Greta Thunberg, motives and being strategic

“We should no longer measure our wealth and success in the graph that shows economic growth, but in the curve that shows the emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Greta Thunberg, April 23 2019 

What should we make of Greta Thunberg’s campaign? Here are my impressions.

Firstly, and most importantly: Thunberg shouldn’t be having to make speeches about climate at all. As she has pointed out, the older generations should have started taking care of these problems decades ago. I’m 47 and my main reaction to her speeches is grief, shame and frustration. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has that reaction. 

The fact that she feels compelled to act is not in itself hopeful – as she herself seems to well realise. 

However, for reasons that I’ll explore below, the content of her speeches and the amount of attention her campaign is getting give me some tentative hope that there’s still potential for important and positive change in the world. 

For this to happen, though, it’s extremely important that her messages not be misinterpreted or distorted.

Since I’m the editor of the Feasta blog, I was recently emailed a comment about a post by Brian Davey that we published last week. The comment expressed concern that the post could be interpreted as an attack on Greta Thunberg’s campaign (and also on Extinction Rebellion) and that it could alienate Feasta from potential allies by seeming overly negative, in particular by suggesting that big businesses and some of the larger environmental NGOs have dishonourable intentions when they publicise Thunberg’s work. 

Here’s my own take on the substance of Brian’s post:

(a) Thunberg has been given a high-profile platform by some influential people and organisations who are, at the very least, gravely mistaken about how climate change should be addressed, and who are using her fame and reputation to try and push their ill-advised agendas

(b) her message is being censored/played down when it brings ‘green growth’ into question. 

I think there are several issues there that need discussing. 

A big one is that we are in an emergency and yet not everyone recognises that. Time is running out, and to make matters worse, there are powerful people out there who simply don’t believe there’s any problem with the climate (or biodiversity, or resource limits) – or, if they do think there’s a problem, believe that they themselves can escape it – and who are actively undermining our efforts. We could hardly be in a more fraught situation. 

I’ll write it again: time is running out. We are under a lot of pressure, and people acting under pressure don’t always behave wisely and manage to keep their sense of perspective. 

A second issue is that those of us who believe in the climate emergency are divided among ourselves right now. And given the first issue above, it’s hard not to be infuriated and exhausted at times by the lack of consensus about what sort of climate action is needed. 

Specifically, there’s currently a clash between those who believe that the growth-dependent economic system (which some, though not all, label ‘capitalism’) can continue to function in a zero-emissions economy, and those who don’t. 

Members of the former group tend to believe that an adequate price on carbon could and should play a major role in the energy transition (though they may well advocate additional measures to try and ease social problems or other environmental problems). They’re frequently – though not always – quite successful at making a living within the current economic system themselves, which makes it both hard for them to believe it needs changing, and uncomfortable at the thought of changing it. 

This has led to suspicion and accusations from outsiders that members of this group are trying to preserve their own privilege at the expense of others. More about that below.

The pricing-as-core-solution approach ties in closely with the idea that green growth is attainable. If better pricing will solve the problem, that makes it easier to assume that the economy can continue to function much as it has done before – which in turn means that we don’t have to worry as much about two things: inequality (because a rising tide supposedly lifts all boats); and the financial system’s dependency on continual economic growth in order to function. 

The fact that some proponents of this view are in influential positions means that their opinions fall neatly within the Overton window and get talked about at great length by policymakers and the media. Some major environmental NGOs, whose leaders seem not to have given a lot of thought to economics and (unwisely) appear content to leave economic analysis to economists, have been known to endorse this view as well, at least implicitly.

Profound and dangerous failure

Feasta co-founder Richard Douthwaite’s book The Growth Illusion, published in 1992, was my first introduction to the idea that GDP growth is not only a poor measure of success: it can actually be a measure of profound and dangerous failure. Since then, the evidence has only continued to accumulate. Correlations between fossil fuel emissions, general resource depletion and GDP growth remain inexorably strong, despite a great many claims to the contrary from powerful groups with loud voices. 

So I would place myself in the second group of climate activists – the group of those who believe that we need to deliberately contract the global economy in order to survive. (I would add that a ton of measures needs to be taken to protect people, as much as possible, from the potentially adverse effects of a contracting economy, and that some regions of the world clearly have a right to greater energy access than they have at the moment, which means that the rest of us will need to contract our energy use still more to allow for that. These measures include basic income, land value tax, a growth-neutral financial system, and redistributing any revenue generated by carbon pricing. Conveniently, they actually have the potential to improve life significantly for many people.)

