Discerning the Many Meanings of Greta Thunberg and Climate Change
Greta Thunberg is a lightning rod. Everyone who pays attention to world events has an opinion about the Swedish teenager who, in the past two years,vaulted into the public eye due to her outspoken stance on climate change.
This essay is my attempt to break down my own sometimes conflicting, complicated feelings about her. And hopefully help you with yours.
To really dig in, though, I ask a favor: Let’s give each other some space and opportunity to explore these topics. Much of the pushback I’ve gotten in the past few years on social and political issues often comes from former allies because I am a person who likes to ask questions, I like to dig deep and I tend to distrust mass media narratives. In fact, I tend to require a lot of introspection as well as open, honest conversation with people who have various perspectives to really develop my sense of understanding.
Unfortunately, it seems that the climate change discussion has become such a hot button issue and caused so many strong emotional reactions that we are having trouble having these conversations. While I’ve been an environmentalist for decades now and have felt my own frustration about the slow pace of addressing the issues, I don’t buy into time lines that say we’ve got only a set amount of time before we act. Such deadlines, especially when they are tied to dire warnings (“Act now or die!”) tend to cause panic and very few of us think very clearly when we panic.
With that all said, I’m using a long-form essay to discuss Greta Thunberg and environmental degradation because the topic requires more than just a five-minute-read-over-coffee blog post. I believe it requires the key skill of discernment to make sense of things.
However, those suggesting timelines are correct in one way: we are in a time now, more than ever, where we need to really focus on becoming clear and making the right choices. These are tricky waters we navigate.
Greta Is An Important Historical Figure, Like It or Not
That leads Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year.
In some ways, it’s a testament to Time that they chose such a figure. For most of the 20th century, the magazine had claimed the award was not meant to be an honor but a recognition of an important historical figure of that year. But for marketing purposes they started to pick more popular candidates, best exemplified in 2001 when they choose then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2001 over Osama bin Laden.
However, after Time gave the award to Donald Trump in 2016, it seems they are moving back to their original purpose and if that is intentional, I applaud them for it. A news organization’s job is not to publish things that it feels will be popular and thus make money, but to publish the news. And clearly, GretaThunberg was a very newsworthy figure in 2019.
Now before I go on, perhaps you have made some assumptions about my position on climate change. Let me tell you: Most likely you are wrong. And that’s OK. I’m never going to write an article to be popular. Or to be proven right. I will write my truth and I hope that, by making that commitment to personal integrity, my voice can be one among many aiding your deepening understanding of these complex topics. In fact, writing is my own way of understanding them myself. So hopefully we can learn together.
In pondering Greta’s actions, I’ve learned that my reactions are very complex. I’ve been irritated, enthused, saddened and overjoyed by her behavior. How can that be?
Well, in order to really understand my varied, seemingly conflicting feelings about her, I must use some discernment. I define discernment as being a more fine-tuned version of discriminate and a less harsh version of judgment. Let’s break my feelings down one-by-one and then get into each of them more deeply.
- I’ve been irritated because I’ve never cared for a scold. “How dare you!” It reminds me too much of that awful septa on “Game of Thrones” yelling “Shame, shame, shame” and ringing that annoying bell (even if Cersei Lannister “deserved” it, it still sucks).
- I’m enthusiastic because it is nice to see someone speak Truth to Power in such a direct, no-nonsense way. We’ve waited a long time for such a voice, haven’t we?
- I’m saddened by the responses to Greta. Some people are just so vitriolic against her, claiming she is a pawn of an Elite that wants to enslave us all, assuming she is too young to speak for herself.
- I’m overjoyed because Greta is tireless, she isn’t going anywhere and, most of all, she has inspired a movement. If ever there was a time in human history when we need People Power to really rise to the occasion it is now.
Pointing the Finger of Blame Won’t Solve Climate Change
Now, I’d like to look into each of these things a bit more. First, about my irritation. It’s not just a personal reaction against using shame to motivate people. And it’s certainly not because I have any love lost for the elites who who walk the halls of the UN or fly their private jets to Davos, making promises they don’t intend to keep, or worse, asking middle and lower-class people to make sacrifices while they continue to live luxuriously.
