The more Greta Thunberg articulates the terrifying emotions of awakening to our imminent extinction as a species – as she did, filled with trembling rage, at this week’s UN “action summit” on the climate crisis – the more a section of the progressive left digs its heels in to resist her role as an agent of change.
“We will not let you get away with this.”
Greta Thunberg challenges the UN ‘action summit’ on climate change, telling world leaders “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood”. pic.twitter.com/KKpbKpMKsS
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) September 23, 2019
I am not talking here of the “let’s keep our head in the sand” left that denies climate change. Or of the “all we need is for the people to seize the means of production and then pillage the planet on behalf of the workers rather than the bosses” left. Both are annoyingly visible.
I mean the progressive left that understands we are hurtling towards a climate catastrophe engineered by the hubris of a tiny power-elite and our own unthinking, complicit greed. This is the left that knows we need to radically overhaul our societies and priorities, and quickly ween ourselves off fossil fuels, to save life on the planet.
And yet nonetheless, a segment of this left gets angry every time Thunberg appears on TV to set out methodically and movingly why our societies are in the grip of a collective, self-destructive madness. Confronted by Thunberg’s activism, their natural antagonism towards the rich and powerful collapses into a mire of cynicism towards Thunberg herself.
Their arguments fall into three main categories. Let’s assess each on its merits.
1. It’s child abuse!
It is strange to see how some on the left suddenly turn into Victorian prudes the moment the 16-year-old Swede says exactly what they have been thinking but does so to much greater effect. Children, it seems, should again only be seen, not heard.
Thunberg and her generation are living on a dying planet, a planet the older generation – through their greed, their alienation from the natural world, and their spiritual emptiness – plundered and despoiled with no thought for those who would follow them.
The people who organised the pillage are our leaders, an elite that dominate the economy and control our politics and the media. But we all conspired in the planet’s destruction. We bought the unnecessary goods they produced and marketed. We believed in their fairy tale of endless growth on a finite planet. We allowed ourselves to be distracted with mindless entertainment while the planet grew hotter and choked on our pollution.
Our generation carried out a slash-and-burn policy across the entire surface of the planet, leaving our children with no sanctuary while the Earth spends centuries recovering. The most venerated among the grown-ups, our business leaders, wonder whether we can now travel into space to start all over again. And some call Thunberg childish!
The idea that any adult has the right to tell Thunberg and the millions of other children we betrayed that they should simply shut up, stop the strikes and go back to school to finish their studies is ludicrous – and insulting. Teach them what? Teach them the same foolishness, the same selfishness that we were raised on in those educational production lines that turned us into compliant, consumption-loving drones? Do these children really need yet more of the neoliberal brainwashing that prevents most adults from going on strike too to save the planet?
Of course it’s not right that Thunberg has to spend her childhood protesting so that she may enjoy an adulthood. But her choice to sacrifice her teenage years is not the abuse; it is our behaviour that denies her a future, that forces her to spend her youth marching on the streets with millions of other children in an attempt to bring us to our senses.
2. She’s being exploited by the corporate media!
The proof that Thunberg is not to be trusted, it seems, is that she is now receiving so much coverage. The corporate media is owned by big business, so if they are prepared to air Thunberg’s grievances it must be because it serves their – that is, a corporate – agenda. Thunberg is a tool of the rich and powerful, so we are told, whether she herself understands it or not. Whatever the words coming out of her mouth may say, however harshly she criticises those who rule us, the truth is that her arguments cannot be trusted because of the corporate platform on which they are expressed.
Obviously whenever the billionaire media are relentlessly smashing you in the face with a child mascot they're working to manipulate you. Doesn't mean she herself is bad or that climate change isn't real, it just means they're working to manipulate you in a specific direction.
— Caitlin Johnstone ⏳ (@caitoz) September 23, 2019
When I hear this reasoning, I wonder how we would have reacted back in the 1950s and 60s to Martin Luther King. Had all-pervasive social media been around then, would we have been filled with such certainty that MLK was nothing more than the black mascot of the white establishment? Because after all, he received lots of media coverage too. Would we have reacted as cynically to the Selma march as we do to the climate strikes today? Would we have told MLK he needed to go back to preaching to his congregation, just as we tell Thunberg to get back to her school studies?
This criticism of Thunberg treats the corporate media as if it is only a propaganda machine. There is no harsher critic of corporate media than me. I have spent years using my blog to show that even the most liberal corporate media, such as the Guardian, where I worked for many years, is a sham, constructing for us a largely false image of the world that serves the interests of the rich and powerful.
But with that said, I also recognise that the corporate media is filled with real human beings, with journalists. They are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, privileged, complacent and career-oriented. They care little for truth outside the narrow parameters set for them by the corporate culture they operate within.
But these corporate journalists also have dreams, fears and children. Whatever the media’s commercial priorities, its staff live in the real world, where species are dying off in unprecedented numbers, where the seas are rising and filling with toxic plastic, where fearsome storms are brewing, where chaos is starting to unfold. Be sure, many of these journalists do not understand how bad things already are, and the extent to which they will get worse. Like the climate scientists, they have been trained through their education and filtering to be conservative and deferential.
But despite this, they know things need to change. They increasingly understand that the coming climate crisis is a story that they cannot afford to ignore, because it will soon affect their own lives and those of their children.
