The Truth and the Humbug in Greta Thunberg’s Climate Change Speech
Let me first clear what I am not going to talk about in this article.
Yes, Greta Thunberg was creepingly melodramatic. Yes, she read from a script and yes, she is a whimper without a script. Yes, the emotion that she showed was put up and fake. Knowingly or unknowingly, she is a stooge of the ultra Left in politics. All of this is true and yet not important. Very few are mature at the age of sixteen. Teenage is not for maturity. For that matter most Hindu activists of that age too are not very different from Greta; and in most cases, less attractive, more melodramatic and more clueless about what they are trying to defend.
What is shocking about the case of Greta Thunberg is how she is used by some NGOs in the climate change lobby as their face. Any lobby which is unscrupulous enough to use a clueless child for their cause is politically savvy and any such lobby can hardly by expected to deliver a lasting solution on the problem of climate change. But I am not here to talk about that either. Let us first take a look at what was right in her speech.
“Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Are things really bad?
There is not a single word that is wrong in the above lines by Greta. Arctic will be ice-free by 2030-50. The Great Barrier Reef is dead. All others are on their way there. Half the world’s rain forests, the lungs of the earth were felled in just the last century and the rest are also seriously compromised. Ecosystems ARE collapsing. We really are in the middle of a mass extinction. Not since Cambrian have we seen so many species going extinct. The loss of habitat, the result of our hunger for ‘resources’, is the primary cause.
And yes, all our politicians can talk about is fairy tales of eternal economic growth. For even a child can understand that ‘eternal economic growth’ is the greatest pipe dream ever told to humanity. That we simply cannot have unlimited growth with limited resources on a limited, single planet! And yet, no one is willing to accept it and keeps selling dreams of unlimited growth, of ‘Sabka Vikaas’. Greta says further:
“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”
For more than 30 years, the science IS crystal clear. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1968 and for the first time made us aware of the mass extinctions caused by chemicals that human beings are using since the industrial revolution. In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, making the very obvious point that unlimited growth cannot be sustained on limited resources. Although the predictions of this book that we will run out of resources by the end of the 20th century did not come true but they revealed an even greater danger. That we will sooner destroy planet earth by CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions than we will run out of resources.
In 1979, scientist James Lovelock came out with his Gaia hypothesis, in Gaia, reviving an old pagan idea that Earth itself is a living system, and that if human beings tinker too much with it, it will simply wipe us out. If this was not tragic enough, in his follow up books Revenge of the Gaia  and The Vanishing Face of Gaia,  Lovelock now believes that the scale of intervention that human beings have made in Mother Nature, we are actually capable of destroying Earth as a living system and turn it into another dead planet like Mars.
In 2005, Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and anthropologist came out with a very powerful book, The Weather Makers, which tells us how climate change is rapid and global and how it is affecting human societies.  In 2014, Elizabeth Kolbert came out with her devastating book, The Sixth Extinction, in which she illustrates by thirteen examples, how species are dying right, left and centre and how entire eco-systems are going extinct. 
These are just the popular books. There are tons of books, research papers and entire projects which tell us the scale of the problem. And the results are everywhere to be seen.
The CO2 emissions are already out of our hands. We may already be past the point of no return. The CO2 clock currently says that as I write, there is 408.50 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Some say, even 380 ppm was enough to boil our planet and tip it beyond the point of no return. But we are nowhere near controlling this rate. We are increasing our rate of release of CO2 in atmosphere.
All of this is true. Greta was not wrong in making one of these claims about climate change. We are really in a bad shape. And the reality is this bad. Then why do we see a string of knee-jerk reactions condemning Greta’s concerns and climate change in general across the ‘right-wing’ in India?
In the West, the Right is mostly organized around Christian fundamentalism. And it is only natural for Christian fundamentalists to deny climate change. After all it is the Bible which sowed the seed of ecological disaster, as we will later discuss. But pagan, polytheistic cultures have a deep sense of ecology. The binary of climate change vs. Right does not make any sense in India. The fact that some on the ‘right’ in India do oppose climate change is just a symptom of copying the intellectual trends in the West. There is no need of it and it can only harm us.
