Greta Thunberg, Motives and Being Strategic

May 22, 2019

We should no longer measure our wealth and success in the graph that shows economic growth, but in the curve that shows the emissions of greenhouse gases.” Greta Thunberg, April 23 2019

What should we make of Greta Thunberg’s campaign? Here are my impressions.

Firstly, and most importantly: Thunberg shouldn’t be having to make speeches about climate at all. As she has pointed out, the older generations should have started taking care of these problems decades ago. I’m 47 and my main reaction to her speeches is grief, shame and frustration. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has that reaction.

The fact that she feels compelled to act is not in itself hopeful – as she herself seems to well realise.

However, for reasons that I’ll explore below, the content of her speeches and the amount of attention her campaign is getting give me some tentative hope that there’s still potential for important and positive change in the world.

For this to happen, though, it’s extremely important that her messages not be misinterpreted or distorted.

Since I’m the editor of the Feasta blog, I was recently emailed a comment about a post by Brian Davey that we published last week. The comment expressed concern that the post could be interpreted as an attack on Greta Thunberg’s campaign (and also on Extinction Rebellion) and that it could alienate Feasta from potential allies by seeming overly negative, in particular by suggesting that big businesses and some of the larger environmental NGOs have dishonourable intentions when they publicise Thunberg’s work.

Here’s my own take on the substance of Brian’s post:

(a) Thunberg has been given a high-profile platform by some influential people and organisations who are, at the very least, gravely mistaken about how climate change should be addressed, and who are using her fame and reputation to try and push their ill-advised agendas

(b) her message is being censored/played down when it brings ‘green growth’ into question.

I think there are several issues there that need discussing.

A big one is that we are in an emergency and yet not everyone recognises that. Time is running out, and to make matters worse, there are powerful people out there who simply don’t believe there’s any problem with the climate (or biodiversity, or resource limits) – or, if they do think there’s a problem, believe that they themselves can escape it – and who are actively undermining our efforts. We could hardly be in a more fraught situation.

I’ll write it again: time is running out. We are under a lot of pressure, and people acting under pressure don’t always behave wisely and manage to keep their sense of perspective.

A second issue is that those of us who believe in the climate emergency are divided among ourselves right now. And given the first issue above, it’s hard not to be infuriated and exhausted at times by the lack of consensus about what sort of climate action is needed.

Specifically, there’s currently a clash between those who believe that the growth-dependent economic system (which some, though not all, label ‘capitalism’) can continue to function in a zero-emissions economy, and those who don’t.

Members of the former group tend to believe that an adequate price on carbon could and should play a major role in the energy transition (though they may well advocate additional measures to try and ease social problems or other environmental problems). They’re frequently – though not always – quite successful at making a living within the current economic system themselves, which makes it both hard for them to believe it needs changing, and uncomfortable at the thought of changing it.

This has led to suspicion and accusations from outsiders that members of this group are trying to preserve their own privilege at the expense of others. More about that below.

The pricing-as-core-solution approach ties in closely with the idea that green growth is attainable. If better pricing will solve the problem, that makes it easier to assume that the economy can continue to function much as it has done before – which in turn means that we don’t have to worry as much about two things: inequality (because a rising tide supposedly lifts all boats); and the financial system’s dependency on continual economic growth in order to function.

The fact that some proponents of this view are in influential positions means that their opinions fall neatly within the Overton window and get talked about at great length by policymakers and the media. Some major environmental NGOs, whose leaders seem not to have given a lot of thought to economics and (unwisely) appear content to leave economic analysis to economists, have been known to endorse this view as well, at least implicitly.

Profound and dangerous failure

Feasta co-founder Richard Douthwaite’s book The Growth Illusion, published in 1992, was my first introduction to the idea that GDP growth is not only a poor measure of success: it can actually be a measure of profound and dangerous failure. Since then, the evidence has only continued to accumulate. Correlations between fossil fuel emissions, general resource depletion and GDP growth remain inexorably strong, despite a great many claims to the contrary from powerful groups with loud voices.

