The activities of those following the latest fashion in political activism have been disrupting the nation’s capital, and yesterday its unlikely spokesperson and poster child, Greta Thunberg, went to Westminster to urge MPs to “do more” about climate change. I speak of fashion deliberately: popular protest is in part an expression of a culture of group identification which Saul Alinski’s Rules for Radicals pressed upon its supporters.
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy”, he advised, and “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” So we drift from one pressing crisis to the next, the better to demonstrate that people like us truly care. Greta Thunberg duly arrives to authenticate the sense of self satisfaction of those exhibiting their collective virtue, usually in a nation’s capital. It is a moveable feast. Over the years it has had many incarnations: CND, ‘Save the Whales’, ‘Stop the War’, ‘No Cruise Missiles’, Anti-Racism’, ‘Anti-Hunting’ have all come and gone without obvious success. Its regular adherents like to quote, but rarely feel inclined to take the supposed advice of Albert Einstein, that the definition of madness is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.
Still, such adherents will enjoy a sense of being ‘better informed’ and ‘more caring’. It allows one to proclaim “I was there” to one’s friends, and maybe appear on television with a particularly witty home-made sign. It makes a change from the printed versions generously handed out by the Socialist Workers Party who are known for such selfless public service.
We all know the television clichés. Part of the kabuki of public protest is the charismatic figure whose public trajectory rises and falls. Once there was the ‘Red Dean’ of St Paul’s, Canon John Collins, then Monsignor Bruce Kent, then Swampy – all had their 15 minutes of fame in these contexts and now, with our latest obsession of ‘Climate Change’, we welcome Swedish ingenue Greta Thunberg, who encapsulates the angst of the woke to reassure them that “the world is listening”.
It is perhaps significant that a child with vulnerabilities should be blessed with such elevation to prominence. Subjecting an adolescent idealist to severe critical analysis is not a good look, akin to whacking a soufflé with a spade, but if she is elevated to be the spokesperson of a generation, it is both necessary and appropriate to examine what is – and what is not – going on. Her youth and the fact that she comes from a family in the performing arts, and moreover, reportedly suffers or suffered from Asperger Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, depression, and selective mutism (aka passive aggression?) offers a variety of ways of looking at this ‘phenomenon’, for that is what it is.
We have to acknowledge her significance, if only to address the exploitation of her vulnerabilities. She has secured audiences with leading members of Parliament; she is accorded a gentle interview in the prime spot of the BBC Today programme by Nick Robinson, rather than a grilling by the more robust John Humphries; three Norwegian MPs have already nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. Following on from Barack Obama’s receipt of his, after just 11 days in office, it can’t be long before the first posthumous award is made to Caligula’s horse.
Trying to make sense of this it is necessary to think of multiple levels. It may not be insignificant that her family is from a successful arts background. It is hard to think of a truanting child of a Barnsley single mother (without Asperger’s) attracting attention for saying much the same kind of thing. Insouciance towards building a secure career is a luxury of the one per cent, of which she is undoubtedly a privileged member. She is able to indulge her passion by travelling from Norway to London by train (courtesy of German coal-fired and French nuclear electricity). It is a stately progress of near Edwardian inequality. Jo/Joe Public could scarcely imagine such indulgence, and would inevitably hop on Ryanair. That, of course, is the People’s mode of transport, so until she arrived the BBC Daily Politics programme wheeled out a Rupert for us to explain that it has to stop.
Praise for her ‘bravery’ is never replicated in other cases, such as that of Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes, a young gay man persecuted and abused for having the effrontery to have required the establishment to deliver its promises to just the kind of ordinary North Eastern family from which he comes.
Unsurprisingly, Greta Thurnberg has a resolute confidence in her own rectitude which feels no need to engage with challenging alternatives. Like many of the new Left, her veneer of open mindedness is worth questioning.