It’s been very hard to get much traction on our point of view among policymakers and the mainstream media. Even though there has been some general discussion in recent years about the problems with growth as a measure of progress – and I was pleasantly surprised to see an op-ed challenging the possibility of green growth in the Irish Times last week – authority figures still seem to largely take it for granted that environmental action will always need to take place, and will be able to take place, within a growth-based economy

Greta Thunberg and growth

But now a new person has come along and has, perhaps unexpectedly, been granted the kind of loud voice by the media that has generally been reserved for people from the first group. And she is making the very point about the impossibility of green growth that people in the second group are making –  including Feasta members, some of whom have been trying to get this idea across for twenty years.

Is Thunberg sincere when she criticises green growth? From reading her speeches I tend to think so. 

Her coming from a privileged, performing-arts background has been criticised by some. But I don’t see how that disqualifies her from being able to think for herself and articulate a clear vision. Sometimes if you are given a leg up it gives you a better view, at least from some angles. 

Gandhi had a middle-class childhood and access to a good education. Martin Luther King grew up with a preacher father (so he had a lot of exposure to good oratory) and went to university. Should these privileges have disqualified them from being given a platform to spread their opinions? 

As Brian writes, Thunberg is obviously a smart young woman. Her skill with words seems undeniable. But what about the issue of her prominence possibly being engineered by powerful interests, and then used to push a green growth agenda? 

A great many different people are claiming to support Thunberg and they come from both groups mentioned above: the green-growth advocates and the degrowth advocates. Her quick ascent to stardom is certainly very striking, and there does seem to have been some clever marketing involved. 

However, do the elite really have so much power that we should assume Thunberg’s high profile was almost entirely engineered by them? I can’t know for sure, but I suspect the truth is more complicated than that. 

It’s certainly sensible – indeed, vital – to keep in mind that there has been plenty of well-documented manipulation of public opinion by the elite, or sections of the elite, over the past few decades. 

But one can also go too far in one’s assumptions about elite control. I was at a workshop recently where several people told me that they didn’t believe in climate change. Their reasoning was that the elite are saying that it’s a problem, and therefore it must be fake. The simple fact of the elite being (or claiming to be) concerned about it was enough to convince them that it couldn’t be true – it had to be propaganda. 

Just how far should this distrust of anything the elite says be taken? To give a deliberately absurd example – if the elite say we should stop at a red light, should we disregard that? Clearly a balance needs to be found between swallowing everything you hear without question and disbelieving everything you hear without question. 

To get back to Thunberg: while I would say it’s highly likely that some of her success comes from her connections, some of it may well be down to her own skills, and some may also be down to fortunate timing.  Although I hesitate to use the word, there could be an element of fashion there (which isn’t to say that I think she herself is trying to be fashionable – indeed, I have the opposite impression.) There might also be an indirect connection with the #MeToo movement and a more general (and welcome) recognition that women’s voices tend to be edited out or downplayed, and that they need to be heard more. 

Some of these impulses may not even be conscious on the part of many of those sharing her videos.

However: for the sake of argument, let’s just go ahead anyway and assume for the moment that the primary reason for Thunberg’s high level of publicity is that powerful interests are using her to get attention and funding for their own approach to climate action. It’s certainly exasperating, if you disagree with their approach, to see them succeeding. 

The next question, then, is what should be done about it?

The original comment that I got urged critics of Thunberg to read her actual speeches, rather than sticking to skeptical analyses of her campaign. 

I’d go further and say that the best antidote to Thunberg’s messages being distorted is for us all to read or watch her speeches ourselves, carefully, from the source, and then spread them around, unexpurgated, along with our own perspectives on what should be done (and we can certainly feel free to mention while we’re at it that some people seem to think they need censoring).

This brings me on to a third issue I wanted to mention.

There’s a tendency by all involved in this debate – including myself at times – to make assumptions about the motivation behind different people’s stances. 

There may well be truth to some of these assumptions, but it’s often impossible to determine that. What does seem certain to me is that attributing dubious motives to people makes it much more likely that they will feel threatened and defensive, and less likely that they will become able to open up and engage in a proper debate. 

