One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This time, in reference to the title of Greta Thunberg’s book, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, we ask:
How have Greta Thunberg and the school climate strikes made a difference?
With responses from: Simon Pirani; Johanna Fernández; Matthew Huber; Seema Arora-Jonsson; Hester Eisenstein; Steffen Böhm; Geoff Mann; Hannah Holleman; Julian Brave NoiseCat; Ashley Dawson; John Foran; Alison Green.
Historian and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto, 2018). Website: http://simonpirani.blogspot.com/
Greta Thunberg and the school strikers are not trying to convince the world’s governments with good arguments in protest letters or petitions. Their starting point is that the governments have failed to act on climate change, despite scientists explaining the danger in the 1980s – more than two lifetimes ago, for school students. The strikers know they are dealing with hypocrites and liars, and the power relations of which they are part. Striking is their first, proportionate, response. In this way, they have shifted the narrative.
Since the international climate talks began in 1992, the rate at which fossil fuel burning pours greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has risen by more than 60%. One function of the talks has been to create a self-justifying discourse: governments would use ‘market mechanisms’ to deal with the problem (while subsidising fossil fuels to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars); civil society would be represented by NGOs protesting at the summits. This ‘dialogue’ was about patronising, incorporating and smothering social movements. Of course this is now being tried on Greta Thunberg and the school students. But it will be difficult to silence a movement of tens of millions of people that way.
The organisers of the strikers’ demonstration in London on 20 September focused on allying with movements in the global south, where flooding, drought and other climate change effects are already facts of life. The London crowd cheered the announcement that school strikers were on the streets of 40 cities in Pakistan, and welcomed Brazilian and Bolivian speakers. If ‘climate justice’ is seen in this way, as bound up with social justice, then those who propose individual sacrifice, or state-imposed austerity – rather than to change society – can be put in their place.
Can activists and radical thinkers of earlier generations contribute anything? Only if we learn how better to communicate our hard-won experience. It is not enough to turn up with placards saying ‘system change not climate change’. What system change? What types of technological change could break the fossil-fuel-dependent economy? Can they be achieved under capitalism?
Answers from the ‘Left’ are too superficial. For example: the Labour party conference declared for a ‘green new deal’, but some Labour politicians interpret this to mean investment in electric cars. This false techno-fix may help car manufacturing companies and their shareholders, but it will not substantially reduce carbon emissions. It certainly obstructs the necessary transition to zero-carbon cities where we live and work meaningfully, and where car-based transport systems, traffic jams and other fossil-fuel-intensive urban infrastructure are things of the past. The school strikers deserve more compelling, more coherent visions for the future.
Teaches 20th Century US history and the history of social movements in the Department of History at Baruch College (CUNY). She is the author of The Young Lords: A Radical History (UNC Press, 2020), on the Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panther Party, and editor of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal (City Lights, 2015). She is the writer and producer of the film, Justice on Trial: the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (BigNoise Films, 2010).
Like other pivotal figures in social movements, Greta Thunberg’s story has humanised the grievances and demands of a movement that has felt emotionally abstract to many. The raw anger and vulnerability of Thunberg’s, now iconic, UN speech effectively conveyed the urgency of the environmental holocaust that awaits us. She personalised it for her generation.
Thunberg also told the truth about capitalism: ‘We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth, How dare you!’
Where do we go from here?
Thunberg didn’t get to the UN alone. She is part of a locally grown movement that spread throughout Europe with a simple and clear call to action: continuous, weekly student strikes on Fridays. We need to encourage comparable organising in the United States, and beyond.
When small groups of people in different places interrupt the day-to-day operation of their local community, they force a conversation. At their best, these actors educate the public about root causes of social problems and offer an alternative way of organising society. This is why social movements change history: they mainstream alternate values and ways of living.
In her 2018 Ted Talk, Thunberg observed: ‘Today, we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. We can’t save the world by playing by the rules … everything needs to change and it has to start today.’
The problem is that in pursuit of profit, capitalism exerts autocratic, and often violent, control over the earth’s resources and the production of goods, with devastating consequences for the environment and the way we live. The ‘politics’ that can change that is socialism, and you’ll never find it at the ballot box. It’s not ‘politics’ the way we know it. Rather, it’s the most democratic vision for organising society – practiced by the first peoples of the world in the distant past, and illuminated and amplified in the modern age by Karl Marx.