She was able to tell Nick Robinson that “nobody is listening” and that the UK “must do more”, without acknowledging our pre-eminence on the international stage in moving towards carbon-free energy production. If there is a major economy doing more, she has not yet identified it for us. Similarly there was apparently no purpose in her talking to President Trump. Perhaps he would be impervious to her charm; he did, after all, build his career in the hostile environment of tough negotiations with hard-nosed New York money men and construction unions. But this is probably only part of the reason. Groupthink requires the enforced cohesion of soft prejudice, and part of the gravitational pull of the movement depends upon certain unquestionable mantras which always bring the tribe together. Listening to the President’s concern for the livelihoods of working miners would, of course, damage her juvenile street cred.
Whilst setting no example herself, she urges politicians to listen (presumably to those who ‘know’) yet leads a movement that purports not to need to engage with opponents. It is increasingly hard for those questioning the current orthodoxies to secure a platform to question their certainties. Paradoxically those protesting actually are the currently orthodox: try offering a note of scepticism on this subject on a social occasion and note the reaction.
It is a pity Greta Thunberg is not a little more questioning. She told her interviewer that the genesis of her activism was being taught in school about starving polar bears. At the time she was ingesting this with her mothers milk, the bear population was well into an upward curve of population growth which continues unabated. She was also told of incipient disaster through predicted rising temperatures, yet the one sure fact of the global warming debate is that there is no reliable correlation between the many expert predictions and computer models that fuel her current exhortation to ‘panic’, and the real world data that emerges after the event. This is important. We know what was said and we know for sure what happened. Responsible environmentalists start from there.
None of us can know the future, yet we can and do know the past if we look. That applies scientifically, it applies economically and it applies environmentally. The emotional appeal of a young girl with restricted life experiences is not the firmest basis to respond to perceived problems, and panic is the last thing to do in a crisis.
I recently read the biography of Rob O’Neill, the Navy Seal who killed Osama Bin Laden. He recounts that in the course of training these men are deliberately put into mortal peril in order to learn to identify and then overcome the natural predisposition to panic. The trading routinely includes the candidates for selection being bound hand and foot and thrown into a deep swimming pool. Men can and do die. The warriors who emerge have learnt that if you have but a three per cent chance of survival, choosing one’s options well becomes critical, and that panic is your greatest enemy.
Greta Thurnberg and her acolytes have no such wisdom base. Self-destructive emotionalism would not save her in extremis and neither will it save the planet if it were about to die – which it isn’t. Perhaps Ms Thurnberg would benefit from going back to school and finding better instructors.
So let’s grow up and consider the question ‘What is to be done?‘ – my sole concession to Leninist thought.
Well first, if we only have until 2050 to save the world (estimates vary – consult your local press for details) we had better stop wittering on about overthrowing capitalism. Based on historical record, we have neither the knowledge, time, nor expertise to remake the entire world economy before the apocalypse arrives. It just can’t be done. The country most advanced in attempting such a constrained control of capitalism is China, which currently creates 75 per cent of its electricity by coal-fired power stations and already has plans in place to add the equivalent of the current energy generation of the entire USA to its portfolio.
Three weeks before the Paris Conference in 2017, the Chinese made an astonishing admission. For years they had been under reporting their carbon emission by 17 per cent. The shortfall was the equivalent of the German economy – itself the fifth-largest carbon emitter. The conference was to discuss how disaster would strike if such emissions occurred, but in fact they were already happening and over many years billions of tons of carbon had already been added. What is truly extraordinary, and seems to have passed most protestors and commentators by, is that for all the expert predictions, scientific measurements, investment in studies and computer modelling, nobody noticed!
This may not mean that one can ignore the concerns, it may simply be that the earth’s coping systems are more robust than we thought. But at the very least, isn’t a teensy-weensy bit of climate-change scepticism allowed into the room?
Putting faith in Citizens’ Assemblies is similarly an unlikely way forward. Has anyone explained how they will work in a manner that is terribly different to Soviets’ and Workers’ Councils? Historians among us might remind the young that such Marxist constitutional innovations bequeathed to us Chernobyl and Pol Pot’s Year Zero which, if nothing else, had the environmental benefit of containing Cambodia’s population growth. Who say Marxist idealism can’t work?
