“How dare you.” With these three words, Greta Thunberg placed herself squarely in the limelight, and what followed was all things — hopeful, dispiriting, uplifting, angering. Her speech at the United Nations was both an ending and a beginning. The address to some of the world’s most powerful people came on the heels of a transatlantic emission-free yacht trip that Thunberg used to bring publicity and awareness to her ever–burgeoning climate justice protest movement. The speech was a combination of anger, desperation, angst, indignation, and strength. Battling tears, Thunberg managed to do something very few politicians are able; confront the scale and scope of the climate emergency. To be honest about the stakes, to be direct about what those in power and wealth have wrought to this planet. Unsurprisingly, critics went after Thunberg. They ridiculed the display of emotion, and suggested that the child was being used as a shield by climate activists. Others claimed that her privilege is what makes this whole protest possible, and the world should not listen to the anger of a teenage girl.
While there are serious problems with foisting Thunberg to the front of the climate debate, Greta herself is just about the last person to blame. Indeed, we all share in this. That we have created a situation where our lack of urgency, our inability to place demands on those who lead, have made it such that we are now following the lead of children who are concerned for what their world will look like is a pretty spectacularly perfect distillation of this political era.
However, it is not enough to simply blame Boomers for what has gone wrong. But that is what makes Thunberg interesting. She’s far closer to an accurate diagnosis of the situation than most. She zeroes in on power, on wealth. This isn’t about plastic straws, or brow beating the poor for using air conditioning. This is why she makes climate deniers panic, because they are far beyond denying the existence of climate change. What they are denying is the simple and brutal reality that this system of global economy will not hold. Lost in all the memes of Greta berating the United Nations, was Thunberg telling global leaders to stop trying to sell “fairy tales of eternal growth.” It is in here where a genuine critique is to be found, and it is where the scale of the fight really comes into focus. The politics that are preventing urgent climate policy are fundamentally about the inability (or lack of desire) for governments to establish power over capital.
This is what makes Justin Trudeau look so foolish when he decides to march in a protest that is rather directly against him. Millions of people around the world took to the streets recently, to demand that leaders finally listen, and finally begin to make the sorts of choices necessary to restructure society on a line that may avoid climate catastrophe. Trudeau himself participating in the Montreal protest, shows either utter hubris or an embarrassing lack of self–awareness. He even met with Thunberg, telling reporters how impressive she is, inspiring she is, and that he’s really listening! Hard to imagine a more rote response. In fact, it misses the point of what she’s saying. She doesn’t want to have to be inspiring. She doesn’t want to be listened to. She wants action built around the science of climate change. Trudeau throwing out this plan to plant a bunch of trees? Just too perfect. A sort of apology for the pipelines he’s approved, and a demonstration of the sort of piecemeal half measures that refuse to address the reality of our situation. All around the world, governments are still completely out of proportion. They seem simply incapable of coming to grips with the fact that eternal growth is absolutely a fairy tale. This is something that anti-capitalist thought has articulated for years and years, and even as the ecosystem unravels, it isn’t quite getting through. So, instead, it’s still about placating, still about pretending there’s some moderate approach to the greater environmental and economic inequalities that are getting exponentially worse. It only makes sense that denial would articulate itself through Trudeau the way it just did. A G7 leader, one of the most powerful people in the world, stumbling through his term with largely incoherent or unimpressive environmental and climate policy achievements, throwing his thumbs up while parading around Montreal, as the cameras snap away.
As these inequalities continue to worsen, this new form of denial will find new ways to articulate itself. The appearance of action on a variety of these fronts will get more creative, the sidestep more impressive. This is what happens when capital stratifies to the point of crisis. As class tensions continue to build, politicians will become even more entrenched in their roles as liaisons of the wealthy to the rest of us. They’ll throw up peace signs and brag about recycling, and take selfies with compostable straws. Anything to avoid waking up from our fairy tale dream. V