Internationalising the teach-in might help us grasp the magnitude of the existing problem and the revolutionary character of the change we need. It will also humanise the environmental movement further. To this end, let us hear from Thunberg, but let us also hear from the lead-poisoned children of Flint, Michigan; from indigenous populations fighting corporate fires in the Amazon, deforestation and displacement in Latin America; from those tortured – by the hired-guns of Shell corporation in Nigeria and ExxonMobile in Indonesia – for fighting to protect their ancestral lands from corporate plunder; and let us hear from the people of Syria, Japan, Iraq, and Vietnam, where American weapons of mass destruction have disfigured the landscape of entire countries.
In light of capitalism’s apocalyptic crimes against humanity, the struggle to reorganise what and how we produce, and how we live is sensible and urgent. Now is the time to meme and mainstream the moral assignment of our time: to harness science, technology and human creativity to meet basic human need, create alternate sources of energy, and heal the earth.
Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University. He is the author of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom and the Forces of Capital (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). He is currently working on a book on class and climate politics for Verso Books.
Without question, Greta Thunberg and the school strike movement have made a huge difference in galvanising the climate movement. On the first day of the climate strike an estimated 4 million took to the streets across the world. A week later, an estimated half a million came out in Montreal alone. Furthermore, the tactical focus on the strike is exactly right. The history of social movements show how mass disruption of ‘business as usual’ is an effective way to force elites to bend to popular demands.
Yet, Greta’s title, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, suggests a contradiction. We need more than a difference. We need to entirely restructure society – starting now. There is something perniciously neoliberal about the idea of activism as simply making a ‘difference’ – as if all the ‘differences’ add up to radical change – much like imagining that millions of decentralised choices add up to an efficient price mechanism.
So, is this movement well-positioned to not only make a difference, but accomplish what the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for: ‘unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’? Perhaps not yet. A bunch of students skipping school is a good start, but unless the movement can actually shut down entire school districts, ‘strikes’ will only hold symbolic value. The students should also organise with teachers who – in the US at least – have shown inspiring militancy with their own recent strike wave. In July, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, ‘propose[d] a national teachers’ strike in support of the Green New Deal.’ Of course, pulling that off would not be easy. But this is the scale of disruption required.
Finally, I think Thunberg’s rhetoric – ‘Unite behind the science!‘ – often falls into conventional tropes of climate politics as a struggle over knowledge (belief vs. denial). As I argue elsewhere, this knowledge politics is distinctly appealing to a professional class that valorises ‘smartness’ and ‘credentials’ as the barometers of social worth. The problem is the professional class only represents a minority of the societies most responsible for emissions (Kim Moody estimates it at 22% of the workforce in the US).
A true majoritarian climate movement will need to find ways to appeal to the vast majority of working-class people facing stagnant wages, debt, job insecurity and not overly focused on ‘the science.’ As Naomi Klein reminds us, elite climate policies can lead to resentment, like the French Yellow Vests who shout, ‘The politicians care about the end of the world when we have to care about the end of the month.’
Luckily, the Green New Deal, as Klein puts it, ‘doesn’t ask people to choose’ between economic and planetary security. As Bernie Sanders’ climate plan lays out, we can transform our energy system while creating 20 million jobs and offer workers cheaper access to food, housing, transport, and (most of all) energy. Indeed, it is these sectors – so central to working-class life – that we urgently need to transform. The only thing standing in our way is the minority of capitalists who control them.
Professor of Rural Development in Sweden and Europe at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Her publications include Gender, Development and Environmental Governance: Theorizing Connections (Routledge, 2013).
Greta Thunberg and the school strikes are propelling a climate movement, led by the young, but one that speaks to people across generations. Although its proponent(s) that we see in the media are mainly white, the attention to the issue has helped highlight unsung activists across the world, who have been painstakingly working with environmental issues for a long time. Having inspired global climate strikes and chiding the UN and governments over their inaction, Thunberg has conjured a new sense of urgency over climate change, especially for the young and people previously outside of the debate.