But no, the elephant in the room is that those of us living in richer countries are most likely contributing a heck of a lot more to climate change than half of the world’s population and yet they are the ones facing much of the damage of climate change (so far). So while I’m all for speaking at the United Nations or Davos about how this economic system and the lifestyle of waste it promotes is something we’ve got to change, I do feel irritated that it may be a case of pointing the finger too much at one cause — the Elites — and not realizing we all have a role to play. Thus, I am irritated by any attempt to blame one group for the problem. Climate change and our degrading environment is a holistic issue requiring holistic solutions. We all need to get involved much more seriously than we have so far.
Still … I wrote a novel which basically addresses these issues and some of my characters are equally as upset as Greta about how so-called intelligent economists talk only about “money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth” while ignoring the very environment that we all depend on to live, so it does make me feel enthusiastic that at last this issue seems to be capturing the current zeitgeist. It suggests to me that we can solve climate change if we get down to business and do so with passion and love.
Why I’m Both Open About and Saddened By Climate Change Challengers
It doesn’t take a very deep dive into history to find out that important movements often get co-opted by powerful interests, diluting their message and sometimes even defeating them.
Though I was born in 1973, I’m something of a 1960s historian. So I’ll say it: the hippies were right. The problem is, their values of brotherhood, peace and freedom got diluted and then, by the time my Gen X generation came of age in the 1990s, laughed at and even shunned because the commercial culture of the late 1960s and 1970s took hippie fashion, identity and artistic expressions and used it to sell shit. It made the Baby Boomers look like hypocrites.
The 1991 Oliver Stone movie “The Doors” shows how lead singer Jim Morrison was irate at his fellow Doors for selling their hit “Light My Fire” to a TV commercial. And more recently, in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 movie, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” we see how a 1950s TV cowboy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has to, in a 1969 TV show, wear his hair longer and with a hippie jacket (looking oddly like David Crosby) because such fashion will get eyeballs glued to the TV set.
These are relatively benign examples but the point is, it’s typical of our culture to take something of value with depth and to turn it into just another way to make money by only showing us the surface of the idea. And I’m concerned that powerful interests may do the same with Climate Change with much more serious consequences.
As a result, when I see American politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexander Ocasio Cortez promoting a Green New Deal and talking about how it will require trillions of dollars of new government spending, well, much as I want us to really turn our energy toward addressing this very real issue and creating millions of new jobs, well, I can feel myself getting worried. Can’t you see how we may very well make climate change just the next thing we must declare a war on?
I’ve argued in a previous essay series that climate change (as well as the changes we are asking for in our economic system) are asking us to move away from our war mentality and return to the roots of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s: Love.
Writer Charles Eisenstein, in his brilliant “Climate: A New Story”, his podcasts and his public speaking, often talks about how our culture falls easily into “fundamentalist” thinking, that is this idea that there is one cause to a problem and one solution. In terms of climate change, we can see how this is sometimes done in the focus on Co2 emissions. What shall we dub this new war? A War on Air? Or, worse, a War on Nature?
While I think we’ve moved past the point of taking such language seriously, we still need to be very aware of this singular mindset. I’m using some humor to make the point, but there’s much more to this that I’ll likely drill deeper into in future essays.
For now, though, turning back to Greta, I think some people have legitimate concerns how climate change could be used by powerful interests to not only make a huge profit but to increase their power, and that’s why they suggest Greta is a pawn for said interests. My own lifelong investigation into just why things are the way they are allow me to remain open to such concerns.
While I am aware of things like Agenda 2030 and am continuing to dig into them, I mostly don’t resonate with such narratives because they rely so much on fear. In addition, I don’t believe that Greta is only a pawn for an Elite power structure who want to turn the UN into an all-powerful Authoritarian system where we all must move to overpopulated cities to dig in against the Nature that threatens our very existence. I think that she is sincere and believes what she is saying. It’s possible to both recognize that and see that her movement could be co-opted by people who not only don’t have any clue what they are doing but maybe don’t want to. People who may use climate change to consolidate power against the People.
