Teen climate change activist challenges global economic model


Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has captured the imagination of climate change activists. Chris Chatteris SJ examines the environmental impact of a consumer economy on the future of the planet.

What is it about Greta Thunberg? How has a petite Swedish teenager galvanised her generation into action on the climate crisis and managed to command the attention of her elders?

Her autism turns out to be an advantage, helping her to see issues and speak about them clearly and simply. Thunberg makes the powerful point that her generation will have to deal with the worst fallout from the faults of their forebears, something that has clearly touched a few older consciences.

She is a telling example of the saying that goes, “Out of the mouth of babes”.

Sometimes the young have a sense of matters that adults seem unable to grasp. On the issue of “climate chaos”, as many are now correctly calling it, the basic ideas are not actually that difficult to grasp. You don’t have to be a proverbial rocket scientist. Greta Thunberg has shown us that you don’t even need to have left school.

You don’t have to be an earth scientist to understand that trashing the very things on which you depend for life itself, like the land or the ocean, is ultimately self-destructive. How difficult is it to understand that it is not a good idea to pollute our water supply or poison our land?

How difficult is it to understand that it is not a good idea to pollute our water supply or poison our land?

You don’t have to be a climate scientist to understand the greenhouse effect. Anyone who has sat in a windowed, north-facing room (or south if you are reading this north of the equator) will have at least felt the effects of it.

Species biodiversity? A child or a child-like heart that gazes out on the world with wide-eyed wonder probably has a unique appreciation for its extraordinary diversity. But it is surely the mark of a mature adult of our time to be aware of how all things are wondrously connected and to appreciate how important and fragile those connections are. We tear holes in the web of life at our peril, for we are part of it.

As for the simple idea that in a finite world the supply of material things is not infinite — if you believe material things are infinite, you are either a madman or an economist!

All this makes me hot under the collar when I see adults still denying that there is a problem, even when their regions are breaking all previous meteorological records. Worse are those who know there is a problem, but try to confuse the rest of us, cynically calculating that they can insulate themselves from the effects of climate chaos, or thinking that they will be gone before the worst happens.

Maybe Mary Robinson — the former Irish president who now heads up Climate Justice, a centre that promotes sustainable development — is not indulging in hyperbole when she says that climate change denial is actually evil. Certainly, it is evil compounded if those denying it knowingly, like Exxon Mobil has done, persist in denying it.

… climate change denial is actually evil.

Environmental commentator George Monbiot wrote an article on Shell in which he accuses the oil company of deflecting criticism of its fundamentally planet-threatening, extractive purpose by funding the arts and academia.

If Shell were really serious about climate change and transitioning to a new energy order, Monbiot argues, the company would not be pouring billions into further oil and gas exploration. It would be transforming itself as rapidly as possible into a renewables company by putting those billions into climate-friendly energy. However, the facts and figures of its reports, Monbiot maintains, show the opposite — business as usual and the usual “greenwash”.

Furthermore, it’s implausible that Shell’s directors and engineers don’t know what their business is doing to the environment. If anyone understands the greenhouse effect or oil spills, an oilman does.

So why do they behave in the way they do? Why do they not listen to Thunberg and her peers?

One can only assume that they stop their ears and drag their feet because it’s highly profitable in our consumer economy to do so and they really don’t care about her generation. As writer Kathleen Norris observes, “consumerism is our idolatry, the heart of our illusions of power, security, and self-sufficiency, which translate into the rape of the environment.”

“Consumerism is our idolatry, the heart of our illusions of power, security, and self-sufficiency, which translate into the rape of the environment.”

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister walk

Oil companies are extremely powerful and they have positioned and entrenched themselves as indispensable to the modern consumer economy. If we criticise them, we are implicitly criticising ourselves because we all use their products.

Producers of toxic products often blame their consumers, who may have little choice or alternative. However, what the consumers do does not exculpate the companies.

Oil companies have great power and with that power comes great responsibility. We are still waiting for the first oil company to announce that it is going to stop all exploration and wind down its wells in favour of green energy.

Greta Thunberg still cannot vote or drive or die for her country, but she has decided to both make her voice heard and also to live in a way that is the change she seeks. Because of this she is difficult to ignore.

So far, she has refused to fly to the various events to which she has been invited. “Mere symbolism” some might sniff, but I hope she is savvy enough to know that many of those who don’t want any change to the fossil-fuelled economic system we have built, are the first to cry “hypocrite” if a climate campaigner flies to a climate conference. I am sure that the moment she sets foot on an aircraft, her adult critics will crucify her.

In the meantime, she stirs our conscience. Will we help her campaign for the sake of her generation, or will we join those who have already begun to vilify her efforts?

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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    Teen climate change activist challenges global economic model