Greta Thunberg’s new book (review)

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. Greta Thunberg. Penguin, 2018, 2019.

Last October 11, Greta Thunberg made an appearance in Denver. When she announced that she would not fly even to climate conferences, I despaired of ever being able to see her in person. And yet here she was, right in our own city, and we got to see her! I don’t remember exactly what she said. However, much of what she said was doubtless in this short book, which is a collection of her speeches.

It is well worth a look. When you read the whole thing through (at 108 pages, it’s not long), it is even more radical than you probably think of Greta Thunberg as being.

There is one quotation in particular that I recall from her remarks. It is from a talk she gave on May 28: “This is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses, or green economic growth. This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. It is the biggest crisis that humanity has ever faced. This is not something you can like on Facebook.” (p. 70)

Greta Thunberg in Denver

At one point during the rally, a group of people started chanting “Green New Deal! Green New Deal!” I hope that the proponents of a Green New Deal paid careful attention to these words. What Greta is about, above all, is honesty. It’s not that she’s necessarily against a Green New Deal. But it’s clear that she is critical of people advocating a “Green New Deal” as a way to address inequality and create jobs. It would be great if it did that, but that’s not the reason to do it. It’s also clear that she understands the problems of sulfate aerosols. “Nor do these [already ominous-sounding!] scientific calculations include already locked-in warming hidden by toxic air pollution” (p. 58). This is another problem with the Green New Deal: if it is somehow spectacularly successful, it will actually make global warming worse until some centuries pass and the carbon dioxide comes out of the air.

Honesty requires that we describe this as an emergency, but it also requires that we admit that we don’t necessarily have any “solutions”— but need to act anyway. “We have to start treating the crisis like a crisis—and act even if we don’t have all the solutions” (p. 64). In her book, no particular solutions (as we would customarily call them) are being put forward. She doesn’t call for a Green New Deal, action on renewables, or anything else. She just tells it like it is, and allows you to draw your own conclusions. We have about 11 years (actually, a bit over 10 years) until we pass tipping points that will flip the climate into a permanently hotter world that will take millennia to reverse. It is not some cult group of radical ecologists that is saying this, it’s the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Several thousand people showed up to see Greta Thunberg in Denver.

The point is to rally people to action. Since U. S. political leaders don’t even acknowledge that climate change is real, much less an emergency, there’s no point in worrying about a “plan of action” until it is acknowledged as a real emergency. We should simply disrupt everyone and anything that fails to acknowledge this. We need to get to “net zero” emissions, and then into negative emissions. “That rules out most of today’s politics” (p. 61).

If we follow this to its logical conclusion, and look at what it would actually take to deal with the climate crisis, it’s pretty radical. It means massive changes which involve a lower standard of living for the richest countries. It also means a pretty hard insistence on veganism, because that will start drawing CO2 out of the air, via reforestation on all the abandoned grazing land and cropland devoted to livestock. (Greta herself is a vegan.) Reducing or eliminating livestock will also bring down methane emissions (from cattle) which is the “low-hanging fruit” of climate change action and hold us back from dangerous tipping points.

None of this is even hinted at by even the most radical of our political leaders. Does Bernie Sanders say this? Do the Democratic Socialists, the Trotskyists, or even any prominent vegans say this? I doubt it. (The vegans talk about methane from cows, but I haven’t heard any talking about a lower standard of living.) Because of this, I endorse Greta Thunberg’s negative, obstructionist approach. It’s the most practical alternative right now.

At one point she underlines her statements about the urgency of climate action by asking rhetorically, “Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?” And then later, repeating some of the IPCC projections: “Did you hear what I just said? Is my English okay? Is my microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.” And she concludes some time later, after saying that she is trying to wake people up, with: “I hope my microphone is on. I hope you could all hear me.”

Greta Thunberg says, loudly, what I’ve felt (and sometimes put into words) for years: if the planet is to survive, we have to make colossal changes to our society and our way of life. She doesn’t spell out that “we’re staring the collapse of industrial civilization right in the face” but what she does say is direct enough, and if you are familiar with the literature on climate change, it doesn’t take a lot of extrapolation to see where her logic is going.

5 Replies to “Greta Thunberg’s new book (review)”

  1. I will not advocate a lower standard of living unless we are going to provide free medical care, childcare, dental care, etc, and a universal basic income. Otherwise, a lower standard of living for those with a low standard of living would be no standard of living – while the super rich will still be in their five story houses.

    1. We need to address basic social justice issues as part of addressing the environment. Otherwise, it’s exactly as you say: there’s very little place for the poor to go, consumption wise, and even if an “eco-fascist” dictatorship somehow imposed this on people, it wouldn’t save that much. Since the rich do most of the consuming, cutting back on consumption should mean mostly that the rich will be cutting back on consumption.

  2. The world we live in was structured earlier (obviously) — at a different time, with priorities that did not look far down the road. Consider just the countries of the Middle East, created by the British after the FIrst World War (100 years ago, now). How is that working oiut?

    In the U.S., we have a mega-crisis in front of us. Pensions were promised to all kinds of people (public employees, private company workers) that are clearly no longer practical — and, in fact, will NOT be paid. Pension managers need to get annual returns (increased in the lump of money sitting there for people who were promised pensions) of on the order of 5% to 7% annually. This is only doable if the Central Banks of the world continue to pump air (money) into the balloon. I don’t know how much experience you’ve had with balloons…..but sooner or later, if continually inflated, they pop.

    To get back to the subject of the post above: In the U.S., the populace (and the old structured Electoral College system) already delivered radical change. We got a President who is, clearly, not ready, willing, or able to do the job. He may yet be re-elected. And there may yet be worse following him to the job. Already, in a much-ignored development, Trump has appointed 25% of the federal judges now in power (courts other than the Supreme Court). These conservative judges — many of them relatively young — will be deciding court cases on things like climate decades into the future.

    But put all of that aside, too.

    Here’s the chief thing the humans on Earth have done: We’ve gone from 2.5 billion people to three times that (and more) in 70 years. Many of these humans insist on eating once a day, twice a day, some three times a day. And, in the US, maybe four or five. The need to feed people has caused great energy use (“The Green Revoluiton” in agricuture was about machines and diesel fuel, wasn’t it?).

    I don’t hear ANY discussion of population control. Does Greta talk about it? Does Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, in the “green new deal”? Does Jane Fonda? Does the UN or the IPCC?

    …much less do you hear practical plans to get down from 7.6 billion to 2.5 billion. This would take a heck of a lot of killing, doncha think?

    As a result of engaging (for just a moment) in what I would call practical thinking, much of what Greta says — and what’s in the post above — reminds me of my evening resolution:

    ” Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and be MUCH taller!!!”

    1. Here’s where I talk about population. “We need to be talking about how to equitably and nonviolently reduce population, say to something from 1/2 billion to 3 billion vegans.”

      About half the world already has sub-replacement levels of fertility. The conservative authors of Empty Planet (Bricker and Ibbitson) believe that population decline is already inevitable. If we don’t fight this tendency, we might not have to do very much in terms of policy at all. A world-wide one-child one-child policy could reduce population to 1.6 billion within a century.

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