From the November-December 2019 issue of News & Letters
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, by Greta Thunberg (Penguin Books, 2019) is a beautiful collection of speeches, and one Facebook post, by the now 16-year-old Swedish trailblazer of climate school strikes. With clarity and bluntness, they express the attitudes of the youth movement. Millions of people were moved by video of Thunberg’s speech at the Sept. 23 UN Climate Action Summit during the week of the third Global Climate Strike. Coming after the book’s publication, that speech is not included here. This collection, touching on all Thunberg’s main themes, is worth reading.
‘EVERYTHING NEEDS TO CHANGE’
She never lets go of the need to recognize the crisis and confront it now—that it means “Everything needs to change. And it has to start today.” Again and again, she declares that we need to “change the system, “with “permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” that we need new politics, new economics, a whole new way of thinking. This flows from a better understanding of the science than most policymakers and business leaders have.
Thunberg bluntly tells economic and political leaders she does not believe they will rise to the challenge—but “change is coming, whether you like it or not.” She criticizes their dedication to economic growth, their selling the youth’s future “so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money….But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.” She attacks the idea that everyone is to blame for the climate crisis.
No wonder she is the target of vicious, dishonest, anti-youth attacks! Thunberg turns it around simply enough, pointing out that the personal attacks reveal an inability to attack the movement and the science. She refuses to apologize for being young—“if everyone listened to the scientists and the facts that I constantly refer to then no one would have to listen to me or any of the other hundreds of thousands of school-children on strike for the climate across the world”—or for having Asperger’s.
Dialectics is here too—not the word but the spirit of Karl Marx’s “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary”:
“We live in a strange world, where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future.
“Where the people who have contributed the least to this crisis are the ones who are going to be affected the most.
“Where politicians say it’s too expensive to save the world, while spending trillions of euros subsidizing fossil fuels.
“We live in a strange world, where no one dares to look beyond our current political systems even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found within the politics of today.”
These speeches are not theoretical texts. They are brilliant rhetoric that captures the passions of the youth movement. Nevertheless, the need for theory emerges because the book illuminates where the movement’s thought needs to be clarified.
THE NEED FOR THEORY EMERGES
Thunberg wisely says the youth do not have all the answers, but that turns into the demand for decision-makers to “unite behind the science.” It is a powerful political demand that undercuts claims that children don’t know enough to tell adults what to do. Science has been under blatant attack by oil companies and their allies and shills. However, asking the rulers to unite behind the science leaves the decisions in their hands and invites them to continue distorting scientific findings and pretending that policy and “the market” are in a separate realm. The insight that all aspects of society have to change needs to be carried through here too.
The call for politicians to “set your differences aside” recognizes conflicts between parties, between nations, and between “the sufferings of the many” and “the luxuries of the few.” Again, the system needs to change fundamentally, because those conflicts cannot just be set aside.
As this book makes clear, total change of the system is what the movement is reaching for, and Thunberg’s passionate, powerful speeches help articulate that.