It’s tempting to use contempt to relieve one’s tension when one is feeling under pressure and frustrated. But contempt is poisonous. In the longer term, I don’t think it ever does anyone any good (including the person expressing it). 

Bitterness is also much better worked through than allowed to fester. 

I’m not suggesting that we should just forget our differences with others and try to engage in a group hug. It’s certainly possible to go too far in collaborating with a partner (be it a person or an organisation) who has different values from you. For example, the ultra-right here in France (in stark contrast to the ultra-right in certain other countries) claims to want to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and to localise energy and food production. The plan for this that they put forward before the last election was, I would say, actually considerably more coherent in itself than that offered by the centre-right politicians who are currently in power. 

It’s possible that they’re genuinely concerned about the environment – certainly they come across that way in their publications (although some of my friends here insist that they’re just trying to manipulate people who are worried about the environment into voting for them). 

Despite this, I would not vote for them or wish to work with them because of their belief that dissent is best dealt with by pouring police onto the streets and expanding police powers to allow them to essentially bully people into obedience, and their implicit racism (they’ve got better at camouflaging it over the years, but it’s still there). 

So as far as that goes, my gut feeling – at least right now – is that a line needs to be drawn. I can’t work with those people unless they agree to renounce racism and to make decisions in a more collaborative way.

This feeds into the larger point that it’s very hard to collaborate meaningfully with people who aren’t willing or able to treat those who have different opinions with respect. The issue here is not so much disagreement on facts as on values. 

I’m particularly wary of judgmental language in relation to people with addictions. (Addictions, as we know, aren’t limited to things you can ingest. It’s possible to be addicted to shopping or gambling – or to accumulating money.) Addiction is a horrendous problem for lots of reasons, and it should be acknowledged where it exists, but shaming addicts does not improve the odds of their overcoming their addictions – rather the opposite

One final point: if by any chance Thunberg happens to read this post, or any of her friends, I would urge them not to hold back from engaging in more detailed discussion about how to get ourselves out of this mess. She’s completely correct in implying that the older generation should be primarily responsible for ‘building the cathedral’. However, at this point we’re getting an idea of just how much destructive blundering has been done by people who consider themselves experts. Frankly, the more ideas we get from people who recognise the need to get past green growth as a goal, the better. 

In a similar vein, we would very much welcome feedback from young people about various proposals that Feasta members have developed and/or endorsed: Cap and Share, debt-free money, land value tax, basic income, improved metrics for wellbeing, agroecology

Our website statistics indicate that quite a few young people do look at our site, but we seem to hear directly from very few of them right now. Whatever your age (or gender), please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. 

Featured image: House fire. Source:

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

7 Replies to “Greta Thunberg, motives and being strategic”

  1. Yes. I think the priority is to drag attention back from the messenger to the message. As you say Caroline, and as I wrote, Greta Thunberg has said she is opposed to growth and money making out of climate mitigation.. But how much attention in all this hoo ha is being given to that? Virtually none – the latest thing to talk about it Greta Thunberg’s green dress for a photo-shoot with a photographer with Time magazine.

    Let’s face it the media that reports these issues is mostly illiterate on the issues – so are almost bound to assume that the agenda being promoted by part of the elite around Nicholas Stern is the obvious way of responding. That’s my concern. What is this agenda for part of the elite? As you point out it is growth. It is techno-fixes. It is “financialising nature”. It is making sure business interests can make money out of protecting the eco-system (financialising nature). What it is not is degrowth. What it is not is controls to reduce development, to reduce how much carbon can be emitted. How much is that made clear? Where are the discussions about whether this is what the burgeoning movement actually want?

    My experience of XR was that I could not raise these things because there was an action among some that I talked to that “we have had discussions and they achieved nothing – now is the time for action”. That may not be the experience everywhere. Clearly on this website Justin Kenrick has described far more tangible discussions in Scotland. But its not my experience.

    I have listened to fiery militant speeches by some members of XR while other XR members appear to have very different views. What I listen for is content. I often don’t hear it. I get tremendously frustrated. A group like Media Lens say that now is the time to declare an emergency so that “real change” will occur and it is innapropriate to raise criticism that will divide the movement at a time of struggle. They are not criticisms – they are attempts to tie down what “real change” is and who will make it. It is asking what the struggle is for? How is climate mitigation to be achieved? How is it to be done in the context of the other limitations on growth at this time, like oil and gas depletion. If you have a movement that does not share an idea about what “real change” is, nor share a sense of the context in which it is operating, then there are powerful players who will run away with the ball and define it for them.

