On Fears of Nuance and Carbon
"You say that you love your children above everything else. And yet you are stealing their future."
"We cant poisin(sic.) mama earth. Save mama."
Yesterday, as four million people worldwide—many of them children—gathered in protest of inaction on climate change, and as Greta Thunberg spoke to a crowd in New York City the same size as the crowd that heard Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, I sat in a friend's house with a group of young children to hear their own thoughts about climate change.
I had no real agenda. I only know that I have some responsibility to ensure that children in my immediate community are aware that their future is probably being destroyed (or at least made terribly unpleasant) and that other children all around the world are standing up to rebel against this injustice. If I did not do this, I would be dishonest, unfeeling, and more culpable than I already am.
This was a very young group of about eight children. The oldest was twelve and the youngest my own six-year-old daughter. Naturally, the discussion was a bit untethered; they became lost in minutia, failed to maintain the big picture, and possibly dwelled too long on their own personal thoughts and doings without relating these to the topic at hand. It was in this way almost indistinguishable from similar discussions among adults. They made some signs, and I think some of us may stand on a street corner next Friday in continuation of the school strike.
Afterward—curious about the turnout of the global event—I took some time to peruse the internet for footage and commentary. Of course the perspective is polarized. How couldn't it be? Those who "unite behind the science," reject out of hand right-wing concerns that climate change policy might transfer massive amounts of power, freedom, and money away from people and into the corporate-government. Those who perceive the climate change science to be a bit sketchy (and perhaps it is) claim all too quickly that children are being manipulated by the left for political gain. As if we adults weren't mostly sheep ourselves? Get real. Neither of these perspectives are very helpful.
We're all being manipulated—children and adults alike. To claim that adults are systematically researching anything to arrive at "objective" conclusions independent of their cultural indoctrination is absurd. I recently attended a community discussion in which participants were asked where they derived their opinions on important matters. Nearly everyone (a diverse group of adults) stated that their opinions were formed by their family, church, and educational experiences, ie—indoctrination. They did not say that they had conducted systematic anthropological studies and corroborated those studies with their own upbringing and cultural perspectives. Because they hadn't. And won't.
So of course the children are being manipulated by political and economic interests that would capitalize upon the global ecological crisis, but this doesn't mean that their prospects for the future aren't bleak, nor that they shouldn't take to the streets to seek redress of that injustice. There's so much grey area between necessary lessons in civic engagement and indoctrination that I'm not clear how there can be much difference. In another grey area, I'll agree that the science around climate change is sketchy. It's a poor science indeed that won't acknowledge the climate as an inherently unpredictable complex system, and any science that won't admit its own limitations isn't science. It's scientism—both rampant and terrifying. But we don't need climate science to observe that our water is being poisoned, our soil is being eroded, species are disappearing, and the Amazon is burning. Our politics has devolved into a red-blue team sport (if it was ever anything else) that has no room for these contradictions.
If there's anything people are more afraid of than carbon, it's nuance.
Writer and recovering environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth observes that,
"If 'sustainability' is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species...and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots...All the horrors our grandparents left behind will return like deathless legends."
It's a shame that our children's concerns about the future have been so shaped by the language of carbon and climate change, because this language limits our perception of our predicament. It creates a narrative—and maybe this is the reason we use this language—that we can continue with every aspect of business as usual if we can do it sans carbon. Very black and white. Enter the Green New Deal. This is not a very nuanced analysis (only possible to maintain by heavily indoctrinated adults with no cross-cultural perspective) and I truly hope the children won't buy it. Fortunately children are distinctly harder to manipulate than adults because they are full of righteous indignation (don't you remember?). Also, they haven't sunk years of their lives into a corrupt and broken system and by this virtue are more willing to let it go. They maintain a very global perspective.
Although we adults have not, I hope that children will develop a tolerance for ambiguity capable of both acknowledging our ecological crisis, and also that the climate science is flawed—and even that science itself is highly complicit in precipitating this crisis. I hope that children can perceive the contradiction in the Left's proposal that further extraction and development could solve a crisis created by that very extraction and development. (I'm sorry, but covering the desert with solar panels and the ridges and coastlines with windmills is more of the same). It is neither black nor white when we acknowledge that children's outrage at the poisoning of their future is both legitimate and highly manipulated. Most of the "action" required on climate change should probably look more like inaction, (stop cutting, stop burning, stop building, STRIKE), and that's not what the scientists are proposing. So this children's strike is exactly what we need, but they haven't escaped their indoctrination enough to develop quite the right language around it. And if they did, the media would probably not like what they had to say, and Greta would still be sitting by herself in front of the Swedish parliament. To what extent must the children say what they do in order to leverage the existing power structures for attention? Who's manipulating who? Nuance, please. Nuance.
My hope for these climate demonstrations is that the children leading this movement will somehow sidestep this polarizing narrative—but only after they've either consciously or unconsciously leveraged that polarization to gain visibility and power. It seems to me that the children will have to bait and switch the left—indicating to powerful economic interests that there is hope for profit on a Green New Deal—but then reject the progressive narrative, guard closely their freedom, and refuse to take their turn at the wheels of the machine. In the end, these climate change demonstrations must cease to be about climate change, because that particular facet of the issue is too controversial to be useful (unless the use you have in mind is "green" development. Green as in money?).
I think this will happen. I think as the leaders of this movement gain experience, they will develop a simpler language in regards to their demands, stripping it of the riders placed upon it by economic interests who promote them in exchange for such hand-offs. I do not think they can do this yet-perhaps because they haven't developed that nuance, but also because they must play to those interests if they wish to be heard. This is not an easy game. There is a richness in this struggle between the young and the old that captures entirely new elements of our cultural dysfunction only hinted at in earlier eras of social upheaval. This will call into question some of the most basic principles of our indoctrination that we'd previously believed to be unmalleable truths: our domination of our children; our supremacy over nature; the objectivity of science; those shadowy lines between oppression and love. Far more, if I am right.
I don't know what we all got out of our small meeting yesterday. It was not a means to an end. In some respect I'm sure I'm indoctrinating children in my community, but every interaction is a form of indoctrination. Some of them appear to be truly inspired by Greta's story. Should I avoid sharing that story with them? Their message—as depicted in the signs they make—is that we need Mother Earth, and that we should not poison her. Is this message somehow subversive? They say they want to speak out and even rebel. Can I, in all honesty, tell them that they shouldn't? I do not believe their future to be secure. My daughter's generation will perfect their spelling by making protest signs. So it goes. My personal discovery and subsequent rejection of my own indoctrination was full of disillusion, depression, and angst. I would spare them that. I can spare them little else.
...A Few Days Later (9.25.19)
As the week progresses, I see a lot of news about Greta and her fiery speech to the UN, but although this event was billed as a strike there is no news of actual striking. It seems that we're supposed to accept that thousands of students playing hookey for a day to attend a protest equals a strike. It doesn't. A strike has duration. A strike is a long game. Where is the radical action that Greta promised? This is a special kind of weird. Are we supposed to believe that we have struck, and the UN now shivers at the children's new found power? I call bullshit. A strike is a strike. A rally is a rally. There is too much irony for me in Greta's lambasting of the UN for empty words. Thousands of children holding signs makes a compelling story for the media, and it is an important beginning, but this is not action. This too is mere words. When is the strike? It has not yet ocurred.