TIME magazine has named Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg as its Person of the Year for 2019. In an article announcing the award, TIME correspondents Charlotte Alter, Suyin Haynes, and Justin Worland write,
Unless they agree on transformative action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution will hit the 1.5°C mark — an eventuality that scientists warn will expose some 350 million additional people to drought and push roughly 120 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.
For every fraction of a degree that temperatures increase, these problems will worsen. This is not fearmongering; this is science. For decades, researchers and activists have struggled to get world leaders to take the climate threat seriously. But this year, an unlikely teenager somehow got the world’s attention.
Thunberg’s message is simple. “We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow. That is all we are saying.” What she means is that if the world continues to pour the waste products that come from burning fossil fuels, the Earth’s ability to support human life will be severely degraded if not destroyed altogether.
In the 16 months since she began her lonely quest for climate justice outside the Swedish Parliament, she has meet with the Pope, numerous heads of state, glared at the President of the United States, and inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, the largest gathering in support of climate action in human history.
“This moment does feel different,” former vice president Al Gore tells TIME. “Throughout history, many great morally based movements have gained traction at the very moment when young people decided to make that movement their cause.”
Thunberg does not mince her words. “I want you to panic,” she told the annual convention of CEOs and world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” So far, few of those in attendance have lifted a finger to help save the planet, preferring to focus on the value of their outrageous compensation packages which rely on the continued use of fossil fuels.
Perhaps her most famous public presentation came when she spoke to the UN General Assembly in New York last September, a speech that immediately went viral on social media. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she told world leaders before ending with this direct challenge to them: “How dare you!”
“She symbolizes the agony, the frustration, the desperation, the anger — at some level, the hope — of many young people who won’t even be of age to vote by the time their futures are doomed,” says Varshini Prakash, 26, who co-founded the Sunrise Movement, a US youth advocacy group pushing for a Green New Deal.
Thunberg has accumulated her share of detractors. She has been hung in effigy in Rome and stalked by people in Alberta screaming “This is oil country!” But she says all the vitriol only shows that she and her followers are having an impact. Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon, says many companies are being squeezed about climate concerns from all sides. “It’s growing from all the stakeholders. Our employees think about it much more, our customers are talking much more about it, and society is expecting us to show up.”
The Power Of Youth
Writing for The Guardian from a Fridays For Future rally in front of the San Francisco offices of Black Rock, the largest investor in fossil fuels in the world, Rebecca Solnit posits an interesting theory. She compares human civilization to the stages of development a person goes through from birth to old age.
Sometimes I think that our species was for most of its history a child: it had limited capacity to harm and thus limited responsibility to do no harm. We could kill each other, but we did it without napalm and nuclear weapons that kill a lot of other things. We could think small because we acted small, mostly; we were altering the earth with hunting, grazing, farming, foraging, building, but most of our traces would vanish and most of our impact left no lasting damage.
With the industrial revolution and its reliance on fossil fuels and with technologies capable of changing the Earth on a more profound scale, childhood harmlessness faded into the past for those who wielded those powers and used those tools and benefitted from it all. Humans ceased to be human-scale, but our imaginations and ethics lagged behind our impact.
We have for two centuries been in a sort of wild adolescence, too reckless and impatient to pay attention to consequences or to listen to the Rachel Carsons and Vandana Shivas when they point out that there are consequences. Because, really, environmentalism has been to no small degree about shouting “don’t break that” and “clean up your room” at corporations and governments.
We are on the brink, and part of what that brink is, I believe, the necessary end of that adolescence. As a species we must act with restraint in the face of consequences, must consider the other species with us now, those of our own not yet born, and those currently facing ultimate climate vulnerability around the world from floods, fire, sea level rise, crop failure, superstorms and more.
We must expand our imaginations and act on that bigger understanding of our place in the world and our impact on the future. That means making radical changes, like our homes and transit being powered by renewables, our government not plotting more extractivism. It means leaving fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong.
We need to remind ourselves why these changes are necessary: that the earth is finite, that actions have consequences, that they go beyond the horizon of what we can see and hear, in time and space, that those who come after us have rights we can’t just annihilate. We must make sweeping changes by the end of the coming decade, and we must stick to them afterward by remembering why they matter.
There was a time when elders were seen as wise and experienced in the ways of the world. As the old expression says, “Good judgment is the product of experience and experience is the product of bad judgment.” Governments today seem to have learned nothing from the histories of their countries. Indeed, one major country — the somewhat disingenuously named United States of America — is led by someone who does not and cannot read, has no interest in history, and is capable of only first order thinking that focuses primarily on what is in his own best interest.
The prevailing mood around the world is a kind of “Get off my lawn!” ethos as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the movie Gran Torino. The backlash from young people is embodied in the latest social media meme, “OK Boomer” — which rejects any notion that older people should be listened to because they are theoretically wiser.
As Solnit concludes, “There have been farsighted altruistic people in every generation, but there are signs of a wider evolution of imagination that is taking place among the young. We see that profound change in new ways of dealing with conflict, with rejecting competition and capitalism, new understandings of what is possible and ethical. We see the children are mature and too many old people are juvenile. Juvenility and maturity are no longer categories attached to how long you’ve been on Earth, but how far you see and how much you care.” Enough said.
Featured image of Greta Thunberg by Anders Hellberg CC-BY-SA 4.0
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