Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has become a vastly influential force in the discussion of global climate change. Even so, policy makers are reluctant to challenge her because her global reputation verges on the hagiographic. Conservative Italians denounce her fanatical disciples as gretini—a heavy-handed pun on the Italian word for cretins, cretini. Even so, the joke is directed not at the saintly Greta, but at her overenthusiastic followers. Even in conservative American media, such as Fox News, any critiques of the grandstanding activist are dismissed as unacceptable, on the grounds that she’s just a kid, even though she is now 17 years old.
This gentle approach says much in itself about our social assumptions of childish innocence and moral rectitude. However, Thunberg’s views have become so powerful that we urgently need to define the limits of legitimate criticism and opposition.
There are many ways of attacking Thunberg that decency rightly forbids. I would be happy to cite her lack of education or historical awareness, but that all seems to be incorporated into being a child, so we will let that pass. However, suppose some hypothetical pip-squeak piped up with a plea to, for example, attack the Jews. All sane people would be sympathetic to a forceful public riposte, no matter the age of the offender. By the same token, we certainly can attack Thunberg’s ideas as directly as we wish. When we start that process, it becomes hard to stop.
If Thunberg were expressing views unacceptable to the left, she would instantly be dismissed as a manifestation of elite white privilege. She is the daughter of an actor and an opera singer, from a prominent family of theatrical people and academics. She speaks for an educated professional elite, who have not the slightest notion of the reality of poverty, or the virtues of combating poverty through economic growth. In the Thunberg worldview, economic growth is at best an illusion, and more likely an insidious lie. To advocates of growth, she famously proclaims, “How dare you?!”
In the real world, such views might be interpreted rather differently. Over the past century, two major factors accounted for the large-scale expansion of carbon emissions that stand at the heart of her indictment. One is population growth, from roughly three billion people in 1960 to 7.8 billion today. The other component is the phenomenal growth of wealth that has pulled so many out of crushing poverty. Between 1990 and 2011, the proportion of the world’s people living in extreme poverty fell from 43 percent to 21 percent, and it continues to plunge.
This improvement in life conditions on a scale unimaginable in human history is the single greatest event of the 21st century and it is still going. It has been accomplished via industrial growth, based largely on the exploitation of cheap—and dirty—local sources of coal and oil. This has meant a phenomenal expansion of access to electric power and to motorized transport. Although thus far that reduction of poverty has mainly affected Asian countries like China and India, it increasingly reshapes the globe.
By rejecting growth, Thunberg dismisses the key force that has diminished the misery of literally billions of people. It would therefore be quite legitimate to ask her, “Which human populations do you wish to see starving in the 21st century?”
But the interrogatory could actually be made more specific. If Thunberg’s views were ever put into legislative action, it would be a catastrophe for black and brown people around the world, who would never be permitted to achieve social or educational equality with wealthy white Nordic folks in northern Europe. We might thus ask her as a follow-up question, “Could you tell us which nations would and should be affected most harshly? Would it be the Congolese? The Ethiopians?”
Also fundamental to Thunberg’s ideas seems to be a commitment to the urgent reduction of human populations. By far the largest population growth in the modern world is in Africa and South Asia. Thus we might ask her, “By what proportion would you like to reduce the world’s non-white populations?” Would a billion fewer black people meet her goals? Or perhaps Thunberg would allow them to be born, but ensure that they never have access to electric light or power, to modern medicine or education. She should decide how many millions of Chinese people should be restored to abject poverty. Perhaps with sufficient suffering we would have done quite enough to combat the sinister monster of economic growth.
Either Thunberg does not comprehend the real-world consequences of the policies she is advocating, in which case she is ignorant, or she understands all too well, and she is a malignant white supremacist. Either way, our response to any future opinions she might express should be simple and proclaimed with all due vigor: “How dare you?!”
Image Credit: [Image Credit: Flickr-European Parliament, CC BY 2.0]