So I would place myself in the second group of climate activists – the group of those who believe that we need to deliberately contract the global economy in order to survive. (I would add that a ton of measures needs to be taken to protect people, as much as possible, from the potentially adverse effects of a contracting economy, and that some regions of the world clearly have a right to greater energy access than they have at the moment, which means that the rest of us will need to contract our energy use still more to allow for that. These measures include basic incomeland value tax, a growth-neutral financial system, and redistributing any revenuegenerated by carbon pricing. Conveniently, they actually have the potential to improve life significantly for many people.)

It’s been very hard to get much traction on our point of view among policymakers and the mainstream media. Even though there has been some general discussion in recent years about the problems with growth as a measure of progress – and I was pleasantly surprised to see an op-ed challenging the possibility of green growth in the Irish Times last week – authority figures still seem to largely take it for granted that environmental action will always need to take place, and will be able to take place, within a growth-based economy.

Greta Thunberg and growth

But now a new person has come along and has, perhaps unexpectedly, been granted the kind of loud voice by the media that has generally been reserved for people from the first group. And she is making the very point about the impossibility of green growth that people in the second group are making –  including Feasta members, some of whom have been trying to get this idea across for twenty years.

Is Thunberg sincere when she criticises green growth? From reading her speeches I tend to think so.

Her coming from a privileged, performing-arts background has been criticised by some. But I don’t see how that disqualifies her from being able to think for herself and articulate a clear vision. Sometimes if you are given a leg up it gives you a better view, at least from some angles.

Gandhi had a middle-class childhood and access to a good education. Martin Luther King grew up with a preacher father (so he had a lot of exposure to good oratory) and went to university. Should these privileges have disqualified them from being given a platform to spread their opinions?

As Brian writes, Thunberg is obviously a smart young woman. Her skill with words seems undeniable. But what about the issue of her prominence possibly being engineered by powerful interests, and then used to push a green growth agenda?

A great many different people are claiming to support Thunberg and they come from both groups mentioned above: the green-growth advocates and the degrowth advocates. Her quick ascent to stardom is certainly very striking, and there does seem to have been some clever marketing involved.

However, do the elite really have so much power that we should assume Thunberg’s high profile was almost entirely engineered by them? I can’t know for sure, but I suspect the truth is more complicated than that.

It’s certainly sensible – indeed, vital – to keep in mind that there has been plenty of well-documented manipulation of public opinion by the elite, or sections of the elite, over the past few decades.

But one can also go too far in one’s assumptions about elite control. I was at a workshop recently where several people told me that they didn’t believe in climate change. Their reasoning was that the elite are saying that it’s a problem, and therefore it must be fake. The simple fact of the elite being (or claiming to be) concerned about it was enough to convince them that it couldn’t be true – it had to be propaganda.

Just how far should this distrust of anything the elite says be taken? To give a deliberately absurd example – if the elite say we shouldn’t stop at a red light, should we disregard that? Clearly a balance needs to be found between swallowing everything you hear without question and disbelieving everything you hear without question.

To get back to Thunberg: while I would say it’s highly likely that some of her success comes from her connections, some of it may well be down to her own skills, and some may also be down to fortunate timing.  Although I hesitate to use the word, there could be an element of fashion there (which isn’t to say that I think she herself is trying to be fashionable – indeed, I have the opposite impression.) There might also be an indirect connection with the #MeToo movement and a more general (and welcome) recognition that women’s voices tend to be edited out or downplayed, and that they need to be heard more.

Some of these impulses may not even be conscious on the part of many of those sharing her videos.

However: for the sake of argument, let’s just go ahead anyway and assume for the moment that the primary reason for Thunberg’s high level of publicity is that powerful interests are using her to get attention and funding for their own approach to climate action. It’s certainly exasperating, if you disagree with their approach, to see them succeeding.

The next question, then, is what should be done about it?

The original comment that I got urged critics of Thunberg to read her actual speeches, rather than sticking to skeptical analyses of her campaign.