The power of her stance lies in having made the space for questions on the climate, not necessarily in her aims. The strength of Thunberg’s message is that there is something that everyone can or should do – beyond the Left or Right. She has done this by carefully keeping to scientific consensus, consistently pointing to the work of others and in calling upon authorities to do their jobs to act upon that. Scientists do not specify a policy path but it would be hard to actually listen to them and believe that one could ‘gently nudge’ the fossil fuel industry towards a world warmed by less than 1.5 degrees.
As for if her work might be co-opted, I would say that we would want her work to be co-opted by different constituencies that go beyond the Left or Right. ‘Do something,’ ‘make a plan that works’ are calls to action in the midst of a limbo when too little is being done. As one of Sweden’s climate negotiators observed, today, the youth movement is called upon in all climate meetings. More and more, political and corporate leaders don’t want to be seen as failing to address the issue (at least for the world at large), in what the business journal Bloomberg calls the ‘Thunberg effect.’
But Thunberg’s call to climate justice also has the potential of a radically different future – its outcomes would depend on what we make of it in many different places. Manifestations around the world and a rethinking on climate action in a myriad of contexts are a sign of things beginning to move in new ways and on a larger scale. Mostly, her uncompromising stance and her presence is a reminder but also prompts a sense of agency – if a teenager can do this, so should we!
Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, Queens College and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York. Her publications include Contemporary Feminist Thought (G K Hall, 1983); Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State (Temple University, 1996); and Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World (Routledge, 2009).
The part of Greta Thunberg’s message that most resonates with me is her cri-de-coeur for her own generation. For Greta and her fellow high schoolers, the coming decades seem bleak. In effect, she is telling us, we oldies have stolen the future for her and her generation (‘How dare you: you have stolen my dreams!’). She is absolutely right.
If at this moment in world history we are seeing the initial effects of climate change – oceans choking on plastic; low-lying islands being lost to the sea; millions of species extinct and many more facing extinction – imagine what the world will be like when she and her cohort arrive at adulthood in ten or twenty years from now.
While she is absolutely right to castigate current world leaders for their passivity and complicity in this situation, what she does not go on to specify is the list of giant institutions – from the international financial bodies (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the rest) to state governments (including their militaries) to corporations – that are together ensuring that a more benevolent outcome cannot and will not happen. (Tim Anderson notes that the US military alone, in addition to its destruction of millions of lives, is ‘one of the world’s biggest consumers of fossil fuels.’)
What are we to make of the fact that Exxon-Mobil and PetroChina are close to signing a 30-year contract with Iraq to extract their oil (the outcome of a war that, we are solemnly told, had nothing to do with oil)? The oil and gas companies are marching forward to carry on business as usual, as are the other extractive industries. No amount of alternative energy sources (wind power, solar, and the like) can rescue us if we go on using up the resources of this beautiful planet at the current pace.
One example to think about: electric cars will cut out the use of gasoline, but will still be made of steel, aluminum, rubber, copper… Thus when I hear Greta’s poignant plea for her generation, I feel guilt, panic, and remorse. She is absolutely right that ‘we’ – the collective forces of late monopoly capitalism, ruthless and competitive state powers, and the consuming public – have already failed her, and her generation, and the generations to come.
Professor in Organisation and Sustainability at the University of Exeter, UK. His research focuses on political economy, political ecology and governance relations. He has published five books: Repositioning Organization Theory (Palgrave), Against Automobility (Blackwell), Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets (Mayfly), The Atmosphere Business (Mayfly) and Ecocultures: Blueprints for Sustainable Communities (Routledge). A new book, Climate Activism, is forthcoming with Cambridge. Website: https://steffenboehm.net/.
Barely 15 months ago, Greta Thunberg was a Swedish schoolgirl that nobody had heard of. She was sitting – on her own – in front of the parliament building in Stockholm, holding a placard saying ‘School strike for the climate’. Nobody was joining at the time. It looked lonely – because it was.
Fast-forward only a year and the climate strike she started now regularly attracts millions of school children and many other folk around the world. In polls, the climate is now stated amongst the top concerns for voters in many countries. Many public institutions, including the UK parliament, local government councils and universities (including my own) have declared a ‘climate and environmental emergency’.