The Flaw in the Approach
But is there nothing wrong with Greta’s approach? No. There is something deeply flawed in the way activists in the West approach climate change. This is how Greta starts her message:
“My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying.”
This is the only part of Greta’s speech that I really have a problem with. The first thing to understand about climate change, about ecological damage and about Gaia as a living system is that WE are not important! Human beings are just one species on this planet. One species amongst millions. We do not own this planet. We are not its overlords. The plants and the animals all around us were not given to us by God for our use, at our disposal. We belong to Gaia. Gaia does not belong to us.
Until we keep thinking our existence as separate from Mother Nature, from Gaia, from Bhudevi (whatever suits your taste), we will fail to see the scale of the problem. Until we keep giving first priority to our own species, we will keep destroying this planet and ourselves along with it. Simply put, to give priority to our own species and all its comforts and luxuries with it, at the expense of every other species on this planet, is like saving a beautiful toenail at the cost of the rest of the body. It is foolish. It will kill us and the toenail that we set out to preserve from the beginning will also perish with the body.
This is why the start of the speech of Greta Thunberg was full of humbug. What is at stake is the future of the only living planet that we know. The dreams and the childhoods of some speckled teenagers from northern Europe mean nothing to a problem as big as climate change. To make individual human lives seem important is to trivialize and vulgarize the immense threat that Gaia faces now. Instead of giving solutions, this anthropocentric approach will only obfuscate the issue and prevent the solution.
The Bible and the Anthropocentric Approach
For it is this anthropocentric approach which is at the root of this problem of climate change. This attitude started with the Bible which gave lordship of the entire creation to the favorite tool of God: man. The pagan, polytheistic cultures before Judaism and Christianity did not give any central importance to man in the scheme of things.
In the tribal cultures that still survive, there is no line which divides the world of man from the world of animals, plants and even supernatural beings. There is no dichotomy between natural and supernatural. Everything is natural, just on a different plane of existence. Everything is connected, if only the connections can be discerned with the help of right guidance, drugs and surroundings. Separation is illusion. Unity is reality. Life is taken as a single inseparable whole with no real lines dividing individuals, species and even states of existence. And if someone cannot see the oneness of all life, it does not confirm the separateness of the world, but the ignorance of the seer.
Sanatana Dharma being the largest representative of the pagan, polytheistic sects in the world represents a similar view of life. In Hindu dharma animals and even plants feature as gods and divine beings. Anyone can be reborn as an animal and even a plant. This view essentially destroys the distinction between man and Nature, claiming the fundamental unity, the Advaita of all life and even the inanimate objects in the Universe. In such a world view, nothing is profane, everything is divine.
And when you hold such a view of life, can you really destroy one part of Nature without understanding that it will affect and ultimately destroy you too?
This was the point of view that most of the cultures and civilizations held all over the world, until someone in a desert at the westernmost corner of Asia thought otherwise. Judeo-Christian culture was the first materialist tradition in the sense that it gave lordship of the entire Nature to man. At first, things weren’t so bad, since the Bible was claimed to be the final word on everything and so there was no need to discover anything new and write anything new. All knowledge was suppressed for a thousand years and that is the period we know as the Dark Ages.
Then the East intervened again. The Renaissance released Europe from the Dark Ages. A few centuries later came Enlightenment and the floodgates were really opened. This is not the place to go into the intricacies of what Enlightenment or the Renaissance was, but it will suffice to say that these two movements ended the knowledge-despising worldview of the Bible.
Technology in the Absence of Adhikari Bheda
This opened the way for Science. Old knowledge systems were developed once again. Entirely new disciplines were discovered. Evolution proved the ancientness of life. Geology proved the age of Earth. The worldview of the Bible was fast collapsing. Science became the tool to ‘know’ and understand the world.
So good so far. However, the Judeo-Christian worldview, ingrained by the Bible did not disappear completely. The anthropocentric view of man sustained and even prevailed. Man was still the centre of things. Though various disciplines of science have conclusively proven how man is not the centre of things, the technology that science made possible was used by statesmen and colonial empires which still had a Biblical understanding of life.
