Does Greta Thunberg’s climate spanking merely make us willing subordinates — celebrating our grief — instead of becoming true climate heroes?
On a sunny day in Copenhagen, I’m at the Climate March with my friend Ally from America. Kids, youth, adults and elders have gathered in front of the parliament. Together, we await our global climate star, Greta Thunberg. A DJ blasts a mix of electronic dance music and Danish bands from the 80s singing songs of justice and diversity and love out through the speakers. Above our heads, flags and posters sway, some more creative than others. Someone informs us, we’re now close to thirty thousand people. I rise to my feet to scan the crowd. For a moment, panic pushes against my body and mind. Getting out of here has become nearly impossible. I inhale and exhale to calm myself. I’m fine in this friendly sea. Ally is filming with her Iphone. A cute, but rather serious looking girl with huge pink glasses and pink rubber boots stands on a speaker-stand to better see the stage. Next to us, two young men in green capes talk to people about water health and protection in an attempt to enlist members for their organization.
Meanwhile, the concierge eggs the crowd on, making us chant together, first something boring (EU election), then something exciting (climate change). It’s loud, festive, and lighthearted.
Inexperienced in mass rallies, I turn to Ally. “This is a bit like a rock concert. People act like they are waiting for a pop star. Is this normal at rallies?”
Ally nods pensively, “I think so.”
Then Greta arrives. A wave of applause and salutations greet her. She speaks in Swedish first, then switches to English, and starts by mentioning the upcoming Danish Election, how the parties lack visionary climate policies. Ally and I cannot see her for the posters. She speaks in the sound bites, we’ve already heard from her TED talk and TV interviews. She speaks to the reality, the grief, the hope. She says: Adults, what were you thinking, you did this, you have been sleep walking, in denial, irresponsible, now you need to wake up, if not for yourself, then for me, for the youth. At every soundbite, the crowd breaks into exuberant yelling and clapping in agreement. Just in front of us, a tall man in his fifties accompanies her sound bites with “YES. YES. Go Greta.” Next to us, a young woman wipes tears off her cheeks.
As she speaks and the crowd celebrate, I fall into silence. Are they listening to what she’s actually saying?
She’s spanking us publicly and everyone’s roaring in delight.
Perhaps I’m the odd one, the critic, inexperienced at both rallies and idolizing. At best, pop star adoration and celebrity events feel phony to me. In my view, by pedestalizing Greta as our savior, we not only get to transfer our hopes and responsibilities onto her, we also get enamored in her story of becoming — the heroine — at the risk of loosing her message. Like all good Americans, we love the-rise-of-the-hero stories, we love redemption stories. I’ve already see numerous critical articles about Thunberg’s background, her family, her autism, whatever, and have also noticed a lot of angry men dismiss the validity of her message. “She’s only a child! What does she know?”
The rest of us? Well, we’re likely to make her the placeholder for our private grief and powerlessness and perhaps in her words, we find redemption, because, finally, we feel something… is happening.
But is something happening?
In these SoMe times it’s easy to get caught up in the personalities and the memes and hashtags, while the important messages drown in the hungry hype machine without anyone really considering the depth and significance of the message and its purpose: … to create change and make us the change agents.
This contortion of an important vision happened to “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” and more recently it happened to “#metoo.” Everyone’s claiming it and framing it according to their agendas and preferred views. When Dalai Lama said, “The world will be saved by Western women,” every savvy female coach and business owner I knew made this their brand tagline, soon turning the message into a (temporary) marketing fad, quite possibly sidestepping its inherent call to awakening and action.
Today, I fear, #climatecrisis and #gretathunberg will suffer the same destiny. We take it on as our own, love it up, and then, forget. Because soon we’ll have another pop star to eat up, another hashtag to tag along.
A more appropriate response to Greta’s talk might be to quietly acknowledge our denials and hypocrisy and failure to act on what we’ve known for a long time to be a huge problem: our consumption, pollution and exploitation of our earthly resources, and, ultimately the inequality in our world.
As I scan the crowd and try to join in the elation, I wonder, why we need a heroine to speak to our in-action and push us onto the planetary edge of survival. Perhaps those who join the Climate Marches are already aware and activists and so, Greta is giving us a voice. I look around. I don’t know who’s here today, but on stage, a young woman calls us out, scold us for our irresponsibility, while, everyone eager, blush-faced, clap and roar.
The writings on the wall, but which wall?
I probably sound holier than thou, though my thoughts are founded in my own grief and the powerlessness I feel at the enormity of the loss and severe problems we face. I love this world and its diversity of people, places, languages, histories, traditions, and yes, its magnificent multitude of flora and fauna. All my life, I’ve been able to hike through the highest mountains, dive into the oceans, swim with wild dolphins, traverse deserts and get lost amongst the old redwood trees. It’s pure magic to me, filled with the intelligence of life itself from which we still can learn. It breaks my heart that we are destroying it, and so many people seem either unaware or don’t care.
For the past 30+ years I’ve travelled the world, and lived and worked in various countries, and here, there and everywhere, I’ve seen the writings on the wall. Except, the writing was never on my wall.
When I was 16, Chernobyl had us scared all over Europe. I wore my ‘Anti A-Power’ badge with surety. At 26, I worked in CARE’s rural development projects in Nepal trying to solve problem with poor land and soil management, deforestation, lack of education and socio-economic opportunities. At 36, I worked on informercials and educational documentaries about the importance of land conservation and how to bring sustainability consciousness into businesses in San Francisco. Already then, we had people like Joanna Macy, Paul Hawken, Native Americans Chiefs and many more speak to the pending planetary ecological crisis.
