I just read a post on Facebook about a fifteen year old girl, real or fictional, who saw the speech Greta Thunberg made at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York this autumn. The girl saw the anger of Greta and became angry herself against a “generation who has been doing nothing for thirty years.”
The post went on that her parents told her to live in as environmentally perfect a way as possible in order to help her prevent the eradication of ecosystems. The parents of course were prepared to change nothing about their own lives and stated that it shouldn’t matter if their daughter was laughed at for her clothes.
The expectation of the parents would be that their daughter’s new way of life would be gladly and happily embraced.
People are asked as a “community service announcement” to hand this very extreme post to climate protesters, apparently to make them see that they too should gladly and happily embrace such a life and that people should not be cross about the inaction of governments unless they live a life with no heating, hand washing, no soap, no electric lighting, and a horse hair pillow.
What kind of parent would suggest such things? What kind of people would approve of a post in which parents suggest such things?
I wrote a response. I couldn’t help it. I wrote it as someone who has been involved with environmental action and campaigning this year but whose life is far from perfect and who was not involved last year or any year since she too was about fifteen. I didn’t write it primarily because the post showed parents prepared to be pretty damn cruel to their child for getting understandably annoyed that science has been ignored for the sake of money. I wrote it because the post misses much of the point of climate protests and definitely misses the points made both by Greta Thunberg and the school climate strikes and by Extinction Rebellion.
It’s a long response. Apologies for typos and errors.
Congratulations to whoever wrote that solid exposition of the “you’ve got to be perfect or you have no right to open your mouth” way of thinking. I’ve seen this expressed in many ways this year. Most often with the accusations of hypocrisy that get thrown at people no matter what. Use a car? Hypocrite. Use public transport? Hypocrite. Cross the sea in a plane? Hypocrite. Cross the sea in a solar powered boat? Hypocrite. Get cross or speak out for climate justice while having a carbon footprint above zero? Hypocrite. Own a mobile phone? Hypocrite.
We had accusations like these shouted at us last weekend. Yeah, I have a mobile phone. I’d better stop pointing out that the UK government isn’t meeting its own targets even after fluffing the numbers and that many other governments are far behind ours. I’ll never again mention the MPs who took payments from fossil fuel companies or that Boris Johnson voted so often against environmental measure. I have a phone so I can’t complain about the policies of governments? Of course I can. To attempt to claim otherwise would be gross stupidity.
It’s not helpful. It can also become an excuse for everything to carry on as normal. I’ve seen that too many times this year.
Everyone knows their imperfections and failings. Everyone knows that some can be changed, bit by bit. And that some can’t because of finances and societal necessity and even by how we’re almost forced to live by society. But knowing that and making those possible changes piece by piece isn’t going to save us. Not when governments and big business act as they do. And not when men like Donald Trump refuse even to discuss climate change. Switching to a bamboo toothbrush is not going to stop the remaining seven islands in Tuvalu being swamped.
It also ignores what “reduce our dependency on fossil fuels” actually means. It doesn’t mean not using heating in winter, it means determined change to the system that means that fossil fuels are used. It means banks and pension funds divesting from fossil fuels and investing those funds in renewable energy. It means government policies being geared more thoroughly towards these things. It means research being funded more to do that. It means my own city not even thinking opening a coal mine is worthy of discussion months after declaring a climate emergency.
There’s much we can all do. There’s much we can’t too. And much that’s very difficult unless there’s wide system change in food production and packaging, manufacture of all goods, an end to built in redundancy of goods, all the while making sure that there’s a lot more global justice built in than we already have.
These things haven’t been done. Four years after the Paris Climate Agreement worldwide carbon emissions are higher, as are emissions of other greenhouse gases.
We knew the effects decades ago. Even Margaret Thatcher knew and was worried. She talked about it in a strong political speech at the UN and talked of what needed doing by governments and multinational companies across the world. Our leaders knew the science. Thatcher knew it and called the world to act. The science has only been strengthened since then.
It wasn’t done. Thirty years of leadership that could have staved off most of the climate emergency, the far worse effects we’re going to see, ecocide, and the development of a sixth mass extinction. I’m not a fan of Thatcher, but if the member states of the UN had acted along the lines she suggested on 8th November 1989 then we wouldn’t now face the kind of emergency we now have. No wonder Greta Thunberg showed anger while addressing the UN this autumn.
Things written to attack children who are rightly quite cross that it wasn’t done just aren’t helpful at all. They just attack the innocent while causing the problems to continue.
Things written that imply people’s voices are invalid if they campaign for our future while being imperfect aren’t helpful at all except to others who either like to ridicule or whose consciences need appeasement without any need to act or change. Nobody is perfect. Even the most extreme people I know (and I know quite a lot of people in the Green Party, Greenpeace, and Extinction Rebellion) has a carbon footprint that could, in theory, be lowered.
As for me, I knew thirty years ago too. More than that, when I was a member of Friends of the Earth and other groups. Then I got distracted by religion and much else and I stopped pushing for the change that was needed. My life isn’t climate sainthood by any means. It isn’t going to be in the near future either though that is my ideal.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stay silent. Nobody who cares about the future of the planet, ecosystems, or the human race should stay silent. We can’t afford silence. Not any more. Why not? Because the things that everyone knew needed to be done weren’t done and instead, largely because of money and greed, systems were strengthened that harm our world.
