Greta Thunberg is a hero to many. She stands for youth-led activism and dark-green anarchist environmentalism. Western popular media idolises everything from her fearless courage, zero-carbon yacht and her glaring countenance at the UN Climate Summit to her haters-gonna-hate attitude towards trolls.
Thunberg led six million people from 150 countries through climate strikes during the Global Week for Future (September 20-27). She is any brand campaign’s dream, rallying a deep emotional response bolstered by an unassailable righteousness.
At the same time, examining her words and actions through this lens also affords a critical view of what she stands for, who she represents and, more importantly, who she doesn’t.
The most hostile reaction to Thunberg has come from the American right, whose juvenile critique compares her to a Nazi propaganda girl, challenges her mental fitness and accuses her parents of exploitation. But the right-wing’s hypocrisy rings hollow in the face of its own alignment with neo-Nazi organisations – a classic diversionary tactic.
Cory Morningstar, an environmental activist and independent investigative journalist recently offered a more measured and comprehensive critique as an essay in six acts (and in which Thunberg is only the first). Morningstar follows how Thunberg was propped up by a startup in the carbon offset and social media market called ‘We Don’t Have Time’, how it funded her campaign and managed her branding, including her first appearance as the lonely protesting schoolgirl.
“What is going on,” Morningstar writes, “is the launch of a global campaign to usher in a required consensus for the Paris Agreement, the Green New Deal and all climate-related policies and legislation written by the power elite — for the power elite. This is necessary in order to unlock the trillions of dollars in funding by way of massive public demand.”
It is a complex series of events that passes many litmus tests to check for propaganda: create an external enemy, create a sense of urgency (to prevent people from thinking), work on people’s base emotions.
In a predictable response to this behavioural experiment, liberals are always looking over their shoulders before offering an apologetic critique: “I love Thunberg but…”, “Thunberg is great but…”, “For a 15-year-old, …”.
I love Greta but "eternal economic growth" isn't a fairy tale.
"Sustainability" which finds a perfect "balance/harmony" between our home planet and our activity which flat lines knowledge creation is the fairy tale which simply waits for a meteor impact. (1/8)
— jay (@jay_shapiro) September 23, 2019
Also I love Greta but @LittleMissFlint is constantly reminding us that Flint MI doesn’t have drinking water and we need to make sure to think globally and act locally.
— Wʏɴᴛᴇʀ Mɪᴛᴄʜᴇʟʟ (Rᴏʜʀʙᴀᴜɢʜ) (@wyntermitchell) September 23, 2019
Greta is great, but #DidYouKnow that a whole pan-Caribbean all-star team of young climate activists are in New York right now, advocating for climate justice on behalf of the Caribbean? https://t.co/7w8eims4RJ
— #1point5toStayAlive (@1point5OK) September 25, 2019
It shouldn’t matter whether we love or hate Thunberg. Instead, let’s explore what she represents and why she was manufactured.
The dog whistle
In her new book On Fire (2019), social activist Naomi Klein links the rise of ecofascism and white-terror attacks thus:
My fear is that, unless something significant changes in how our societies rise to the ecological crisis, we are going to see this kind of white power eco-fascism emerge with much greater frequency, as a ferocious rationalization for refusing to live up to our collective climate responsibilities.
Many environmentalists may not identify themselves as eco-fascists but the argument for purity and “collective responsibility” rapidly avalanches into a racist one. An overemphasis on the role of developing countries – mostly India and China – is a manifestation of the same principle. Eco-fascism is a neo-Malthusian argument: that overpopulation is killing us, extended to equate environmental purity with racial purity and concluding that the ecosystem needs to be rid of the problem, identified as immigrants.
And Thunberg’s comparison to the Nordic model girl of Nazi propaganda is a dog-whistle for eco-fascists everywhere. The dominant forces that shape public policy and mainstream media narratives seldom allow the social economy of heroism, particularly environmental activism, to extend to underprivileged groups. India’s national hegemony replicates this power dynamic through the country’s diverse stratifications. Internationally, the manifestations are both more grand and more obscure. Three cases help illustrate how racial hierarchies, for example, manifest in the hero economy:
First: 15 other young people joined Greta Thunberg, but only Thunberg was the global champion; everyone else supposedly represented a national interest.
Second: in 2018, people celebrated another Swedish student activist for keeping an Afghan asylum-seeker from being deported. She stood up inside the flight and refused to sit down – a pre-requisite for a flight to take off – until the Afghan man was removed from the plan. This was a commendable stance but such courage is expensive, sometimes just impossible, for the less privileged.