The widespread colonialism of the Americas, Africa and Asia was one of the results. The technology which the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had given made possible to exploit these ‘new’ regions more thoroughly than before. Destructions hitherto unachievable even by the Turks and the Arabs were made possible with the new tools, wielded by undeserving overlords. Slavery was just one and just human aspect of this technology-laced colonialism.
The large-scale exploitation of Nature was the real scale of the problem. With the help of this inconceivable exploitation, a fairy tale like lifestyle was created by the elite of the West, a lifestyle so extravagant that it was far from sustainable. But the scale of the problem was yet not clear as this lifestyle was lived by an elite so minuscule that it hardly made the scale of the destruction clear. There was just one element missing in this planetary lethal cocktail.
A Dangerous Cocktail of Ideas
Like everything else colonialism ended. And with a bang! The two world wars forced the West to rethink its modes of governance. The ridiculous gap between the rich and the poor started to become too obvious. And the poor were becoming restless. An experiment that was started across the ocean in the Americas started appealing to the entire world: democracy.
Until now, everyone agreed that only kings lived like kings, whether it was East or West, whether it was a benign king or a cruel dictator. But now, a new idea started sprouting in the minds of man. An idea which some revolutionaries and dreamy eyed philosophers in France had recently made popular: equality.
These two seemingly good and harmless ideas would combine to create a cocktail which would make it impossible for global politics to reach a general consensus to fight climate change.
In 1776, the United States of America was created. It got its independence from Britain and there is much that appeals to the intellect in the birth of America, but it can hardly be called noble. The democracy was limited. It was not for the slaves, women or the Native Americans. And what was even worse, it continued the exploitation of Nature that the European colonialism had started. In fact, it pursued it with an unsurpassable zeal, quite frequently informed by the Judeo-Christian sense of propriety.
An entire continent lay in front of these newly minted ‘Americans’, a continent which was preserved in almost a pristine condition by its previous inhabitants. And there was no one else to exploit it. There was almost no competition. The people were too few. The resources were too many. The guiding philosophy was that Man was the Master of all things. It was a perfect breeding ground for democracy.
It was in the United States of America that the most radical of all ideas was born: democracy. For the first time, a nation really started thinking that everyone can have the comforts and luxuries, which until yesterday were thought to be the privilege of only the elite. Granted, that this definition of ‘everyone’ was limited, but it kept expanding with every passing decade. Once again, it’s not the place to trace this journey of democracy. But this journey became almost complete in 1965 when black women got the right to vote in the United States of America.
Everyone was equal now. Everyone was entitled to have all the luxuries, comforts and privileges that until yesterday only kings enjoyed. The dream of Rousseau, of Moore had finally come true. Democracy was here. America became the place where ‘dreams came true’. America was the wildest dream of Europe come alive. All the hatred that Europe still throws at America is pure humbug. It simply comes out of jealousy.
To sum it up till here: for the first time in history, it was possible to bend Nature to man’s will almost unendingly. Man could feel hot at the poles, cold at the equator. If your heart stopped it longer meant you will die. If you are not able to give a normal delivery, it no longer meant that you will have to die along with your child. Science and technology were ‘saving everyone’, and democracy made sure that everyone had a right to everything! Suddenly, everyone was aspiring to live like a king and the dreams were really coming true. The lifestyle which was sustainable even for the elite, now became the ambition and right of every human being.
Breaking Nature’s Cycle
Seems like a fairy tale come true! There was a just a teeny-tiny problem. Saving everyone is not Nature’s way. That’s not how evolution works. Every species has a place in the food chain and a majority of the individuals of every species die to become the food for other species. A majority of the individuals themselves become ‘resource’. Every hunter is at the risk of being hunted himself. That is how Nature manages resources. It does not fly them in from other planets. The top predators are too few and they are preyed upon by natural calamities and lack of resources. No species functions outside this food chain. Until Homo Sapiens came on the scene.
We are the first species to break this food chain. We are the first species to hunt, while NOT being at the risk of being hunted. This is unprecedented. A mammal our size, in our number is simply a recipe for disaster for the eco-system, for Mother Nature. Until Judeo-Christianity stepped in, human culture played the role of stand-in Nature, trying to substitute the role of Nature where it no longer held sway. Nature works on the principle of hierarchy. Every human society did too until the idea of equality was floated in France and became a reality in America.