It would be preposterous to suggest that this is all due to Greta, but there is something special and fearless about her. She’s not afraid of speaking truth to power; the moment of parrhesia that Foucault wrote about. Greta now meets many heads of state, corporate and other powerful leaders. But one gets the impression that they (often grey-haired men) are more afraid of her then the other way around.
Climate change is still often portrayed as having long-term impacts that might affect our children or grandchildren. But it is already happening and affecting millions of people. Greta’s stance, her anger, her action, carries this message, waking everybody up. Climate change has to be addressed now.
But Greta’s effect, her anger and urgency, has of course a double edge. Capitalist ingenuity and accumulation has always benefited from crisis moments. Whenever something is broken, capitalism is the quickest off the mark to fix it. The climate and environmental crisis is no different.
There are many enterprising endeavours that have already benefited from the climate emergency. Land grabbing to build gigantic solar and wind farms, gene editing to develop climate resilient crops, geoengineering mega-projects, carbon capture and storage projects, large-scale monoculture tree plantations – all examples of opportunities for capitalist development projects that promise to earn their owners billions, while having the nice side effect of being beneficial for climate change mitigation or adaptation.
It doesn’t take much to imagine a kind of green authoritarianism that will, combined with traditional developmentalist ideology, lead to an explosion of ‘green new deal’ mega-projects: infrastructure for billions of electric cars worldwide, thousands of miles of sea defences, annexation of land for building massive solar and wind farms, carbon rationing for the masses. All of this might be just around the corner.
These green fixes will themselves have massive social and environmental side effects. A new carbon under-class is already in existence in world cities like London, where the rich are driving their SUVs while the majority has to take public transport. If the 100 million+ cars and commercial vehicles produced annually on this planet are soon battery powered, where will all the lithium come from? Well, from huge lithium mines, which can be dangerous for local water tables.
The jury is still out whether the Greta effect will be strong enough to save us from the manifold technological fixes of climate change already in the making. Challenging ‘business-as-usual’ must not only be geared towards decarbonisation but the whole capitalist apparatus of development, which has always had massive social and environmental impacts, and will continue under the various ‘green new deals’ proposed.
Professor in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University, where he directs the Centre for Global Political Economy. His most recent books are In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution (Verso, 2017) and Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (Verso, 2018), co-authored with Joel Wainwright. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Before I say anything, it seems to me crucial to preface it with admiration and celebration of Greta Thunberg and the rest of the youth climate activists who have done so much to mobilise so many so quickly. Any political critique of the school climate strikes, or of Thunberg’s role in the climate justice movement, must work itself out in a manner that sustains the energy and supports young people at this moment. That doesn’t mean those of us no longer so youthful should just keep our mouths shut and let them do their thing, but it does mean thinking very hard about the nature and impact of our critique, which can often come across as condescension, dismissal, or spite.
So how do we who share the movement’s commitments to justice and to the future still work through some of the tough questions that inevitably need to be asked of any movement, not just one led by youth? Take, for example, the climate strikes’ oft-remarked inchoate politics. To the extent that Thunberg in particular has become something of ‘photo op’ for almost any politician outside the ideological territory of the Republicans, it is clear that the ‘progressive’ establishment is eagerly cooking up a strange brew of cheer-leading and co-optation.
Here in Canada, while we had millions in the streets on September 27th, the result has also been an endless stream of ‘Welcome to Canada, Greta!’ messages from the unabashed pipeline lobby that is Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal party. It can be tempting to see in this as just another watering-down or diversion, with the added benefit for some, like Trudeau, to bask gleefully in the glow of Thunberg’s charisma. Sitting in front of the cameras with a smarmy grin, he hopes that few will remember she told him he was destroying the planet. If Trudeau and his oil-patch Mafia can hook their cart to her wagon, something is really wrong.
On the other hand, there is something completely logical and even hopeful about the climate strike movement’s lack of political clarity – because a lack of political clarity is also a lack of political closure. Those of us who think we have some experience-based insight into politics often get very caught up in how we get things done. We have theoretical, strategic, and historic commitments that drive us into factions and tell us who our enemies are (even the ones who think they are friends). But the overwhelming feeling at the strikes is that the point is getting things done, not so much how.