Third: Meles Zenawi, who represented the African Union’s interests during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, asserted how the continental bloc would “not accept any global deal that does not limit global warming to the minimum unavoidable level, no matter what levels of compensation and assistance are promised to us…”.
Zenawi reportedly went on to switch sides, to the EU position, calling on poorer nations to compromise to the dismay of his contemporaries. Only a year later, WikiLeaks revealed how he’d been coerced into signing the accord without the chance to articulate the African Union’s position.
It is important to compare the treatment meted to Zenawi with the platform to project bravery the world has granted to Thunberg. The liberal premise that all ideas get their fair share of airtime and are evaluated on their worth is empty.
“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!” Thunberg thundered at the UN last week. Shouldn’t Zenawi have been allowed to make this public statement as well? Or even Helen Gualinga, the young ambassador from the Ecuadorian Amazon? This selective denial of agency is a theme, not the exception.
Greta Thunberg represents a much-needed hero whose politics is righteously innocent, at least enough to rally liberals and whose symbolism is obvious enough to not exclude the eco-fascists either.
In fact, the glorification of youth and youngsters’ spirit of “idealism and self-sacrifice” is a classic marker of fascist movements, which views them as a reliable and radical militia. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister in Nazi Germany, noted, “The old ones don’t even want to understand that we young people even exist. They defend their power to the last. But one day they will be defeated after all. Youth finally must be victorious.”
The emphasis on youth is designed to prevent the formation of coalitions anchored in knowledge of historical, multi-generational struggle. It implicitly diminishes the participation of veteran activists, creating a blank slate for innovation and its heroes.
Like modern-day janissaries, we have a young population that firmly believes it belongs to a movement, but the movement is only interested in grooming them to be ideological mercenaries. It might be worth swallowing the lack of representation and ageism if the issue was worth it.
At the UN summit, Thunberg scolded world leaders that “change is coming, whether you like it or not.” But in a world of exponentially growing inequality, where political coercion by a few wills the fate of billions, the Iraq war followed the largest global anti-war protest in history, and more than 50 million tribals were displaced through neoliberal policies despite continuous agitation, the anarchist mantra is naïve. What is the real agenda?
According to Morningstar, instruments like the Paris Agreement and the Green New Deal “include carbon capture and storage, enhanced oil recovery, bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, rapid total decarbonisation, payments for ecosystem services, nuclear energy and fission, and a host of other ‘solutions’ that are hostile to an already devastated planet…”. To make matters worse, “the same Western white male saviours and the capitalist economic system they have implemented globally” will call the shots on them.
Carbon-capture and storage (CCS) and bio-energy with CCS are both technologies to capture carbon-dioxide emissions to prevent the gas from entering the atmosphere. The fossil fuel industry strongly promotes this, arguing that current “negative emissions” may be mitigated in the future, thereby delaying the need for proactive measures. Bio-energy with CCS is currently technologically and economically unviable and could worsen eco-toxicity and food insecurity due to its demand for fertiliser-intensive crops. Perhaps more importantly, neither CCS nor any of its derivatives lower emissions in the first place.
Enhanced oil recovery is the process of extracting oil that would otherwise be inaccessible through conventional means. Doing so could pollute water sources by pumping large quantities of toxic chemicals into the water table.
The UN and the EU introduced payments for ecosystem services – a.k.a. ‘natural capital’ – as a way to convert nature into a financial commodity. Capital wealth is largely created through securitisation and the financialisation of the debt – to nature in this case. It is subject to market whims, hedging and crashes/bailouts. Norway recently gave Gabon, in Central Africa, $150 million to maintain 98% of its natural capital for ten years. Nearly 90% of Gabon’s land is forested, allowing the country only about 10% of its total land for autonomous development. In other words, you could profit immensely by shorting the nature stock before setting fire to the Amazon.
Is this science truly impartial or are these elaborate contraptions to blow air over boiling milk? Questions of their validity have been sidelined in favour of distracting arm-wrestling. Many climate innovations are particularly inconsiderate of the perspective of the global south, and their persistent emphasis of the science is a Trojan horse. The vision is grand but not everyone is included.
Neeti Nayak graduated in 2018 from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She writes about the colonisation of technology, urbanisation, informal economies, geospatial research and climate studies.