The Greta Thunberg Effect

Mohandas Gandhi said that when trying to make any change that challenges the morality of the status quo, your opponents will ignore you, then laugh at you, then fight you, before you eventually win.

Much has been made of the attention Greta Thunberg has been getting of late through the clarity and provocative tone of her message. Her adversaries are fighting back. The scorn and vitriol poured on this reluctant hero — mostly by ultra-right-wing shock jocks genuflecting to a bunch of old white men trying to preserve their fragile grasp on power in a world already shifting beyond their control — is reaching fever pitch.

In a little over a year Thunberg has gone from an unassuming lone crusader to a global muse for climate activism. The movement she has inspired appears to be unstoppable. International institutions like the UN, instruments of state, and of law and order, have been taken aback and are baffled by how best to deal with such an unprecedented uprising.

On the face of it we are dealing with a simple issue. A majority of citizens, in a majority of countries, want unified, urgent action to deal with an existential emergency. This emergency is based upon irrefutable scientific evidence that Earth’s climate is heating up and will become inimical to human life if something is not done about it. For at least the past 40 years we have beaten about the bush. Action has not been demanded. But now we are rapidly reaching a flashpoint that will change the course of human history.

One of the problems for all of us is that this issue is far more complicated than we assume. The dilemma Thunberg faces is profoundly frustrating, emotionally draining, and exists on several levels…

1. Although the science is explicit, the plurality of extant beliefs in the world today means there can be no easy agreement on fundamentals, least of all what action should be taken. All the evidence points to the need for a prompt response if we are to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to levels that are conducive to human wellbeing. We have known this for over 40 years. Yet the enduring reaction from governments remains lethargically bureaucratic and cautious.

2. The need for immediate action, compels Thunberg to interact with incumbent leaders. Many, including Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison and Jair Bolsanaro, share convictions that absolve them from the “needlessly anxious” entreaties of a 16-year-old teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. Their ingrained self-esteem, toughened by neo-liberal ideals, ultra-conservative values, and the entitlement culture into which they were born, permits them to dismiss both the message and the messenger with contempt.

Trying to persuade these individuals to adopt an alternative belief system is challenging enough. Expecting them to accept scientific evidence to which they are currently opposed, and to appreciate the need for urgent collaborative action, flies in the face of everything they stand for and identify with. It is a Sisyphean task.

3. Were it not for the urgency, Thunberg’s message would not be aimed primarily at these egocentric individuals and their sycophantic followers. It resonates more deeply with those dispersed and dissatisfied millions of people in the developed world who, distressed by the real possibility of extinction, and concerned for the future of their children, are truly alarmed by the unwillingness of their governments to take immediate and appropriate action. Greta’s unwavering call is what this group has been waiting for. To rise up, unite and demand change — imposing it through civil disobedience if necessary.

But even that is not the total picture. Looking through a more granular lens it becomes clear that a large chunk of this group is overwhelmed by anxiety. No longer able to trust the expert, scientific evidence, or state institutions, they remain disengaged. For them opinions have become a legitimate substitute for the truth. Denial is sufficient in itself.

Those who are not so overwhelmed are easily led. Mistrusting the media, they are happy to blindly follow brash celebrities with big personalities and simple solutions, who are always ready to flaunt existing laws, or brand as fake news anything that fails to meet their own ends.

And then there are the so-called leaders. Some in this group actively work to disparage those calling out the truth, such as a Greta Thunberg. Others seem willing to ignore any ethical considerations in order to retain their hold on power and to appease the masses. Those few who do exhibit a more inclusive perspective and communal consciousness, like Angela Merkel for example, face a backlash at home.

The challenge is how to animate this entire group, the bulk of citizens in the developed world, to wake up, call out the truth to power, and crash through to generate informed action. For if this group fails to discard their fading trust in society’s most venerable institutions and players, in order to forestall what will otherwise be an inevitable catastrophe, there can be no hope for the human family beyond our lifetime.