This idea of equality coupled with the Judeo-Christian sense of proprietorship over Nature is what is destroying our planet. Everyone wants to survive. Everyone wants necessities, comforts and even luxuries at the expense of Mother Nature. But the problem is that Nature doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t practice equality. Gaia is simply not built that way. And it is not our property to dispense with.
What we have to realize, is that we cannot ‘save everyone’. ‘Saving everyone’ is a Christian disease. It is a dogmatic refusal of reality, based upon blind faith in ideology. And no matter how noble it seems at first sight, it is a thought fundamentally evil, as it arrogantly denies the way of the world, of Nature and of Mother Gaia. It denies reality and THAT is why it is not sustainable. It is a ‘good’ which becomes evil by its own fulfillment.
We have to accept that pain and loss is a necessary and inherent part of our lives. That none of us can escape it. We have to accept that death is as much a part and plan of Nature as life is. What we have to learn is not how to keep prolonging our lives, to make everyone survive till ripe old age. What we have to learn is how to die in a natural way.
We have to accept that equality is an intellectual fashion, floated time and again by various dreamy-eyed and (well-meaning) philosophers, and practiced to a point, only recently in the West, but it is simply not something which can be practiced. We have to accept that hierarchy is the over-arching principle of Nature: not equality. It is how individuals operate; it is how species, genera, families, orders, and even classes operate. Elimination is the way of Nature. That is how Evolution keeps earth healthy. By ‘saving everyone’ amongst the human species, we have interrupted this process.
We have to accept that not everyone gets to live a good life and it is impossible for everyone to pursue and fulfill his or her dreams. We have to realize that sickness is as natural as health; that some will die of diseases, as some survive them. We have to realize that every effort to ‘save everyone’ from all diseases will only make everyone equally and chronically sick. We have to realize that using plastic in fear of contamination will only make the eco-system and water dirtier and more unsafe to drink. We have to realize by trying to save everyone, we are putting everyone and the very planet at risk.
We have to realize that cushions against tragedies cannot be created for individuals. Individuals have to die and sacrifice for their species to survive. And sometimes even species die, so that others like them could survive. And this chain goes all the way up and even classes go extinct, not just species, genera and orders.
And that is what was really humbug in the speech of Greta Thunberg. Not everyone can be ‘lifted out of poverty’; not everyone can live like a king; not everyone can survive. If we want sustainable living, then we need to let go of these stupid, arrogant and Utopian ideas. Gaia will survive, only at the cost of many upon many of human individuals. The idea of survival of Gaia on one hand and the survival and social welfare of every human individual on the other, are simply not compatible. One has to give way to the other. Either Gaia survives at the cost of many individuals and at the cost of equality. Or we keep doing social welfare, until the entire system collapses all around us, along with Gaia, and everyone dies.
Sustainable Living: What it Really Means
For this is what sustainable living will mean:
- We have to stop giving first priority to the ‘welfare of man’ or of human society. We are just one species amongst millions and that is how we have to behave. ‘Social Welfare’ is not the way of Nature.
- We have to abandon our sense of proprietorship of Nature. Nature is not ours to exploit. The sooner we overcome this Biblical arrogance, the better.
- We have to stop treating equality as the ultimate benchmark of ‘good’ and ‘human’ and let hierarchy take charge by rationing and conserving resources.
Mother Nature can still save us. But Mother Nature also wants four out of five of our children dead. The sheer thought of it is dreadful, devastating and unbearable. But there is no getting around it. Sustainable living would mean for us to wrap our heads around this fact.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Penguin UK, 2000.
- Meadows, Donella. H. The Limits to Growth. Universe Pub, 1972.
- Lovelock, James. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, 2016.
- Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia. Penguin, 2007.
- Lovelock, James. A Vanishing Gaia. Penguin, 2010.
- Flannery, Tim. The Weather Makers. Penguin, 2007.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Bloomsbury India, 2015.
Featured Image: CNN