Deciphering Greta’s climate message

There is more to the Swedish teenager-activist’s point of view than mere emotion and passionate commitment

November 01, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 07:51 am IST

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaking to a crowd of protesters during the global climate strike in Montreal, Canada, in September.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaking to a crowd of protesters during the global climate strike in Montreal, Canada, in September.

She is being looked at as an emotionally charged icon of environmental struggles, but there is more to Greta Thunberg’s point of view than mere emotion and passionate commitment. If we decipher all the issues raised in her brief presentation at the UN General Assembly, we can notice how it expands the familiar contours of the discussion over climate change. Some of the issues she raised were a regular feature in many debates over natural resources, but there were other, new issues as well.

One well-recognised issue is the direct connection between economic growth and the state of the environment. Devotees of speedy and high economic growth have been indifferent to the limits that nature imposes on the theoretical scope of growth. Nearly half a century has passed since the idea of ‘limits to growth’ was recognised and proposed as a ground for change in development policies. Apparently, political leaders and the civil servants who serve them do not feel constrained by that idea. The younger ones may not be acquainted with the 1972 report wherein the paradox of economic development was examined.

Victims of indifference

“All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of economic growth,” Ms. Thunberg told her audience at the UN headquarters in New York. She accused world leaders of ignoring or deliberately looking away from the responsibility they have towards the young today and in the future. Her argument would have pleased Mahatma Gandhi. He too thought that economics concerned solely with wealth undermines ethical responsibilities. It ignores justice as a primary human yearning and, in today’s terminology, a right.


This was also the underlying theme of Ms. Thunberg’s presentation to the leaders and representatives of different countries. She presented herself as a victim of their indifference to climate change. “You have stolen my childhood with your empty words,” she said. As an activist-teenager, she had reasons to feel that way. Her campaign on climate change had cost her more than just school attendance.

Being young implies being part of a future. Ms. Thunberg was referring to the collective future of those who are young today and also to future generations. These futures are bleak — not in the context in which economic slowdown affect prospects of prosperity and comfort. Ms. Thunberg’s focus was on climate change, a composite idea that imparts bleakness to everybody’s future. She suggested that higher income or status would not help to avoid the consequences of climate change. That is an important point, and not everyone today is convinced about its correctness. Not only the richer nations, but also the richer people in every nation continue to believe that they can buy relief and escape from the consequences of climate change for their progeny.

It is in adult-child relations that Ms. Thunberg struck a new, unfamiliar note. It is hardly surprising that this aspect of her presentation has elicited no commentary. One reason is its novelty; another is the unsettling nature of her point. Human beings are used to deriving hope from their progeny. Children give us a sense of continuity, a symbolic conquest over death. They also give us the prospect of our unfinished tasks being pursued after us. As parents, we not only want to do the best for our children, but we also want their lives to go beyond ours in terms of worldly gains and fulfilment.

Childhoods stymied

Parents invest huge amounts of money in their children’s education to make sure that they lead better lives. So do nations. Their leaders talk eloquently about the younger generation taking the nation forward. Societies expect their long-pending problems to be solved by members of the young generation, with their creative and intellectual strength. It was this sentiment that Ms. Thunberg was referring to when she said: “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”

Ms. Thunberg reminded her audience that carbon emissions are crippling the capacities of the young in the early years. This is a familiar note to us in India. In cities like Delhi, doctors have been warning us that children suffering from asthma cannot be expected to have a normal adolescence and youth. The limits that air and water pollution place upon a young person’s health and capacities are all too palpable to citizens in many parts of India. What Ms. Thunberg did was to place these limits in a newer, more public context.

It is easy to miss her message or misconstrue it because her presentation was strident. While she was so visibly emotional during her brief speech, her message was that we must stop being emotional about our children. Although she was addressing an audience of political leaders, she wanted all of us to recognise and accept the bitter truth that we — and those who represent us — have compromised the future of our children. It is not the distant generations that will face the consequences of climate change. No, the crisis is already upon us. It will unfold in the lives of those who are growing up today. The steps currently under consideration for containing the consequences of climate change are far too inadequate to cope with the crisis. And even these modest steps are being taken with great reluctance, which proves Ms. Thunberg’s point was that we are not mentally ready to accept the challenge.

It is perhaps obvious that Ms. Thunberg was not speaking on behalf of the children and youth in any particular country. She was representing the voice of the young in a generic sense. This is a paradox worth dwelling on. Among millions of teenagers like her, not all are as apprehensive about the impending future. Nor is everybody as dissatisfied or disgusted with the hypocrisy of politicians and the policies they have framed, nationally or globally. Indeed, the contrary may be true and youngsters like her may be an exception. The growth-centric model of progress and the promise of greater production of consumer goods probably appeals to the vast population of the young in many countries today. They might also feel quite confident that their leaders will find the way forward against climate change Nationalist sentiments do inspire a vast section of the young to have positive feelings when it comes to the future.

Ms. Thunberg does not represent this vast crowd. But she does represent the young in a deeper, generic sense as she is someone who has overcome the illusions that childhood and adolescence usually create, often in the garb of idealism. Her Swedish education has made her critically aware of what is going on, imparting to her a sense of urgency and impatience to act. This is not exactly an exceptional case. Nor is Ms. Thunberg alone any more. In many countries, countless children have begun to identify with her. Thanks to the new curricular initiatives taken in all national systems of education, school-going children know a lot more about the meaning of climate change than their parents have the leisure to learn.

It is the adults and older people today who might feel rattled by Ms. Thunberg’s speech. When she spoke in the UN General Assembly, many in the audience could be heard laughing. They saw her more as a spectacle than as a real person. They were accustomed to routine expressions of concern about climate change.

Many such leaders are quite pleased with the efforts by the UN and its various bodies to pursue the policies related to sustainable development. They find long, comfortable targets for reduction of carbon emissions quite sufficient and satisfactory. We can hardly imagine that Ms. Thunberg woke them up. If that were possible, we wouldn’t be where we are in our encounter with nature’s fury for which we have coined the euphemism of ‘climate change’.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)


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