The serious point is that irrationality and not evaluating the evidence have nothing to contribute to solving the problems of the environment, and millennarian projects should always be scrutinised with care. I say this as one who became active in the early Green Movement and made more than my share of alarmist predictions which never came to pass.
If you read the seminal books of Green politics there are good ideas on offer, such as developing sustainable energy, devolving decisions to the lowest appropriate practical level, and regarding materialist consumerism with suspicion. But it is also clear that time and again wild and inaccurate prophecies are made which are invariably falsified by events.
We used to insist that the world’s oil supply would have run out by now. In fact there are no less known reserves today than there were in 1950. We predicted similar exhaustions of mineral resources such as gold, silver, copper, tin etc, and we had convincing figures, pie charts, graphs and experts opinions to prove it. We were also going to run out of food, until the agricultural Green revolution stepped in with selective scientific plant-breeding programmes which came to our rescue. India was once beset with famine but is less so now. The world has periodic food scarcity for political reasons, but none to do with limits to growth as we once confidently but erroneously asserted.
There was, however, one area in which the early Greens got things absolutely right, and yet it is the one they never talk about now. We predicted massive population growth, and it has come to pass. We once worried about a global population of eight billion people, now it looks more likely to be reaching 10 billion. The pressures on the environment will grow, in term of deforestation, water supply, pollution, and land use. Yet most significant may be their choice of dirty fuels: wood and dried animal dung. There is huge dependence on these among poor people, and this is a primary pollutant and health hazard. It’s not all about oil companies however much the protestors may beat their breasts.
With population growth comes urbanisation, both local and through migration. There were specific predictions in the 1980s of movements into Southern Europe from Sub-Saharan Africa which came to pass. Early Greens were ready to consider the attendant practical, social, and economic consequences of such rapid change, but one senses that this cannot be discussed in those quarters today for fear of being infected with ‘right-wing populism’.
The environmental lobby is thus silent about this singularly successful prediction. Political correctness became prioritised over environmental concerns, and rather than question how a net increase of 300,000 people per annum might impact the UK, its social cohesion and its resource allocations, the Greens appear decidedly relaxed about it all. Perhaps things are not as urgent as we once thought.
Like Karl Marx, the early Greens underestimated human ingenuity and technology. I recently dipped into the book Seeing Green in which my old Green Party colleague Jonathon Porritt attempted one of the earliest analyses of what a green economy might look like. In 1984 he wrote that while some saw computers as offering greater employment prospects there was no way they could offset the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector. I flag this up not to embarrass him – he was an important and sensible commentator – but it illustrates that smarter folk than Greta Thunberg have tried and failed to predict what happens next.
Meanwhile on the bigger stage the one great success story of capitalism goes unremarked. You may read a brief synopsis of the argument by Alan Grant, but in essence, by any measure you care to name, far more people are living longer, mother and infant mortality are reducing, people are taller, better nourished and economically better off than ever before. This is manifestly good and shows what can be done in a world that prioritises democratic accountability, peace and free trade. Good things happen when we hold to those values and systems; conversely, the road of anti-capitalism has a dreadful record on privation, denial of liberty and poor environmental standards.
We can and must take the environment more seriously, but it is too important a subject for the kind of showboating nonsense passing through our screens at present. Those who know their Church history may look on Greta Thunberg and recall a similar naive optimism in the thirteen century, when Nicholas of Cologne and Stephen of Cloyes, both 12-year-old shepherd boys, encouraged the gullible to follow them on the Children’s Crusade to address their then most pressingly perceived existential threat – the capture of Jerusalem by the Muslims. The movements ended up as disastrous fiascos which got nowhere near their objectives and left many of their followers tricked by the unscrupulous into slavery.
Let that be a lesson to would-be followers of Greta Thunberg.
History teaches us that it always ends in tears. Don’t do it. Not even once.