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.
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. READ MORE