The students who marched all around me don’t (yet?) give a damn about how we fight climate change, they just want us to start fighting – carbon taxes, green finance, solar panels, corporate expropriation, general strikes: it’s all there for the doing. They are bringing the energy, the anger, and the power. How they use it, we will see. We old folks can help them shape and sharpen their choices, but only if we speak with the respect they deserve. But that the politics are unclear is not (yet?) a reason to fret. It is a reason for celebration, support, and generous critique.
Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at Amherst College, working in the areas of social theory, environmental sociology, political economy, and social movements. She is author of Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics, and the Injustice of ’Green’ Capitalism (Yale University Press, 2018).
Greta Thunberg is clearly inspiring for a number of reasons, including: 1) she is so far consistent – in her message, her ethics and behavior, and her commitment to action; 2) she blames powerful elites, not the disempowered and disenfranchised poor of the world, for climate change and inaction to address it; 3) as someone from a wealthy country, she demonstrates a willingness to give up a carbon-intensive lifestyle to which others act entitled; 4) she is calling for us to take science and education more seriously at a time when the denial of science and attacks on public education and critical thinking are linked to the rising right-wing threat; 5) she is young, female, and fierce in the face of constant attacks and even threats of death; 6) she says, straightforwardly, that if the system doesn’t work, we just have to change it; 7) her approach is the strike, the refusal to engage in routine activity, something many of us can do right where we live, work, and learn.
While we cannot predict how politics will develop from here, it is clear that Thunberg-inspired climate strikes have helped link, and internationalise, the wider youth and environmental movements. This is a powerful development. Lessons from this for the broader Left may be found in aspects of Thunberg’s persona: young, non-male leadership, in obvious service to something beyond themselves, consistent and without ego or hypocrisy, is key to breaking with any sclerotic politics of the past.
Another lesson is the power of doing and saying out loud, of the importance of being in public with other people, and employing the historical weapon of the strike. A third lesson is the necessity of fighting to retain our capacity for feeling deeply the truths of our moment, and our connections to other people, places, and species. We need that genuine focus of feeling, as well as intellect and analyses. Finally, we need to see the climate strikes and Thunberg as part of a broader set of changes that are shaking up environmental politics.
Before Thunberg went on strike, a lot was happening to shift politics around environmental questions significantly, including: the rise of the global youth movement, the growing global prominence and linkages between indigenous peoples’ movements, and the rebellion of scientists, to mention a few. In the US alone, consider the rise of the Sunrise Movement (led in large part by youth of color), the Democratic Socialists, Black Lives Matter, and the Climate Justice Alliance, the wave of teacher strikes, and the No-DAPL protests, among other developments.
What all of this means, is that while Thunberg is a critical spark, she is part of a larger fire. She might be co-opted and defused, or become an even more powerful mobiliser and organiser for real change, helping link movements globally. However, what she and these dynamic rising movements represent—in terms of what the generation with the most at stake with climate change find energising, in terms of what expands the sense of possibilities for alternative futures felt by people around the world, as well as the sense and reality of connection to one another—is something we should all see clearly and take as key lessons from this moment forward.
Julian Brave NoiseCat
About a month ago, when over 7 million people took to the streets for the Global Climate Strike, a reporter at Fortune asked if I would be willing to comment on a story ‘regarding the diversity – racial, socio-economic, age, industry, geography – of the movement.’ The subject of the query, which went unsaid in the email, was, of course, Greta Thunberg: the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who sailed across the Atlantic to lead the strikes. For Indigenous peoples – and many people of colour – the optics of a white person crossing the ocean to save the world are familiar and disquieting.
I told the Fortune journalist that reporters, editors and producers control who does and does not get representation. If some believed Greta was sucking up oxygen, I reasoned, they should protest the broadcaster, not the Swede. Fortune didn’t run my quote.
In broad strokes, this dynamic is familiar to most observers of the Left: a movement rises, the movement receives attention, people on the margins of the movement – almost always people of colour, Indigenous nations, women, or LGBTQ people – level a critique calling for inclusion and power. Some in the movement and the media heed the call and course correct. Others suggest that the cocktail of racism, colonialism and capitalism renders the project unsalvageable. In the best case, we get a bigger, more diverse movement. In the worst case, the movement descends into endless infighting and self-critique. The pattern, it seems, is predictable, if not inevitable.
