By Guy Crittenden
Can we please have an adult conversation about the Greta Thunberg phenomenon? By which I mean the campaign centred on the young Swedish climate change activist who's become a media star? May I offer a critical perspective without being accused of kicking Bambi?
I hope so.
My interest here is the phenomenon, and not the young girl. I don't have an issue with her exactly, and I find snarky comments about her personality and Aspergers etc. inappropriate, and distracting. I also don't wish to debate the science of climate change in this space, though I will mention below that I believe we must take action, as an insurance policy (in case the dire predictions are right). Policies can be designed and implemented that satisfy the demands of believers and skeptics alike.
What’s infuriating about manipulations by the Non Profit Industrial Complex is that they harvest the goodwill of the people, especially young people. They target those who were not given the skills and knowledge to truly think for themselves by institutions which are designed to serve the ruling class. Capitalism operates systematically and structurally like a cage to raise domesticated animals. Those organizations and their projects which operate under false slogans of humanity in order to prop up the hierarchy of money and violence are fast becoming some of the most crucial elements of the invisible cage of corporatism, colonialism and militarism.”
— Hiroyuki Hamada, artist
We need to have this difficult conversation because there's a possible dark side to the "phenomenon" and the agenda of people and organizations behind the scenes who've carefully constructed what's unfolded. This is a crucial moment in history, and if the climate scientists are right, we don't have time for major missteps. We need to get this right, and in a way that works for everybody. The surveillance state has expanded in the industrialized world and no end of dirty imperial wars are underway about which we've been lied to by the corporate and state media. This is not a time when we can accept any mass media phenomenon at face value even (and especially) when it pulls at our heart strings. The potential for a hijacking of the environmental movement is real (and has happened before), along with savvy propaganda to sell undemocratic schemes that benefit corporate and other oligarchies at the expense of an unsuspecting public.
I won't recount the details about Greta Thunberg; the story of the young Swedish girl protesting outside her country's parliament for a whole year is widely known, as well as her speeches in prominent places like the United Nations. She inspired thousands, then millions, of people to hit the streets and demand that the governments of the industrialized world take radical and immediate action to combat global warming and comply with the Paris Accord. (The feature photo for this article was taken by me at a Climate Strike march in Toronto in which I participated on September 27, 2019.)
On the surface, this is an exciting development, and one that I initially embraced rather unquestioningly.
However, upon deeper investigation, there's a side to this phenomenon that sincere environmentalists need to look into. We need to go beyond our own confirmation bias and consider that any time a young child manages to capture the limelight and win the attention of world leaders, and speak at the UN, fist-bump with Obama and so on, powerful forces may be at work whose agenda may not align with what progressives might assume. My own initial enthusiasm for Thunberg "the phenomenon" was first called into doubt when a number of independent journalists, whose work I've followed closely in regard to other stories (such as the war on Syria) posted warnings on social media.
Their concerns were amplified when I was directed to a six-part article series from Canadian investigative journalist Cory Morningstar, entitled "The Manufacturing of Great Thunberg — for Consent: The Political Economy of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex," which you can access on her blog, The Art of Annihilation. This is a serious article series, and it's a bit of an ask to read. (While it's long and detailed, the writing style is lively and the layout is broken up with interesting photos and links.)
I encourage people to read Morningstar's article series with an open mind, especially if you've been drawn in by the emotional content of the campaign centred on a young girl. This is an opportunity not only to think about and debate the issues of climate change with your friends and colleagues (the science, the best solutions, etc.); it's a chance to watch a form of possible corporate greenwashing and statecraft unfold in real time.
This video clip features young Severn Cullis-Suzuki speaking at the Rio Summit in 1992. The use of children in presenting crafted messages is not necessarily a sign of a nefarious propaganda campaign, but we should be cautious. Our emotional response to children bypasses the critical thinking portion of the brain, and in savvy propaganda may short-circuit criticism of certain policies, since criticizing the policies or the organizations behind them may be taken as mean-spiritedness toward a child.