You see, to really use discernment, we have to understand that our world is not made up of either/or narratives. Things aren’t that simple. To face climate change, we’re going to have to get a heck of a lot more comfortable with both/and perspectives and recognize that reality is a lot more multi-layered than we are often comfortable pondering..
So to those of you Greta-is-a-pawn folks, I’d ask you to consider that while you may have some accurate instincts about how the environmental movement could be co-opted by the powers-that-be, you are likely not seeing the whole picture.
Don’t Abandon Climate Change Allies For Asking Hard Questions
I lost a friend last year because I wrote like this. She fell into an either/or narrative, believing my questions indicated I was a “climate change denier.” And when I merely started asking about Greta’s sincerity in my own sincere effort to discern who she was, my friend said, ““Greta has been facing this issue and dealing with it all of her life!”
Well, so have I. And my life facing this issue goes back a lot longer than Greta’s does. In fact, when I first started to get concerned about how our cultural lifestyle seemed to be at odds with a healthy, natural world, I fell into a deep depression. This was in the mid 1990s. I became addicted to hard drugs and through grace survived. But the depression didn’t go away over night.
To this day, I still cry over what we are doing to our world. Sometimes it just overwhelms me. I’ll be out riding my bike and will see how men in bulldozers are just razing a bunch of beloved trees and leaving their carcasses stacked up like the mass human graves of Nazi concentration camps. This will enrage me or make my body shudder in deep sadness. Only people who feel no connection to these sacred lifeforms could discard of them so callously.
All that said, I do understand what my friend was driving at. Unlike me, Greta had her childhood taken from her by this topic. And that is not a good thing.. I believe we adults have a responsibility to be both honest with our younger children and to also shield them from some of the harder aspects of life until they are mature enough to really face them.
Still, my friend never gave me a chance to explain where I was coming from, to tell her of my sadness. Before I could do that, she gave me a few last lectures, declared me impossible and cut off our relationship.
If my strong intuition that climate change is actually as much about changing our interior human “climate” and how we treat each other as it is about how we interact with the world, well, we are going to have to work on being better to each other. Being more forgiving. Listening. And yes, opening our hearts, even to those we don’t agree with.
Let’s End On Joy, Shall We? Let’s Celebrate Mass Movements!
All that said, I’m left feeling overjoyed by Greta because her no-bullshit efforts are inspiring millions. This is a problem that will ask a lot of US, not just one person, strong as they may appear to us.
In addition, one of the best things about Greta’s movement is it is made up of so many young people. A few weeks ago I joked with my Baby Boomer parents that I felt younger voters in the US should have their votes be counted twice because their future is more at stake than it is for older voters. As adults, we should listen to our teens and young adults when they tell us their concerns about the world we are handing them, not treat them like they are too stupid to understand.
Ultimately, these are not easy issues. Nobody should expect anyone else to have a complete grasp on what we are to do. I feel if we gave each other more space to be wrong, we’d all have a better chance to be right.
I don’t know what Greta will do down the road. But for now, I feel I’m doing my best to discern what her role is in our human story and what having her around says about us and our future. I hope that this essay has, in some way, helped you do the same. Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading! I’m in the process of getting my independent media career up and running, so this will be updated as I go, but for now you can support me simply by sharing my stuff, by linking to me on Twitter, by checking out my old blog which has lots of good stuff, including a series on climate change (part 1, part 2 and part 3), or by checking out my new podcast, The B&P Realm Podcast. (This podcast is still in the process of being put up on all podcast sites. By February 1st it will be good to go! Each episode of the podcast contains a reading of my 2015 novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” You can also find that book in full here, or you can find it broken down into four shorter books (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). And if all that doesn’t get enough BW into your life, well, all I can say is stick around! Plenty more coming in 2020 and beyond!