It’s also tiring. It’s tiring for me personally because, as someone who is often called upon to report, write and commentate on diversity, I’m sick of playing the foil. I am generally not an angry Indian. And Greta is generally pretty dope. Sure, I’d love if it one of my young cousins was up there rallying the marchers, but with the reach that Greta has achieved, maybe one of my cousins will join a strike or even blockade a pipeline.
I’m also worried that the diversity intervention is becoming tiresome for people on the sidelines. An increasingly popular theory, based on Erica Chenoweth’s groundbreaking research, posits that, to achieve regime change, a social movement must get at least 3.5% of the population actively engaged in non-violent resistance. Greta has played a huge role in getting us closer to that target. But 7 million globally is still a long way off of the 10-11 million domestically we likely need to topple the fossil fuel regime. While I support calls for greater diversity in our movements, I am concerned that sometimes these critiques turn away people who aren’t up on the latest activist-speak and can at times undermine strategy, slow momentum and ultimately derail movements.
Which is, I will acknowledge, a complicated feeling. I wish we lived in a world where Indigenous peoples and people of colour and women and my queer relatives were positioned as leaders. The fact that we’re not there is deeply frustrating. But that does not mean that the whole project should be abandoned: in fact, it means we must commit ourselves to this fight – stay in it to change it, despite the injustice of it all. That is, in my view, the right way to navigate unfair, inequitable and sometimes outright racist structures that persist, even among activists.
Professor of English at the Graduate Center/CUNY and the College of Staten Island, and a climate justice activist. He is the author of two recent books on topics relating to environmental issues, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016), as well as other books on topics relating to migration, global justice, and cultural struggles. He is currently completing a book on energy democracy and just transition entitled The Energy Commons.
Greta Thunberg did not mince words in her speech at the UN’s Climate Action Summit. With barely contained rage, Thunberg lambasted world leaders for their abject failure to adopt meaningful solutions to the climate crisis: ‘You come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.’
Thunberg’s blistering words were informed by awareness that while much worse is to come, the climate crisis is already taking place and is most affecting those who are the least responsible: ‘People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How DARE you!’ Thunberg cites the shocking fact of the Sixth Extinction – which threatens one million species, according to the UN IPCC – to indict not just world leaders but the economic system to which they are subservient.
As Thunberg observes in her denunciation, global elites have known about the environmental crisis for decades and yet they have continued to embrace the dogma of economic growth. Despite the growing magnitude of the environmental crisis, powerful institutions of global governance continue to talk about ‘sustainable development.’
In 2011, for example, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched a report entitled Towards Green Growth, which argues we must maintain growth while ‘ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being resides.’ Organisations like the World Bank, the UN’s Environmental Program, and even the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals echo these notions.
At bottom, these pronouncements are an attempt by global elites to provide ideological cover for a capitalist system that is constitutionally driven towards ceaseless growth on a finite planetary resource base. The hope behind this clearly contradictory enterprise is that resource intensity will diminish as economies grow more efficient and shift from manufacturing to services. But the exploitation of global resources has accelerated over the last two decades, and so, correspondingly, has the rate of carbon emissions.
It is time to put an end to what Greta so derisively and justly called ‘fairy tales of eternal economic growth.’ It is time to wind down the ecocidal capitalist system that these fairy tales support. This means that we ought to fight for a Green New Deal predicated on a rapid and planned economic contraction, one that targets unsustainable sectors of the economy such as fossil fuels while expanding other sectors like low-carbon transportation and housing.
Teaches classes that engage students with confronting the climate crisis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also active in 350.org, the intersectional ecosocialist movement in North America, Transition US, the Green Party, and other local and global efforts to build a network of radical global climate justice movements and organisations.
It is of course legitimate to ask the question of whether Greta Thunberg’s message can be easily co-opted by the liberal political and media establishment, but her implacable refusal suggests she is very unlikely to be co-opted.
Her criticisms of the current political and economic systems and their leadership have shown no sign of ‘friendship’ for capitalism. In fact, at our local Santa Barbara climate strike on September 27, I suggested, perhaps a little too delicately, that I doubted Greta’s vision of the future involved anything resembling capitalism as we know it.
