I almost feel guilty saying this, but as yet, I have no strong view on climate change. I more or less defer to expert opinion on the subject, which as I understand it holds that the planet is on fire, that it’s our fault, and in consequence that we should shop less and recycle more. At least half of that message is music to my ears: I find shopping a bore, and often think the planet deserves to be burned down. The other half I find unobjectionable: it wouldn’t surprise me if the planet’s demise were our fault (given my estimation of the people who inhabit it), and at this point, I’ve been married often enough to have internalized recycling. So I’m down with the whole climate change agenda.
I’m less down with Greta Thunberg, whom I find problematic. Or rather, not with Greta the person, but Greta the media phenomenon. Unlike many of Greta’s critics (and yes, I’m going to call her that), I don’t dislike Greta the person. I like her. Not only do I like her, but I like the very things about her that her critics so intensely dislike. She’s a hectoring, fanatical, self-righteous prig. A kindred spirit, in short.
The problem, though, is the dilemma she presents for the ethics of discourse. Bear with me, because as with all dilemmas, you’re about to encounter a bunch of either-or’s.
Either you basically agree with her or you don’t.
If you agree with her, the essential features of her message are mostly wasted on you: what’s distinctive to Greta is not the content of her message, but the fact that it’s being delivered via the earnest hectoring of a child-fanatic. The question that arises is: why would someone who agreed with the message decide on this particular medium for it? The closest approximations I can think of are Malala Yousafzai and the Parkland kids on gun control. But Malala presents a very different case: a mild-mannered victim delivering an uncontroversial message. And the Parkland kids present essentially the same sort of case as Greta: child-fanatics leading a political cause, partly at the behest of the adult fanatics behind the cause. So reflection on these cases doesn’t take us very far.
Which leads me to the reactionary souls who disagree with Greta, assuming such souls can be imagined at all. Suppose you disagree with her. What are you supposed to do about it? What is the “right” way to react to her?
Well, you could treat her as a child or treat her as an adult. If you treat her as a child, you’ll be accused of condescension. You’ll also be unable to give her arguments the adult scrutiny they deserve. But if you treat her as an adult, and you really disagree with her message (as some evidently do), you’ll have to treat her the way you might treat, say, Al Gore, Paul Krugman, or Bill Nye the Science Guy. This means taking apart her arguments, brushing back her hectoring, attacking the bona fides of the litigation she’s initiated, and defeating the litigation itself. In that case, you’ll be accused of some sort of abuse–of failing to treat her as the “child” she is. An educator would be making a cardinal mistake in treating her high school or college classroom as the functional equivalent of a seminar with adult equals, and so it is here. (It’s disputable whether Greta Thunberg is really a child–she’s 17—but I’ve repeatedly seen her defenders describe her this way.)
Maybe there is some way of finding a route between the horns of this dilemma, but even if there is, discovering it is at least as much of a pain in the ass as learning the elements of climate science, etc. So one wonders why we’re in this position. It seems hard enough to master climate science, economics, and all the rest. Why add “how to argue with Greta” as yet another one of the required credentials? Assuming credentials are required.
Which brings me back to the adults who agree with Greta, and have decided to turn her into a media star. They’re the ones who have put all of us in this situation, and in so doing, have done their cause (which is to say, our cause, the cause of this, our planet) no favors. And let’s not kid ourselves, so to speak. Without adults calling the shots, Greta’d just be another 17-year-old Swedish kid skipping school for a cause. If I did that, I can be sure that few of you, even the most loyal readers of this blog, would give the slightest damn. I say this more in grief than in anger, but facts are facts.
It really was not a smart idea to have made Greta Thunberg the face of climate justice. In doing that, her supporters have in effect turned climate justice against the ethics of discourse, and put both Greta and her critics in a grotesque, insupportable position. She hectors. They attack. They get dressed down for attacking a child. She does some more hectoring. She gets another top-tier invitation somewhere. The critics get angrier and meaner. And so on.
Great result. Now, instead of focusing on the planet, the focus is on Greta and the mean people attacking her. How the hell did we end up here? The sad answer is that Greta’s PR people wanted to put us here because they knew exactly what effect it would have. They’re impatient enough with climate denial to want to sacrifice Greta and the ethics of discourse to the cause. But imagine dealing with Holocaust deniers this way. Imagine that the most conspicuous opposition to David Irving was a 17-year-old giving us the Greta Thunberg treatment over the historiography of the Third Reich. Now imagine that debates about what happened at Auschwitz became debates about how to respond to this 17-year-old. Would that really make sense?
Moral blackmail is not a great idea, even for a worthy cause. But at this point, there’s nothing that can be done about the Greta phenomenon but ignore it. Of course, to induce people to ignore it, you have to mention it–which is the opposite of ignoring it. Which is another way of saying that once you enter a labyrinth, it’s hard to get out. “This is all wrong,” Greta told us at the UN. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.” You said it, Greta. I totally sympathize. The problem is getting these asshole adults to listen.