‘Gee our schools are good!’ a friend once said. ‘By the time our kids are 12, they know everything!’
No prizes for guessing what sparked this reminiscence; we have just seen most of the Western world patronise a 16-year-old climate zealot who hasn’t yet learnt enough to know that she doesn’t know everything.
Watching the reverence accorded Sweden’s climate prophetess Greta Thunberg has been surreal; it is as if she were some kind of holy fool, channelling the divine by virtue of her youth and single-mindedness, and so setting us all to rights. It has reminded me of the old tale of the Emperor Who Has No Clothes – the Emperor being Greta, paraded in all her apocalyptic finery, the corrupt courtiers those seeking to profit from Greta’s message of climate doom, and we are all the truthful Child, looking on in astonished disbelief.
Adults are, by and large, polite and protective towards the young, so they don’t state the obvious; young people often have dumb opinions. This is not their fault, nor is it any defect of intelligence; all age demographics, of course, are likely to have a similar spread of intellect. It is simply that the experience of life wises us up, and we would likely all agree that we are smarter now, and know more, than when we were 16-year-olds.
Simply by hanging around the place longer, we have a different view of events. We stand on a higher mountain top, and look down at the peaks below, and can remember when we thought those things too. We have seen orthodoxies come and go, we have seen things we thought were of huge importance, turn out to be unimportant – and vice versa. We have seen heroes turn out to be villains, and slow and steady win the race over fast and flashy. They say the past is another country; if you have ever reread old letters or diary entries from decades ago, you will find that the past ‘you’ is also another person, and almost a stranger.
At Greta’s age I was convinced that the Great Barrier Reef was being devoured by the crown-of-thorns starfish, and I was heartbroken that kangaroos were being culled into extinction, neither of which happened, of course. I was believing what I read; I hadn’t yet learnt the limits of ‘information’.
Many other things didn’t happen – Y2K, bird flu, the Ice Age of the 1980s, the Paul Ehrlich mass starvation scenario – and science itself has been proven wrong over and over again. Remember when we had to stop eating fat, (all those eggs and bacon mornings foregone!) and eat more complex carbs? Futile, and wrong. The government brought in the Food Pyramid, with complex carbs at the base, and obesity skyrocketed, without a commensurate fall in heart disease.
Silicon Valley whiz kid Peter Thiel says he distrusts any ‘science’ with an adjective in front of it. That would include climate science, social science, political science and any number of fields where the authority of the (hard) sciences is used to gild far vaguer and less precise fields of inquiry.
Older people are more aware of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ and all the permutations; to paraphrase songwriter Paul Kelly, we’ve done all the dumb things, and we know for sure that the Gretas and other 16-year-olds have their ‘dumb things’ moments ahead of them.
Of all the world’s politicians, I thought Russian leader Putin responded most appropriately to Greta Thunberg. He noted dryly that he wasn’t as excited about her as others were, that countries not as rich as Sweden may not enjoy hearing they had no right to a carbon-intensive, rich First World lifestyle – and then he moved on, not favouring her with any further attention. It was the verbal equivalent of a dismissive flick of the hand, and to be honest, that’s as much as, and probably more than, her opinions are worth. Unlike Greta, the smartest young people are aware that they may not yet know everything. It is as Yeats said: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’
The fault really lies in a corrupt establishment that used an innocent child as a standard-bearer for their cause, knowing that her age would shield her from criticism – and also debate. The world has always had and will always have Gretas – indeed, the passion of the young has often propelled change and can be a good thing – but they are not always afforded such significance.
What does it say of our society that a thinly informed, overwrought teenager with Asperger’s has become the global standard-bearer for climate dogma?
Greta is not about compromise, living and let live, the art of the possible in a difficult and unpredictable world. She is not about debate, or divergent views. Greta is a true believer, exhorting the rest of us to abandon any qualms and follow in lockstep down the one righteous path. She is a signal that it is time for action, and too late for talking; she is the global justification for the Extinction Rebellion protesters, who must disrupt our lives to save us.
If it were the drought-stricken farmers of New South Wales and Queensland who were gluing their backsides to our city streets, more sympathy would be in order. Instead, it is the usual motley crew of green-left types for whom a climate emergency is a shortage of kombucha at their local café. Paying attention to Greta fuels the self-righteousness of the Extinction Rebellion protesters and fellow travellers, and our society is already inflamed enough.
Three young people aged in their 20s and 30s have independently raised with me the subject of overly-political workplaces in the last ten days. A gym worker got into an argument with two colleagues about eating meat, and those exhorting her to be either vegan or vegetarian wouldn’t let it drop; another had a work superior refuse to take part in social drinks because the group wasn’t passionate enough about climate action. And the third was exercised by a big firm’s internal chat group which had charged the company bosses with failing to lead the fight against fossil fuels.
We are in an extraordinarily blessed era when we have so few genuine problems that these issues take centre stage – remember the days of pestilence, famine, war, conquest? Now we froth about a fantasy ‘emergency’, and what we put on our plates.
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