Instead, I put it to the assembled community that her actions and words invite us to think about what a global climate strike can do and how it can work to build a movement to make a revolution in the name of climate justice and a transformation of the way we live now into something
Intersectional ecosocialists and others of us on the Left would do well to think through how School Strike 4 Climate – like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise-supported Green New Deal shake-up of US politics – all open pathways to the system change that we in the radical climate justice movement have been seeking for more than a decade now. None of these movements is above critique, but all point in the direction of building a global movement for radical social transformation.
I suggest that critics keep up their critiques when these are warranted – such as the question of XR UK’s whiteness problem – and work with the movements to make them stronger, more diverse, and more unremitting in the calls for ‘system change not climate change’ being heard in all the corners of the world. These words are radical.
It is heartening to see a generational shift in our movements as younger and younger activists and leaders arise alongside and together with the long-standing and increasingly recognised leadership of front-line communities everywhere.
What I would like to be part of is the co-creation of a new kind of party – not just a new party – that comes from the social movements and the countless local alternatives in communities that are already making the future visible and imaginable. May these arise everywhere on the basis of local and national conditions and actually wrest power from the criminals who govern us.
We must act with the urgency the moment demands, and that means learning to listen to and value each other, because no one possesses the magical strategy that the revolutionaries of the past once believed they did.
A touch of humility, comrades. We still have so much to learn. Together we can learn to dare.
Co-Director of Transition Lab and National Director (UK) of Scientists Warning. A cognitive psychologist and former Pro Vice-Chancellor at Arden University, Alison recently traded a highly successful academic career for environmental activism. She co-authored with Gregor Hagedorn, Michael Mann and Kevin Anderson a letter in support of the school climate strikes, and co-edited the Extinction Rebellion book This is not a Drill (Penguin, 2019). She has just submitted an article signed by over 1000 UK scientists and academics calling on Vice Chancellors, Universities UK and UK Research and Innovation to support climate action now.
Greta Thunberg and the striking school children have seared their angry, heartfelt and disdainful words onto the turgid, apathetic and self-serving conscience of the global elites. Their actions have forced the world of privilege to square up to the fact that they have not only stolen the future of their own children, but they have recklessly squandered it too. What Greta has done, very powerfully, is to audaciously confront us with the inconvenient truth – the affluent have indeed gorged themselves without regard for what will be left after the feast, or who will clear up the mess.
If a nomination for the Nobel Peace prize and polls that show a marked increase in public concern about climate breakdown are measures of success, then clearly Greta Thunberg has had a major impact. While not the first young activist, she is a child who pitches truth to power with steely-eyed authority and the candour of a sage.
Greta is applauded for speaking authoritatively and courageously on issues whilst still technically a ‘child’. Yet she has come in for considerable criticism, in part because of her age. Commentators remark that she and the other children should be in school. She has been subjected to personal criticism even, largely from middle-aged men. Denialists seek to portray her as a child who has been ‘brainwashed’ and psychologically abused by manipulative adults. She has also been criticised for seemingly having been co-opted by those involved in the financialisation and privatisation of all nature.
Can children speak authoritatively on highly complex matters of substance? Psychology did much to elucidate the processes of cognitive development, and showed that expertise is a function of knowledge, not age. Greta knows her climate science, and better than many of the adults she addresses. The denialist dismissal of her on the grounds of age is a card that falls flatly on its face. There is though something almost perverse about the relatively recent construction of the notion of ‘childhood’ by adults who have been spectacularly negligent in upholding their duty as protectors of those same children.
Greta’s main message is clear – we must listen to what the science is telling us, and then act accordingly. In focusing on the science and the work of the IPCC’s WG1, the youth movement can to some extent resist accusations of having fallen prey to the darker forces of capitalism. Talk of any ‘Green New Deal’ reveals divisions, some seeing it as the magic bullet that will save humanity (from itself), while others reject it as merely reformist and the work of elites.
GND or no GND, the science is clear – carbon must be dealt with, and now. Large scale, rapid decarbonisation must become a lived reality, whatever it takes to achieve that. The grown-ups in the room need to square up to what this means, accept that the prevailing system fails to deliver economic efficiency and cannot (ever) function to be climate safe, and prepare to step aside for the changing of the guard.