What Greta Means

Environmentalism represents humankind’s loss of faith in itself. It’s a backward, misanthropic creed. We shouldn’t be indulging Extinction Rebellion. We should be making clear to these people that we have no intention whatsoever of enacting their depressing, deathly policies and instead will carry on pursuing progress and abundance and a world of wealth for all.

What’s wrong with this fulsome statement in the Australian by Brendan O’Neill, regular commentator in that newspaper and editor of Spiked? Could it be the tone? Excessive, self-sure, tending to the nasty, certainly not exploratory or explanatory. No attempt at all to understand why ‘these people’ might be acting? The title of the piece is ‘Less Robespierre, more hellfire and brimstone eco-cult’. A death eco-cult? Mightn’t a shrink point to some weird reversals and blind spots in this piece of writing, even in the few sentences above, to wonder at the ‘passion’ or commitments behind it? Just who is dealing in death? Just who is standing up for abundance? Or is O’Neill just a smart-arse, encouraged by the Australian’s readership-losing tactics of baiting, tossing off a ‘funny’ piece to satisfy its rank right-wing readers? Perhaps there’s no depth to it at all—it’s a Trumpian move to discredit without any engagement; a time-saving smear; a little moment in identity building/bonding for men of business, and those who still find them to offer a sense of security.

The Australian has of course been running an editorial campaign to discredit the idea of anthropogenic climate change for years, and, in past weeks since Greta Thunberg’s appearance at the United Nations and an upsurge in climate protest, has homed in, in truly deplorable terms, on the young people now taking the lead in such protest. Coverage by newspapers like the Australian of Thunberg’s speech again missed, or deformed, the meaning and import of it. If they don’t want her to be a ‘religious’ figure, they should work harder at not crucifying her.

Of course they pretended to be gentle and to be kind, her being just a girl. The Australian took apart her speech as if to rationally respond to each point she made, though the tone was condescending and the title ‘What Greta Really Meant’. It was paired on the same page with a piece from the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Child of Climate Cult Delivers a Compelling Story’. Just to confuse readers, this didn’t indicate ‘balance’ in reporting or opinion; ‘compelling’ referred to the ‘story’ a cult might tell—a convincing fabrication. And various commentators in different outlets referred to Thunberg as having a mental illness. I could imagine blokes laughing heartily at her unusualness, at her careful passion, unable to ‘get’ what her appeal seems to be.

Among other things, Thunberg was steadfast, as also appeared the other young women leading the Student Strike protests in Australia, Germany and the United States, as featured on Four Corners. Steadfast is not cult like. Steadfast is serious—individually morally serious. It cuts through as an attitude or disposition at a different level from rational commentary or rhetorical performance as such. Thunberg’s presentation gave no sense of her being either ego driven or able to be shamed or belittled. I wondered how she could possibly not be intimidated by the largeness of the forum and of the attention generally. But she was remarkable. Who could have guessed the angle of her speech? Her rejection of our need for hope, the burden that it places onto the young. It was not a touchy-feely presentation (it did not massage its listeners); it did not appeal to our mystical minds (to some mystical love of Nature); it was not fire and brimstone, even if blame could be attributed and catastrophe envisaged. Cause and result were squarely conveyed, a perfectly normal attitude in public contestation, not some dire, cult-like predilection for the end times. Thunberg’s presentation was compelling for its strength, and for the reason of the speaker’s uniqueness.

Similarly, it is not anti-rational, not anti-scientific even, to ask questions about the meaning of the emergence of, and responses to, a figure like Thunberg. Feeling at this level is, after all, a social phenomenon, at least in large part. Why do people cleave to a particular description of the world at any given point? What are the historical forces at play? What is the nature of social consciousness? Where does the spark for change occur? Why do particular individuals play important roles in particular circumstances? Of course this last question can be asked about figures of all political persuasions through history. In our circumstances today, why might Thunberg and her young cadres, notably young women, yet be our conscience, and, alas for them, our hope? Perhaps in a period of reaction, cultural confusion and indeed a very particular kind of fear about the future—all indisputable facts of social existence today—Thunberg’s demeanour simply arrests us in our tracks; offers a profound contrast to our normal cultural stock in trade; suggests the possibility of a break.