I’d go further and say that the best antidote to Thunberg’s messages being distorted is for us all to read or watch her speeches ourselves, carefully, from the source, and then spread them around, unexpurgated, along with our own perspectives on what should be done (and we can certainly feel free to mention while we’re at it that some people seem to think they need censoring).
This brings me on to a third issue I wanted to mention.

There’s a tendency by all involved in this debate – including myself at times – to make assumptions about the motivation behind different people’s stances.

There may well be truth to some of these assumptions, but it’s often impossible to determine that. What does seem certain to me is that attributing dubious motives to people makes it much more likely that they will feel threatened and defensive, and less likely that they will become able to open up and engage in a proper debate.

It’s tempting to use contempt to relieve one’s tension when one is feeling under pressure and frustrated. But contempt is poisonous. In the longer term, I don’t think it ever does anyone any good (including the person expressing it).

Bitterness is also much better worked through than allowed to fester.

I’m not suggesting that we should just forget our differences with others and try to engage in a group hug. It’s certainly possible to go too far in collaborating with a partner (be it a person or an organisation) who has different values from you. For example, the ultra-right here in France (in stark contrast to the ultra-right in certain other countries) claims to want to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and to localise energy and food production. The plan for this that they put forward before the last election was, I would say, actually considerably more coherent in itself than that offered by the centre-right politicians who are currently in power.

It’s possible that they’re genuinely concerned about the environment – certainly they come across that way in their publications (although some of my friends here insist that they’re just trying to manipulate people who are worried about the environment into voting for them).

Despite this, I would not vote for them or wish to work with them because of their belief that dissent is best dealt with by pouring police onto the streets and expanding police powers to allow them to essentially bully people into obedience, and their implicit racism (they’ve got better at camouflaging it over the years, but it’s still there).

So as far as that goes, my gut feeling – at least right now – is that a line needs to be drawn. I can’t work with those people unless they agree to renounce racism and to make decisions in a more collaborative way.

This feeds into the larger point that it’s very hard to collaborate meaningfully with people who aren’t willing or able to treat those who have different opinions with respect. The issue here is not so much disagreement on facts as on values.

I’m particularly wary of judgmental language in relation to people with addictions. (Addictions, as we know, aren’t limited to things you can ingest. It’s possible to be addicted to shopping or gambling – or to accumulating money.) Addiction is a horrendous problem for lots of reasons, and it should be acknowledged where it exists, but shaming addicts does not improve the odds of their overcoming their addictions – rather the opposite.

One final point: if by any chance Thunberg happens to read this post, or any of her friends, I would urge them not to hold back from engaging in more detailed discussion about how to get ourselves out of this mess. She’s completely correct in implying that the older generation should be primarily responsible for ‘building the cathedral’. However, at this point we’re getting an idea of just how much destructive blundering has been done by people who consider themselves experts. Frankly, the more ideas we get from people who recognise the need to get past green growth as a goal, the better.

In a similar vein, we would very much welcome feedback from young people about various proposals that Feasta members have developed and/or endorsed: Cap and Sharedebt-free moneyland value taxbasic incomeimproved metrics for wellbeingagroecology.

Our website statistics indicate that quite a few young people do look at our site, but we seem to hear directly from very few of them right now. Whatever your age (or gender), please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Featured image: House fire. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/house-fire-3-1519596

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

Caroline Whyte

Caroline Whyte has been involved with Feasta since 2002. She studied ecological economics at Mälardalen University in Sweden, writing a masters thesis on the relationship between central banking and sustainability. She contributed to Feasta's books Fleeing Vesuvius and Sharing for Survival. Along with four other Feasta climate group members she helped to launch the CapGlobalCarbon initative at the COP-21 summit in Paris in December 2015. In February 2017 she participated in the World Basic Income conference in Manchester, discussing the potential for climate action to contribute to reducing poverty and inequality worldwide. She lives in central France, from where she edits the Feasta website.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change responses, economic growth, Greta Thunberg