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Article: Greta Thunberg - Leadership & The End of the World

Greta Thunberg portrait.

Greta Thunberg - Leadership & The End of the World

Passionate, sincere & consummately informed – Greta Thunberg is an example to all leaders, of countries and of companies, in an age of bluster.

“Deeply disturbed…”, that’s how 16-year-old Greta Thunberg was recently described by the journalist Andrew Holt; those who speak uncomfortable truths loudly don’t have a history of receiving an over-positive press. Greta, and the larger youth climate movement of which she is something of a figurehead, have been subject to the usual smears & dismissals (eerily similar to the rhetoric directed at the students gun law movement in the US), derided by the “grown-ups” – by politicians, by  journalists, in vox pops. Importantly however, not by the scientists.

Greta’s status; as a young person, a woman & as autistic, offers her detractors well-trodden mud to sling at her, these are signifiers of someone not to be trusted, of someone who’s voice ought not to be heard, should not be so forceful. Her treatment draws parallels with another empowered & radical woman, Helen Keller, who, once lauded for her achievements as a blind-deaf-mute, had these disabilities brought against her as reason to dismiss her views when she began campaigning for workers’ rights & universal suffrage.  Yet, despite these factors, Greta has spearheaded perhaps the most effective environmental campaign ever (certainly within Europe) & has shouldered the burden of leadership with remarkable ease. As she points out, this responsibility is not something she has sought or asked for, rather it has been foisted upon the younger generation to educate the older; a generation either complicit in playing deaf to, or more chillingly utterly ignorant of the implications, of the bleak scientific consensus.

As common as creation stories are tales of the end; history is littered with predictions of imminent collapse, of world’s swallowed and cycles ended. At the turn of the first millennium for instance, Christendom (Christian Europe &, arguably, Byzantium) was awash with stories of the world’s end, with notable members of the church prophesying the day of judgement it was a time with a palpable sense of approaching calamity. Since then, the next millennium has been & gone and, into the third of the common era, we’re faced with similar foretelling’s of our collective demise. The difference now, of course, is that the threat we face, the very real prospect that our chance for decent survival could be beyond our reach, is very real (not I suppose that that mattered much to Medieval Europeans at the time). Humanity faces its greatest existential threat, even greater than the nuclear stand-offs of the 50s/60s (although Stanislav Petrov may dispute that); we may become the first species to document our own extinction or even to recognise it happening. For this generation, the apocalypse may well be televised.
Jan Massijs - The Apocalypse of St John the Evangelist (1563)
In her keynote speech at the National Assembly in Paris, Greta laid bare how close to the precipice we have come, the IPCC figures do not make light reading with current government targets, even in the EU, falling depressingly short of what is necessary. She took particular aim at those that pay lip-service to the figures yet deliver targets (such as limiting warming to between 1.5 – 2c) which are unworkable & afford themselves a level of carbon use which will precipitate ecological collapse. A greater threat even than inaction, Greta says, is those that make it seem as though action is being taken with vague deadlines & half-hearted commitments as this dampens the drive for real, tangible change – change that is desperately required, and soon, if we are to stave off the true damage that our wanton consumption is causing.

Since then, Greta has symbolically (and indeed proactively) sought to limit the size of her footprint as she travels to drum up the much needed clamour for change. After completing her odyssey across the Atlantic in a solar powered yacht, a young woman with calamity wished upon her by grown (more disconcertingly influential) men, Greta has gone on to speak to the US Congress - a house divided between talks of a Green New Deal (the stakes at play far higher than for the economic New Deal of the 1930s) and what can only be described as fossil-fuel-extremism. Her role, invited to castigate world leaders, ushered in and platformed by those in power in what, as time marches on while change lingers, appears more and more as little other than ritual self-flagellation. It's important that we don't allow Greta to be turned into a modern day Joan d'Arc, a useful symbol for those in power but only so far as her message & function aligns with what they want, Greta's leadership, as we stand at a precipice, must be one of collective responsibility, of collective action (as we've seen in the most recent protests, extending as far from traditional centres of climate activism as Afghanistan) - we can't rely on any 'great' person to save us, that eschewing of our personal & collective responsibilities is partly what got us here in the first place.
Climate change protest

The change that’s needed is drastic; ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050 is simply far too generous a time period if we are serious and sober in our commitment to minimising the damage that man-made climate change will visit on us. Change must be swift as well as systemic, the positives of personal lifestyle change are not to be diminished and, as with veganism, these choices can inform mass change. What is required however is for the true architects of the climate crisis to alter how they operate, that is governments (primarily of MDC’s) & corporations; the culture of endless growth and the prioritising of profits or economic indicators of human quality of life (and ultimately human chance of life) must be curtailed, the priorities to which we give precedence must shift if we are to enact the sort of measures necessary. It’s paramount to note that drastic change is needed for mitigation, damage has and is already being done, before we even begin to countenance reversal.

Greta’s call in Paris was to “…unite behind the science” to, even if they couldn’t bring themselves to listen to children, to listen to scientists who are now, after years of being merely overwhelmingly united on humanity’s role in causing climate change, virtually unanimous both on our role and on the slightness of our window of opportunity for change. Indeed, climate outliers in the scientific community, now are less likely to be deniers than to be the scientists who don’t share others sunny optimism that mitigation is workable. Across the globe, from the Greenland ice sheet to Siberia’s permafrost & up high to the Himalaya’s, the rapidity and scale of climate change is outrunning even pessimists’ predictions.

Herein, lies the crux of the issue and something which, in her speech, Greta alludes to, the issue isn’t purely with people, in power & out of it, not believing the science. Although, across evangelical America and in the post-truth world we now inhabit, a rejection, a fear of expert opinion is more widespread than perhaps at any point since the Enlightenment, this itself is illustrative of something else. It’s a mood, a seething uncertainty that has been deliberately nurtured – leaders on the large are not ignorant of climate change, what they are is ambivalent towards it, at least when compared with the more 'politically pressing' issues. There is incontrovertible evidence that the big oil & energy conglomerates, incidentally among the largest organisations on the planet, were aware of and actively researching into their role in climate change back in the 1980s, long before climate anxiety entered into the public consciousness and far back enough that awareness and action could have avoided even the changes we have already experienced. What has been found lacking is not knowledge but the will to do something.
Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum.

If we ask ourselves why; why unanimity amongst scientists is not considered compelling enough, why investment is curtailed in renewables and maintained in fossil fuels, why, despite the hysteria over Greta’s ‘messianic’ sway over our world leaders, so little is done, it may dismay us further. Somewhat counter-intuitively we find comfort in thinking of the world as conspiratorial, of its ills as nefariously conceived; this is true to a point but, of particular pertinence in the case of climate change, the problem is in fact systemic. This presents an explanation for why seemingly intelligent people, who rely on & defer to science in other fields, reject the climate consensus, why a matter of empirical fact can be politicised, this is because the system itself demands irrationality; it demands endless growth from finite resources, progress is measured through rising consumption & rising profits not rising living standards. It’s a toxic ‘social climate’ which has bred real, physical climate change and what is required most pressingly is a change in how we view our place on, as Carl Sagan termed it, our "pale blue dot".

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