As the winner of the Alan Roberts Prize in this issue, Stephen Pascoe, points out in his essay, our worlds are locked into a received cultural logic—locked not just into received ideas about how to live but into practical structures that radically constrain our actions and potential choices in everyday life. Even if we want to respond to what we see as the damaging logic of the fossil-fuel economy, the practical function of socially necessary mobility and the ideological dream of the car that is so important to our sense of personal freedom are literally built into our cities and environments, especially US ones. In N. A. J. Taylor’s Alan Roberts Prize essay, and in the article by Tilman Ruff, we are confronted with our culture’s incapacity to face the meaning of nuclear power. Geared as we are implicitly towards endless productivity, and other forms of technical dominance (war making, in particular), we are blind or, more shockingly, seem to be culturally inured to the costs of the nuclear path. Taylor’s essay focuses on another element in this incapacity, which is distinctly to do with the scientific nature of nuclear technology—the real but physically invisible and highly abstracted nature of the forces at play in producing nuclear power, and their radioactive patrimony. How to imagine the nuclear, not entirely unlike imagining climate change, sits at the centre of our culture’s difficulties in coming to terms with what is our creation, yet drives us inhumanly towards an unliveable future.

Just what is the ‘logic’ of our (Western, capitalist, scientifised) culture; at what points and at what level of social life and its imbrication with the technical must critique and action focus upon?

This is to ask what it will take to make a real and lasting ‘break’. Young people today have to chart a path forward in ways that make sense to them, and via their own political and countercultural constructions, although what these ‘constructions’ might be remains a moot point at this stage. Protest for many may only be that: a voicing of radical disapproval, without a program, with little worked-out insight into the level of our cultural self-production just noted. At the Melbourne Student Strike the feelings were deep, but the demands were all policy related. What the challenge was to, exactly, was not clear. Whether a revolution in everyday life was foreseen was not obvious. There seemed no sense of what it would mean to reject the forms of wealth creation beloved of Brendan O’Neill that are integral with global warming.

But there were positives, and they were obvious. It was notable that the students protesting came from all sorts of backgrounds—private-school uniforms were a dead giveaway that the protest was general, cross class, felt by a wide cross section of society. What’s more, those private-school kids’ mothers were also there. There were fathers and grandparents and old troopers from over the years of protest, too, but the well-heeled mothers were of considerable note. They were going to be there to support their children, perhaps ‘protect’ them, but they, as we all were, were energised by the young and by their achievements. There was a whiff of the anti-Vietnam moratoriums of the 1970s in the sense that people from all walks of life and across the generations mingled and were potentially joined together around a defining moment for our common existence.

Extinction Rebellion may have more radical hopes than was clear at the Student Strike, and is obviously prepared to be more disruptive, but the same question can and should be put: what will be the melding perspective that may join the people broadly to some common purpose? Isn’t there important work yet to be done to reach beyond the protest organising of the Twittersphere, and the agonism of tactical battles, to embed a level of serious understanding adequate to the existential questions raised by global warming and its already evident irreversible ecological impacts? Where might we find in such a process the sources of a steadfastness that will hold us to a purpose that steps beyond protest, or may be the ultimate goal of protest?

As others have commented, as we too have at Arena, in the detritus-strewn world that is the patrimony of capitalist, techno-scientific culture, the lineaments of the new can be detected, observed in practice, felt among many people actively working to contest the neoliberal state, develop communities, reforest country, re-establish waterways, establish new power grids, and so on. Social consciousness springs from ideas and remnant practices materialised in new circumstances. Mass movements for change spring from such emergent conditions. Yet even as these examples of new power are crucial manifestations, deliberation on the deep principles of our relation to life—what it means to live, our relation to all forms of life—and what our relations are to each other within that overarching cultural project, are the grounding of any truly sustainable human life form.

About the author

Alison Caddick

Alison Caddick is Editor of Arena (third series), was co-editor of Arena Magazine and is an Arena Publications Editor. With a background in the history and philosophy of science, politics and social studies, she writes on techno-science, the body and prospects for social and cultural change.

More articles by Alison Caddick

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