Having just seen Greta Thunberg’s address to the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, I felt an urgent need to get involved. On the face of it, one could not help but to be impressed by young’s Greta’s courage and conviction. Her point that her generation will be the ones picking up the tab for our inaction now is bang on, and could be applied to everything from government debt to the rise of nationalism, manifested especially here in the UK with Brexit. However, her analysis of the problem is not only wrong, but itself a cause of much of the revanchist angst present in the developed world.
Of course, it’s a little harsh to hold a fifteen-year old to the standards of an adult. Except she’s put herself up there, and many old enough to know better are hiding behind her, hoping that her infantile economics will be unchallenged out of a sense of decency when their similarly childish ramblings have long been shot down in flames. Greta puts her finger on “the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few”, and “a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money”. The idea that we would be sailing happily to a sustainable future were it not for a few “bosses” is nonsense. It is not “bosses” that have a stake in the combustible present day, it’s the masses: an immediate move to more sustainable energy, for instance, would replace a climate issue in the future with an affordability disaster in the present, even for those in the developed world: it would condemn large swathes of those in the developing world to near death.
In other interviews, she talks about how she eschews air travel and only buys those things that are absolutely necessary. This is simply anti-consumerism. That’s fine, but call it what it is, and do not try to enlist the threat of fire and brimstone at some point in the future as leverage in your (separate) crusade. Another multinational movement tried that, and lost its congregation. Of course, it is perfectly OK to be an anti-consumer: many of us get the argument and, at some level, feel it has merit. The danger is in trying to conflate anti-consumerism with environmentalism. Limiting consumption is near-impossible for the billions whose only consumption is the food and energy they need to stay alive, so this is not the route to a sustainable future: worse, by demanding cuts from those with nothing in the first place is likely to prompt the opposite reaction to the one you want. The hectoring multilateral drumbeat on climate change has been a huge boon to the likes of President Trump.
Greta finishes with a dark threat: “…change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.” The gilets jaunes would agree, but not in a way particularly conducive to the environmental cause.
Forgive me if I sound like a seasonal, indecent humbug. Actually, I care passionately about moving to a world where we don’t dig stuff out of the ground and burn it to survive, which is why Greta so alarmed me. This is a complex issue, and in such circumstances it won’t be solved until we hit upon the least worst solution, not flirt with utopian fantasies. Such a solution will have to enlist the entirety of the human spirit, even the bits we disapprove of.