I must have lolled myself into the San Franciscan bubble, believing that “our” conversations, consciousness and activism would ripple into the wider world, and, become the new normal.
“Ally, this climate thing has overtaken my consciousness. Now everyone in Denmark talks about it. Do you think and talk about this? Do your friends and colleagues talk about this?“
“No. Not really,” she says. “Most Americans are unconscious, they want what they want and cannot imagine that their lives and consumption should impact the climate, or the rest of the world, for that matter.”
America suddenly feels frighteningly huge, ignorant and avoidant.
At 43, we had Fukushima. I remember walking along Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands with a strange discomfort inside my skin. I worried about the radioactivity spilling into the oceans, frying the fish and plant life, and very soon, reaching this shore. I worried about the ramifications of poisoning the very water of our existence. I no longer enjoy sushi.
At 48, 49, 50, I arrived in California each Fall, carrying a face mask in my suitcase in case the air was smoke polluted. Last summer, we had an unusual drought in Denmark, the lush verdant summer landscape suddenly brown and dying.
At a recent climate meeting at the Alternative party office, the local politicians running for office talked without meta-view and ambition about their plans to green the city with gardens and demand more sustainable buildings. A woman from the Danish Nature Conservation Association gave a presentation. On one of her slides there was a citation from a professor: “For our food and survival, we don’t need the other species.” Meaning, if giraffes and elephants and whales and birds die off, it’s of no effect to us––the superior human.
Now at 51, we have Greta. And a rude awakening. What we’ve heard about for the past 30 years is suddenly real and written on our walls. Like many of those around me today, I must have believed that, by osmosis, by being aware of my co-existence and dependence upon nature and other species, I was doing my part. I too have blindly trusted that those in higher power — politicians, organizations, activists and smart business people — would somehow have the health of our planet at heart and move us in the right direction. I too have engaged in the magical thinking that a more beautiful world is possible.
Against the climate crisis, we are all naked.
Greta is the child who points out to us, that not only is the emperor naked, so are we. Ursula Le Guin has been cited for saying “the creative adult is the child that survived.” She didn’t actually say that, but in her essay, “The Inner Child and the Nude Politician” she discusses the cult of the inner child as the creative, free, innocent self against which adults are bad and teachers tend to obstruct the child’s spontaneity. Le Guin argues that in reality, children are unfinished beings who have been given a very large job, the one of becoming complete, to fulfill their potential: to grow up.
Children are by nature irresponsible and it’s part of their charm. But when carried into adulthood it becomes a dire practical and ethical failing. Le Guin says: “Uncontrolled spontaneity wastes itself. Ignorance isn’t wisdom.”
Ursula Le Guin ends her essay with this: “In order to see that our emperors have no clothes on, do we really have to wait for a child to say so? Even worse, wait for someone’s Inner Brat to pipe up? If so, we’re in for a lot of nude politicians.”
Children cannot grow up without the guidance of wise and patient teachers and parents. Today, it seems to me that we are the adult-children who never grew up, and Greta is the child-adult who points out that we are naked, unable to hide behind our childish charms and irresponsibilities.
If public shaming isn’t the way, what is?
Greta long gone, a sad harp player is now entertaining us with her laments before the next speaker arrives. It’s getting hot and my throat is dry.
Ally tugs at my arm. “Can we leave now?”
For a moment I’m surprised she’s already done, but staying might actually require more stamina than I can muster. We begin to inch our way through the mass of people who are moving in all directions, some patient, some in panic.
For many years, we’ve lived into the idea of the separate self, human beings as overlords and the non-human world the backdrop for our material self-actualization. Now this idea has become our down fall. In Joanne Macy’s words, to attach ourselves to hope merely takes us out of the present moment and ability to do something. What we need is ‘active hope.’
Hope without intention is nothing.
As we enter this era of loss––not just species, soil substance and clean water, but also in our privilege as consumer––we need new values and ways. We can hustle to create quick-fix solutions, evolve smarter technologies, produce eco-friendly products, perhaps build alternative societies on manmade floating islands or escape to Mars, but ultimately, we’ll be doing ourselves a disservice if we do not become brave enough to face the core of the problem: the superior position we believe we hold in relationship to the whole––the global and local ecological systems we exist within.
We can be climate crazy (as a Danish politician calls us) and plant wild flowers, fight against Round Up, and get rid of plastic bottles, but that in itself will do little to solve the deeper ecological imbalance.
Nostalgia? Sentimentality? Unrealistic? Romantic?
All of that too. But rather than fall for hype, turn messengers into celebrities thereby deflating their message, it would behoove the media, politicians and leaders of our societies to tackle the problems and report on what they are actually doing, rather than focus on the temporary stooge. And, I encourage us to listen and to fully feel our grief and fear, and acknowledge that we don’t know what to do. For now.
Because, to let our paralysis be a blessed state of curiosity would be graceful. To have conversations with each other, about what we love, what we are scared of and how we might change our values and forge new ways of living would be honest. To talk about how we will initiate the great leveling of our resources, consumption and foot print in our global community would be wise.
Inspired by Joanna Macy, I’d say: Let’s be intellectually naked and emotionally available for this next big leap in our world history. Let’s show Greta and the next generations that we are listening.
© Lone Morch, Copenhagen 2019