted by those who care only for profits should, in fact, be listening to the scientists.
In the black-and-white vision she acknowledges, describing the Asperger’s syndrome that enables her to single-mindedly focus on an impending catastrophe, not only must the emissions exacerbating the danger of unsustainable temperature increases cease forthwith, but the richer nations must take the lead so that less developed counties can build the infrastructure they need. That argument for climate justice offers a riposte to all those nations, including Australia, Britain and the US, that routinely dismiss necessary action against deadly emissions by claiming that it is pointless unless India and China get their first.
Neoliberal capitalism is going nowhere for the moment. But, then, nothing changes without overstepping the mark ordained by the votaries of the status quo. A future can still be carved out — the Green New Deal offers a possible pathway — but there’s no time to waste.
By arrangement with Dawn...