    What I hear is a lot of people demanding that “something is done” but I mostly listen in vain for what that “something ” is. It does not help that when Greta Thunberg says she is opposed to growth that this is not a major talking point.

  2. Interesting discussion.

    I see both of the following as necessary:

    A) try to make changes within the current capitalist system (e.g.incentivising profit-motivated firms to build renewable energy)

    B) try to change the system away from the current capitalist one (e.g. changing the money system so it doesn’t depend on growth)

    We can potentially introduce (A) fast – in the next few years, with a Green New Deal and Carbon Fee and Dividend.

    I believe that it will be difficult for Western democracies to introduce the radical policies for (B) in the next few years. (I should say I’m trying to make this happen and campaigned for Sovereign Money in the referendum in Switzerland). We need to build political support for them, but this takes time – years.

    So I see no problem with supporting both approaches.

  3. I find it very interesting that Greta Thunberg has attracted so much opprobrium and vitriol. And it’s particularly interesting who – apart from the predictable vested interests in the fossil fuel industry who are now engaged in attempts to discredit Thunberg and the movement she represents – is leading the smearing. I wonder what the collective contribution of the naysayers is towards making the world a better place? Given that the costs of emissions reduction failures are something that can be calculated, and possibly even attributable (for example to the policies of Donald Trump) it might also be argued that positive actions are attributable too. Will the collective contributions towards greenhouse gas emission reductions of all the Thunberg naysayers and associated conspiracy theorists – or even those of the many ngos – including Feasta – supposedly dedicated to emission reduction – exceed the reductions achieved by those influenced by Thunberg over the next twenty years? My money would be on Thunberg every time. And I think it’s deeply insulting, not to mention patronising, for the naysayers to accuse Thunberg of naivety or of selling out to vested interests in the pursuit of media fame. As indicated by her incredible grasp of climate science, she’s certainly smart enough to figure out things for herself. If anything we should be looking out for this inspiring yet exceedingly vulnerable young woman, now thrust into the hostile glare of the world’s media, and doing what we can to share her load.

    The only question for me is will those emission reductions be sufficient? Probably not. But that’s hardly the fault of one single sixteen year old – one person in a global population of 7.5 billion – who happens to have captured the imagination of a whole generation, none of whom caused this mess.

    I joined Feasta a week ago. I joined specifically to make this comment.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Andi, and thanks for joining Feasta! (and just in case anyone reading this is wondering, you don’t actually need to join Feasta in order to make comments on our website – although any financial help is very much appreciated.)

    I find it really grotesque that some people are targeting Thunberg herself. I suspect some of that behaviour derives from frustration and despair, with an element of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face – but of course that doesn’t excuse it.

    As you say, I hope we can share Thunberg’s load. I’m sure you would agree that really we should be relieving her of her load altogether, but much to our regret and shame, it looks as though that won’t be possible.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the Theory of Change document that Feasta is working on (at which sums up some of the systemic reforms Feasta is working on at the moment in order to try and relieve the pressure on the younger generation. I’m sure you’re familiar with a lot of the things mentioned in it. It’s a work in progress – we’ll be updating it from year to year. Comments and suggestions for improvement are very welcome.

  5. Just to clarify – I think there’s a difference between criticising what Thunberg herself is saying and criticising the way that some organisations seem to be making use of her fame in order to try and promote their own poorly-formulated approaches to climate action (and in doing so, obscuring parts of Thunberg’s own message). This was one of the themes of my article.

  6. Would we have even heard of Greta Thunberg if it weren’t for her father paying for her train travel across Europe and accompanying her everywhere?

  7. Very interesting reflections, but I don’t think it’s a good idea a Basic Income as a tool for a Degrowth economy. Not at least if it’s not a land-based non-state-controlled Basic Income, and not in official currency but in social currency. But that’s not usually the case (most Basic Income proposals, if not all, are managed by the State with official money: euro, v.g.). I’ve written some articles and a book chapter on the issue but it’s only available in Galician and in Spanish.

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