Greta, the unparalleled voice of millions, the visionary giving desperately needed hope for a future, is a prisoner of the present. She can’t imagine a world sufficiently different from the one she knows; nor is she adequately in tune with the world beyond her own immediate one.
Before explaining myself, let me emphasise that my critique in no way detracts from her extraordinary contribution to popularising the climate crisis. When the conditions are right, Mao Zedong observed, “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. Greta Thunberg has ignited much of the world. Like no one else, her message of our houses being on fire has burned its way into the global consciousness.
And, yet, her short speech at the UN’s Climate Summit on 23 September 2019, contains two serious misunderstandings.
First, as part of her impassioned speech, she lambasts the leaders of the world for their “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”. Second, she disputes their claim to understand the urgency of climate change, because, she says, they “would be evil” if they “fully understood the situation” but still failed to act.
Eternal economic growth is, indeed, a fairy tale. No less perniciously, however, it is a tale that obscures an uncomfortable reality: many of the benefits of economic development have still to be personally experienced by most of the world’s population.
South Africa, for instance, is the most economically developed country in Africa. Yet, most South Africans are still waiting to be touched by that development and, not least, by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, including the right to dignity. We don’t need statistics to tell us what is still needed. The evidence is all around us. We desperately need more and better homes, schools, hospitals, public leisure and sports facilities. Millions of us still don’t even have such quintessential 19th-century developments as electricity and piped water.
The 20th century brought the possibility of mass transport. But the few lucky enough to afford their own cars kill and maim themselves when not stuck in the congestion of urban crawl. The majority still await a transport system that is safe, reliable, frequent and affordable. As for people in rural areas, their needs are as basic as the very existence of proper roads.
Unless the elite of the world is to deny its good fortune to everyone else – and, in consequence, structure a necessarily dystopic order to defend its privileges – the imperatives of climate change must allow for the imperatives of basic development.
The good news is that these imperatives are not incompatible.
A recent report shows why. The report, by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), assessed the climate benefits of nothing more challenging than making Europe’s smartphones, notebooks, washing machines and vacuum cleaners more durable. Given the amount of energy and resources involved in producing and distributing new products as well as disposing of old ones, it found that extending the planned obsolescence of just these four products by five years, and, in the EU alone, would, by 2030 and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, be the equivalent to taking five million cars off the roads for a year, roughly the number of cars registered in Belgium. Even just a one-year extension would be equivalent to taking all Danish cars off the roads.
The EEB report focuses on just four commodities. But these items can easily be substituted by an almost infinite number of others worldwide, rather than just in the EU. Eliminating this cumulatively enormous amount of waste opens space for the production of what most people in the world desperately need. And this includes employment: lots and lots of jobs.
Transferring production to meet the basic human needs of billions of people transforms the global challenge of climate change from an elite concern into a global people’s struggle to preserve both a human-friendly climate and what would then, for the first time, be a real sharing of the benefits of science and development.
But all this requires conscious and collective will and action. This means that addressing the climate crisis becomes an integral part of providing the basic necessities still unknown to most people. This translates into rational decisions regarding what gets produced, how it gets produced and in what quantities it gets produced. These decisions can no longer be left to the anarchy of the present, in which self-interested, profit-maximising imperatives prevail, whether made by individual investors, transnational corporations or senior managers.
A very different world is required if we are to meet the simultaneous challenges of satisfying both basic human needs and the climate crisis. A few simple examples of the consequences of this new world include: smartphones for all people would be as irrational as a private car for each adult (even if fitted with electric motors). So, too, would the bottling of water amid secure supplies of safe tap water. New coal-fired powered stations would similarly be insane given the alternative of renewable energy sources.
Contrary to Greta, our leaders know this. Knowing this and still doing nothing doesn’t make the leaders of the world evil, even though a few of them are undoubtedly malevolent.
Our leaders do nothing because they are paralysed: they are caught between knowing what is required and the implications of that knowledge; implications which, by turning their world upside down, have to be suppressed. In their world – their only imaginable world – the profit-maximising free “market” rules economically. This not only makes them rich, but socially and politically privileged. The preservation of their class comes first. Their world is – and can only be – one that reflects and preserves only their own class interests. Much more immediately and viscerally, they know that actually meeting the challenge of climate change threatens the world built for them. Against this class reality, they condemn humankind to suicide.
Naomi Klein wrote a book about capitalism versus the climate. She argued that recognition of this reality, in her words, “changes everything”. This is why our leaders have to deny recognition of this reality. This is why nothing (substantial) is done. Rather than our leaders (unfathomably) lacking political will, which is the popular explanation, they are trapped into applauding Greta while simultaneously ignoring her. This is why they endorse the science explaining why our homes are on fire but suffer paralysis when it comes to fire fighting.
Climate change is still relatively new. What is not new is that the privileges of modernity are tightly protected by the few. One hundred and fifty years ago, Marx noted:
“There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery.”
Being persuaded by Naomi Klein’s “everything” is a step Greta has still to take. DM