Deciphering Greta’s climate message

There is more to the Swedish teenager-activist’s point of view than mere emotion and passionate commitment She is being looked at as an emotionally charged icon of environmental struggles, but there is more to Greta Thunberg’s point of view than mere emotion and passionate commitment. If we decipher all the issues raised in her brief presentation at the UN General Assembly, we can notice how it expands the familiar contours of the discussion over climate change. Some of the issues she raised were a regular feature in many debates over natural resources, but there were other, new issues as well. One well-recognised issue is the direct connection between economic growth and the state of the environment. Devotees of speedy and high economic growth have been indifferent to the limits that nature imposes on the theoretical scope of growth. Nearly half a century has passed since the idea of ‘limits to growth’ was recognised and proposed as a ground for change in development policies. Apparently, political leaders and the civil servants who serve them do not feel constrained by that idea. The younger ones may not be acquainted with the 1972 report wherein the paradox of economic development was examined. Victims of indifference “All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of economic growth,” Ms. Thunberg told her audience at the UN headquarters in New York. She accused world leaders of ignoring or deliberately looking away from the responsibility they have towards the young today and in the future. Her argument would have pleased Mahatma Gandhi. He too thought that economics concerned solely with wealth undermines ethical responsibilities. It ignores justice as a primary human yearning and, in today’s terminology, a right. This was also the underlying theme of Ms. Thunberg’s presentation to the leaders and representatives of different countries. She presented herself as a victim of their indifference to climate change. “You have stolen my childhood with your empty words,” she said. As an activist-teenager, she had reasons to feel that way. Her campaign on climate change had cost her more than just school attendance. Being young implies being part of a future. Ms. Thunberg was referring to the collective future of those who are young today and also to future generations. These futures are bleak — not in the context in which economic slowdown affect prospects of prosperity and comfort. Ms. Thunberg’s focus was on climate change, a composite idea that imparts bleakness to everybody’s future. She suggested that higher income or status would not help to avoid the consequences of climate change. That is an important point, and not everyone today is convinced about its correctness. Not only the richer nations, but also the richer people in every nation continue to believe that they can buy relief and escape from the consequences of climate change for their progeny. It is in adult-child relations that Ms. Thunberg struck a new, unfamiliar note. It is hardly surprising that this aspect of her presentation has elicited no commentary. One reason is its novelty; another is the unsettling nature of her point. Human beings are used to deriving hope from their progeny. Children give us a sense of continuity, a symbolic conquest over death. They also give us the prospect of our unfinished tasks being pursued after us. As parents, we not only want to do the best for our children, but we also want their lives to go beyond ours in terms of worldly gains and fulfilment.

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