The journalists themselves are reaching a tipping point. Some, especially the environment correspondents, wanted decades ago to tell us about the dire future in store for us. I worked with some of them. But they were stopped by a corporate culture that was not ready for their “pessimism”. They were too isolated, too afraid of losing their jobs to dare to make a noise. Now they feel liberated because they have found enough of their colleagues think the same way.
Thunberg is getting attention from corporate journalists because she is giving vent to many years of journalistic frustration. She articulates the journalists’ own justified anxieties and does so in a way that they can accommodate in the trivial, man-bites-dog way they were taught was professionalism. Like some benevolent pied piper, this Swedish child with Asperger’s is leading millions of other children to the barricade. This dimunitive, shy figure is bold enough to express what we adults have long wanted to say to an elite that isn’t listening. She is a readymade Davina confronting a corporate Goliath.
The suicidal elite at Davos and at the United Nations enthusiastically clap at her criticisms because none of them want to be singled out as the emperor who is naked. Their welcome is beaded with sweat for what she could yet unleash. It is fear driving their applause. If they can tame her, they will.
3. She’s a tool of big business!
As I have pointed out before (here and here), the inevitability of the climate catastrophe we now face was predicted with absolute precision – almost to the week – by scientists working for the fossil fuel industry back in the early 1980s. They knew long, long ago that this moment was coming. The corporations successfully stalled a response for four decades so that they could keep ravaging the planet undisturbed. And we fell for their deceptions and time-wasting over and over again.
This @exxonmobile chart from 1982 predicted that in 2019 our atmospheric CO2 level would reach about 415 parts per million, raising the global temperature roughly 0.9 degrees C.
Update: The world crossed the 415 ppm threshold this week and broke 0.9 degrees C in 2017 1/ pic.twitter.com/sLpOVkwzTF
— Tom Randall (@tsrandall) May 14, 2019
Now the game is up. As those scientists on the corporate payroll secretly predicted long ago, the effects on the planet’s climate can no longer be concealed from the public simply as the short-term vagaries of weather. A different kind of approach is needed.
It goes without saying that the corporations hope to maintain for as long as they can the neoliberal capitalist system that has enriched them and conferred on them almost limitless power. Their best tactic at this stage, given how real-world events are unfolding, is to abandon their denial of a climate crisis and persuade us instead that it is too late for action, that we have missed the boat.
If the sky has already fallen in, then there is no point trying to save the planet. Its fate is sealed. The best response to unstoppable climate breakdown, they will argue, are technical fixes (that will once again line their corporate pockets) to delay the worst effects while we all carry on regardless, partying till the music stops. We will be urged to plunder for our team before the other side gets its hands on the last of the goodies.
There will be plenty more of this kind of argument in the next few years. But there are no signs it will come from Thunberg and the child strikers.
If the corporations are creating or adopting a figurehead to neuter the climate movement, Greta Thunberg is a strange choice indeed. Her forthrightness has been liberating. Her indignation and anger emboldening. Her guilelessness infectious. Her youthful commitment a sharp, shameful slap in the face to our own laziness and worldweariness.
We on the left have long prayed for mass mobilisation, for ordinary people to get off their behinds, take to the streets in protest and reclaim their power against the elites ruling over us. And yet when someone finally manages to do it on a global scale – a teenager, no less – all we can do is sit in judgment, scoffing at her and those who cheer her on.
Does it mean, now that she and her protests have exploded on to the international scene, that our corporate rulers will not try to coopt Thunberg or her cause? Of course not. It is a given that they will seek to redirect these new, dangerous passions in futile and fruitless directions.
Thunberg is not Wonder Girl. She will have to navigate through these treacherous waters as best she can, deciding who genuinely wants to help, who is trying to sabotage her cause, and which partners she can afford to ally with. She and similar movements will make mistakes. That is how social protests always work. It is also how they evolve.
Martin Luther King himself manoeuvred, sometimes clumsily, between the pressing demands for equality from black America he sought to articulate and the fears of a white America that felt its privileges were in danger. It is quite reasonable to argue that he failed in his mission, that his dream was derailed. The United States is still a deeply racist society decades later. With the help of the corporate media, US leaders have largely coopted MLK’s legacy, reinventing him as a non-threatening totem for a non-existent coexistence.
But despite his failure, MLK’s inspiring words and actions changed the US in ways that can never be reversed. He gave a moral voice to a cause that garden-variety racists now usually feel the need to pay lip service to. He may not have succeeded in ending the institutional racism of the US single-handedly, but that failure does not taint his legacy or undermine what he achieved before he was silenced by an assassin. Certainly, it does not suggest, except to perennial conspiracy theorists, that he colluded with white racists or did their bidding unwittingly.
Thunberg and the next generation have an even steeper hill to climb than MLK. They must change our relationship not just to the worst elements in our societies but to the planet itself. That will require an entirely new vision of our future – and the place where such a vision is most likely to take root is among the ranks of the young, those whose idealism has not yet been crushed by our education and career systems.
Should Thunberg be captured, wittingly or not, by western elites, there is no reason to assume that the many millions of young and old alike joining her on the climate strikes will not be able to recognise her cooption or whether she has lost her way. Those making this argument arrogantly assume that only they can divine the true path. They assume that Thunberg’s words have no life, logic or moral force independently of who she is or whether, like MLK, she is ultimately silenced.
More worrying still, they deny the possibility of a gathering collective wisdom, a rapid growth in consciousness of the kind necessary to save us as a species. The dismissal on the left of Thunberg and the climate protests is likely to sow seeds of despair and hopelessness – the very outcome the elites who are trying to neuter those protests so desperately crave.