My own position on climate science aligns with the one expressed by columnist Andrew Coyne in an excellent article (about which I'll write more another time) when he wrote for Canada's National Post and Globe & Mail newspapers in the 1990s. Coyne argued persuasively that no matter where one stands on the science around man-made global warming, an investment of only something like two per cent of global GDP would be enough to comply with the UN IPCC requirements and avert a rise in temperatures beyond the level deemed threatening to civilization and ecosystems. The compliance actions would mostly be made up of things we should do anyway, like switching to renewable energy, because the oil and gas is going to run out eventually (and long before that, pricing signals from "peak oil" will make it uneconomical). We'd reduce airborne pollution and other harm along the way. In short, this reasonable expenditure would act like an insurance policy against the most dire scenarios.
I always found that argument difficult to refute, and have expressed it often myself to cut through the usual polarized arguments between those who feel strongly the climate is about to heat up and those who think it's a bunch of hooey.
Did we think the oligarchs who control globalized capital would simply roll over for environmentalists, give up their power, and hand them the keys to some sort of truly green economy (and create a just, post-colonial society)?
Thinking about Cory Morningstar's article series, are we so naive as to think the oligarchs who control globalized capital roll over for environmentalists, give up their power, and hand them the keys to some sort of truly green economy (and create a just, post-colonial society)? Of course not! Especially when globalized monopoly capitalism has entered (yet again) the predatory phase of its own unraveling (which Marx and Engels predicted 150 years ago), ergo the past four decades of neoconservative and neoliberal policies that have eroded civil society, expanded the surveillance state (to a degree Stalin could only have dreamed of) and perpetuated needless natural resource and hegemonic wars on every continent. These days, whistleblowers and other truth tellers are imprisoned while the purveyors of corruption walk free (and are even rewarded).
I edited two environmental business journals over the course of 25 years. This doesn't mean I'm omniscient, but over those years I covered many stories in which I saw a pattern of corporations hiring the brightest strategists out of university and paying them handsomely to develop subtle statecraft, using game theory and various advanced techniques, that most benefits companies and their shareholders. (Think of, say, the Rand Corporation and its work on nuclear war strategy in the 1960s about which Daniel Ellsberg blew the whistle in the famous Pentagon Papers.) I wrote a widely read article in the 1990s, for instance, entitled "The Blue Box Conspiracy" that you can still find archived on the Urban Renaissance Institute website that revealed the cynical corporate interests behind curbside recycling. Our society spent the past 40 years emphasizing the wrong priorities, investing billions in "recycling more" instead of figuring out what a sustainable society would look like. It was, in a sense, the "right answer to the wrong question." Fast forward to today, and it's emerged that municipal recycling programs saved industry billions while allowing producers to switch from sustainable glass bottle refilling systems that were good for communities and employment, and shift to throwaway cans and plastic containers that have polluted our land and oceans. It's a perfect example of the public being manipulated to genuflect to the solutions propagandized to them, while ignoring other perspectives and options that are marginalized, with the people articulating them deplatformed.
My spidey sense tells me a similar manipulation by corporate and neoliberal interests is underway with the "manufacturing of Greta Thunberg." We must ask ourselves: Do we want society to address the deep structural issues of capitalism, the surveillance state and perpetual war (which are all connected to this directly)? Or do we want feel good public relations exercises? Do we want to implement small, localized conservation efforts such as distributed energy generation and "nega-watts"? Or will we accept megaprojects such as huge liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals and ports, built by the billionaire class with no democratic input? And a plethora of dubious ideas from various Astroturf organizations? If carbon dioxide is the problem, are additional nuclear plants the solution? Importantly, who will decide?
Serious people should be able to investigate and discuss these matters — and it's crucial that they do so — without being flamed as anti-child or anti-Greta or anti-science, etc. Some folks suggest we should let this all pass for now, harness the energy Thunberg has mobilized, and look for more serious leadership in future. I agree with the "harness the energy" bit, but believe it's crucial we fully investigate media sensations on the climate matter from the very beginning, along with proposed policies and technocratic solutions.
So, read Cory Morningstar's article series and make up your own mind. If you disagree with her take (or mine) that's fine; I simply wish to offer readers a perspective they're not likely to find in mainstream media. If the climate scientists are right, we don't have time to get this wrong. We don't have time for a "wrong kind of green."
Journalist and author. Principal at Crittenden Communication. Winner of an unmatched 14 Kenneth R. Wilson Awards for excellence in business journalism. Two-time finalist at Canada's National Magazine Awards. His book The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls (Apocryphile Press, San Francisco) won the Silver Medal at the 2018 Independent Book Publisher Awards. Visit his websites HipGnosis.co and also CrittendenCommunication.com