4. The quest for change to the established order is a moral responsibility. Those of us with knowledge must speak on behalf of those who are simply unable to influence even their own predicament. More than 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. Almost 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — surviving on less than $1.25 a day. A billion children worldwide are living in poverty and 22,000 die each day as a result. This means a large proportion of the population is not even present in conversations about the climate crisis. Subsisting on the fringes of war, repression, hunger and fear, their attention is totally focused on how they can survive for one more night.

5. It can be unwise to divorce the climate crisis from other existential threats. All of them arise from the way we choose to live our lives. Everything is interconnected. It is tempting to point to carbon emissions as both the singular cause of, and the solution to, climate change. But climate change is a euphemism. Industrial production, the fossil fuel energy used to drive it, and the quest for endless economic growth have converged to trigger a breakdown of the Earth’s major ecosystems. The problems range from a loss of biodiversity, stresses on food production, the spread of infectious diseases, and water scarcity, to issues such as terrorism, security, immigration, corruption, the demise of state hegemony, nuclear accidents and machine intelligence.

But these, too, are only symptoms of a much deeper malaise. For the mess in which we find ourselves can best be described as a crisis of consciousness — a breakdown in moral purpose, and a lack of appreciation for what it means to be human, both aggravated by the deliberate continuation of a cycle of desire and consumption that is now so central to how modern society works.

Just imagine… The cravings of 7.676 billion people, all wanting more and more stuff, puts untold pressure on some of our most life-critical systems — such as health, food production, urban design, education and governance, for example. As these were not designed to cope with such sheer numbers they begin to fail. Our intrinsic impulse to compete opens up wide cultural divisions and social rifts, as we blame anyone who is not like us for our problems. Only when that behaviour makes matters worse do we grasp the inevitable truth — that as individuals we have no power to change the course of global events. There are few places to hide. We can immerse ourselves in mindless distractions, drop out for a life off-the-grid, join a rebellion, or succumb to anxiety and depression. Apprehensive and cynical, we resort to buying more and more stuff in the hope, or expectation, this will cure our sadness — for that is what we have consistently been told. As materialism fails us yet again, the cycle is perpetuated. Meanwhile the despair deepens.

As I have pointed out previously, there are many factors amplifying the levels of physical and psychological discomfort we are all feeling. One in particular stands out as the key source of our anxiety: our shared worldview. This has become infused with a dubious impulse based on monetizing literally everything that moves — from the forests and the oceans to personal data. It manifests as a world-system driven by economic growth but delivered by greed and envy.

When both markets and governments fall short in providing for the needs of society, the sense of chaos can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, we do not easily accept the idea of extinction. Like the difficulty we have accepting climate change, we refuse to believe our civilisation is in a state of collapse. We will continue to believe that until the evidence can no longer be denied, remaining blind, deaf and dumb to worsening conditions, yet convinced that others, or human ingenuity, or new technologies, will solve our problems.

That is why today, surrounded by confusion, ambiguity, misinformation, and conflicting power plays, we find ourselves caught between the plutocratic status quo — with its unhealthy and unsustainable addiction to business-as-usual — and a world of empathic cooperation, where knowledge applied diligently could be used to effect generative, second-order change, at scale, ultimately resolving most of the problems those clinging to the status quo choose to ignore, or pray will go away.

The real issue is what we should be doing about this crisis of consciousness of course, which is why Thunberg’s message is so apt for us today. As little more than innovative apes, our mental capacity hovers just below the threshold needed to solve most of the existential problems we ourselves created. Yet our inability to take appropriate action leaves us stranded in an even more vulnerable limbo.

Here then is the real opportunity that Thunberg’s actions offer us. Not merely to solve the problem of global warming or to adapt to its inevitable consequences. But to leverage the social momentum for change in a shift towards a new civilisational model and worldview. A worldview that is more equitable, sustainable, and generative. One that allows humans to live within their means and within the limits imposed by planetary boundaries.

If we can reach the turn of the next century having accomplished that, we will have set a course for continued prosperity, health and wellbeing for all life on this planet. That will be the Greta Thunberg effect. The impact of true leadership in an era where leadership is otherwise nowhere to be seen.

Many thanks to my friend and erstwhile colleague Bronwynne Jones who contributed seminal ideas to this short paper and helped formulate the direction in which my arguments are presented.

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Richard David Hames

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future