We need system change even though the end of our civilisation is almost inevitable at this point. We need regeneration. We need to work out how best to get through the crisis and build something more sustainable. Capitalism of any kind is not sustainable because it relies on exponential growth to which there is always a limit. Neo-liberalism is even less sustainable while at the same time benefiting the wealthy and privileged while often penalising the poor and vulnerable. We cannot survive long term without massive change. That’s both scary and an incredible challenge.
Attacking a child who knows that this world will be very different by the time they are old is unfair. The child may also know about the danger sea rises bring, the danger lowered water tables bring, desertification, the loss of glaciers, the increased volatility of global and local weather systems and so much more.
Me? I’m terrified for the future of children. I’m terrified for the future of my child. And I know that I could have done a hell of a lot more campaigning and working for a sustainable future. I could have, even though there are many things I could never have done. I didn’t do it. I still don’t do anything like what I’d like to do. Mental health, money, living in an estate with a communal heating system, and much more prevent my idealism from being reality.
Sadly, I’ve only rejoined the fight regarding climate and environmentalism this year. I’ve joined other fights in previous years but due to the limited time anyone has and the mental health issues my head has I’ve not been able to do much. Whether campaigning for autistic people, refugees, the future of the NHS, against racism, or any of the other excellent causes I’ve been on the fringes of since escaping the forms of religion I held I’ve never been anything like the activist I’ve wanted to be able to become. For justifiable reasons I couldn’t do it. For less than justifiable excuses I messed up. Like most of us have. In all honesty, I only got involved with climate issues in the way I have as a direct result of a dissociative disorder. But that’s a story for another day.
Realising that we’ve fallen short is a cause for grief, one of many causes of grief when you really get to grips with the science. When the science points out the effect of carbon lag – and the lag with other greenhouse gases too – and the cooling effect of all the pollutants in the atmosphere. Then you realise that even without runaway or domino effects there’s no way to keep global temperature rises to a point that isn’t catastrophic, not even if humanity reduced all greenhouse gas emissions to zero this week. Realising your own shortcomings is also a cause of joy because realisation leads to a point of greater awareness and involvement with all kinds of good things.
I haven’t got time to condemn myself or others either. There’s no place or time for individual blame. Not anymore. We need, desperately need, systems to change. There’s no time to throw guilt around at people who have seen the truth and who are doing their best to do something about it.
Otherwise we’re doomed. Pure and simple. And we’re doomed even if we attack children for being cross.
So we have a choice: Attack people for standing up and trying to do something and push for things to change. Stay silent on the matter. Or join in, in whatever limited way we can – it’s far more limited for me than I’d like – and add our voices towards all the different campaigns that may eventually achieve enough to save us.
How would you choose?
I was singing with a climate choir in the pouring rain yesterday. Today I was at an Extinction Rebellion planning meeting. Due to my mental health I have quite a low capacity for activity before getting overwhelmed. I can’t be involved much more than that, at least not for the moment. Yes, I walked to it in the rain. I don’t have a car. I’ll admit this though: in today’s weather I’d have gladly accepted a lift home! All of us there know that we affect our world by our every action and inaction.
We’d all own up to some kind of hypocrisy. In a song yesterday we sang about plastic but one of us had bought home made scones from a stall in the food market and they were in a plastic bag – she, like me, hadn’t taken reusable containers with her. I know people who do. My cheese was plastic wrapped too. Today we met in a place that now has some heating. It was lit by electricity – from an eco-friendly tariff but we could have met elsewhere perhaps, in a room with a window. Hot drinks were available too. How terrible of some of us to boil kettles and drink tea!
How dare tea drinkers campaign for the environment? Easily, as it happens. Even tea drinkers who are as terrible as me and still use tea bags.
Everyone in the room where we met this morning fails to live up to impossible idealistic standards. But we’ll still speak. When Newcastle (or Durham, or Northumberland) consider coal mines and the requests of a powerful mining company. When many councils don’t act even to meet their own targets. When people in other countries suffer far more than we do, because of our lifestyles. When profits are placed so far ahead of future. When we see, today, unprecedented climate aided flooding in South Sudan. When island nations are deluged. When that word “unprecedented” is heard to describe multiple weather events on every continent in the space of the last year. When we know how bad things could get. And when we see even very conservative climate agreements broken. They are conservative. That’s inevitable because the IPCC estimates are conservative. As Greta Thunberg said in her speech, the estimates ignore most feedback loops and additional warming while relying on technologies that either don’t exist yet or which haven’t been tested on any large scale.
Greta Thunberg said “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us.”
She was right. I hate that she was right. But I have to concede that she was and is.
She said “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.” The people forwarding a post about parents who would force their child to live an almost unlivable life in a society that exists as ours does are not evil people. But I do not believe they really understand the situation. If they did, how could they promote such posts? No, they’re not evil. I have friends who have promoted that post and I know my friends are not evil.
Greta Thunberg is imperfect too. She’s been attacked for all kinds of things just as all climate activists have been attacked. We make mistakes in our campaigning. And we don’t live lives that would lead to our canonisation as saints if there was a Church of the Climate. That will not stop us speaking the truth.
We can’t stay silent. Not for long.
Depending on our circumstances, our health, our finances, our privileges and lack of privileges we may speak and act more or less. But silence is no longer an option for many of us who have faced the science and the consequences of that science square on with honesty and reflection.
We can’t stay silent. Because rather than get cross and penalise our children and grand children, we simply don’t want them to die on an over-heating world.