Update 3/2/2020: I have been thinking for a while about missing part of the point in this entry, and today some news helped me to expand my thinking a little. As reported by the CBC, the news was of another mass-mediated attack on Greta Thunberg, this time in the form of a sexually suggestive and aggressive decal from an "energy services company" in Alberta called X-Site Energy Services, a name now loaded with innuendo in the context of the decal's use of sexual imagery.
Here where I live we are in an official State of Emergency because of the biggest single-day blizzard in recorded history. (Another update: In fact, even though it is now weeks after the storm, we have had another, milder one that closed the university again today, March 2nd—a seemingly necessary condition of this blog!) The city has been remarkably quiet, with no traffic allowed while the snow plowing is under way, and with snow banks of two to three meters, even up to four, dampening sound. The power grid also failed for thousands of residents, in some cases for more than a day.
If you have been out and about, with your senses heightened by the quiet and the dark, you will smell woodsmoke. Traditional wood-burning stoves and wood- or even coal-burning fireplaces are still legal here. They definitely seem to be more in use these days. Many of us probably even feel nostalgic when we experience this combination of these scents and the snow, but this feeling is a problem for at least a couple of reasons.
Partly because of burning fuel in our own homes rather than in power stations, my province of Newfoundland and Labrador has the worst energy efficiency of all the provinces. When most of our energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, as it is here so far, it contributes to climate change and climate crisis.
We made a big effort to reduce our fossil-fuel consumption across the power grid by constructing a large hydroelectricity station at Muskrat Falls, but it is widely regarded as a major failure of politics, management, economics, engineering, and ethics. We are likely to become more dependent on oil than ever—at least according to the president of the offshore oil regulator, our former premier Roger Grimes.
Grimes sees oil and gas as the future, whereas anyone calling them “fossil fuels” is implying the opposite. And he has concluded that, because they are the future, he needs to convince his allies to work to change the minds of the young people who will be in charge in the future. Naming the teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg as a risk, Grimes said recently, “Unless the message has been tempered and developed and moderated and everybody understands there can be balance [between fossil fuels and greener energy], then there's a real fear of losing the battle to it [environmental activism].” As a teacher, I would prefer a less warlike and propagandistic approach to educating younger people. (See my previous post, “The Classroom as Prison Cell with Armed Guards.”) It's not a "battle" but a different kind of challenge.
The problem with the generation gap that Grimes sees here is that it assumes that young people and older people have inseparably different interests that have to be harmonized, when in fact the climate crisis caused largely by fossil fuels is an existential threat to all demographics (not equally but more so for poor people in northern and coastal regions). His statement has other problems, too, such as the assumption that the extractive industries are seeking “moderation” or “balance,” when they are seeking to remain dominant. The fact is that greener energy is a small fraction of energy production and consumption in Canada and industrialized countries in the world. A lack of balance is hardly the fault of green energy producers or environmental activists, especially when the extractive industries get somewhere between $7.7 and $15 billion in subsidies. Since 1990, the rate of burning fossil fuels has increased four times more quickly than the rise in greener energy, so we won’t achieve balance unless fossil fuel usage drops dramatically while greener energy surges.
Thunberg does not seem like a radical to me. She is responding to a near-consensus among scientists around the world whose thousands of studies have been condensed into reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Thunberg said after meeting our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, that her “message to all the politicians around the world is the same: just listen and act on the current, best available united science.” This appeal to climate science is entirely respectable. Her appeal, and that of the great many activists and concerned citizens who support her and her work, is a gesture that demonstrates how young people can learn to evaluate information and make informed decisions about their future and their future adulthood. It is deeply ironic that Thunberg's elders are infantilizing her.
(Update: Most troubling is how the X-Site corporation has also sexualized her, implying a child-pornographic gaze. The story from CBC News in Edmonton describes the X-Site decal as "a black-and-white drawing of a female figure's bare back with hands pulling on her braided pigtails," pigtails being a feature of Thunberg's style. To be more obvious, the decal also seems to include Thunberg's name as if it were a "tramp stamp." I would add that the point of view of the decal is that of the same person who has hands on her braids, implying that someone is having sex with her, possibly violently. Intended or not, one interpretation of the decal is that the company, with its own sexually "exciting" name, is promoting sexual aggression against Thunberg. This interpretation speaks volumes about the limited recourses of an industry that has strong anti-intellectual elements, given its downplaying, deferral, or denial of climate-change science, and that has difficulty imagining its own future relevance.)
Grimes joins the American president Donald Trump and others in patronizing, condescending to, or insulting Thunberg—in Trump's case, as if name-calling is an argument or explanation. (It is not. It's bullying.) At the Davos economic summit, Thunberg presented counter-arguments to Trump that belie the notion that young people will grow up to fix the future, in the future, with imaginary or nascent technologies. One of the major flaws in this reasoning is that it exempts members of the current establishment of responsibility for a crisis that they have perpetuated. Grimes and Trump style themselves as guardians of the good old days before scientists and young people hurt business by noisily reframing the narratives about how we (but not all of us) came to enjoy prosperity.
The nostalgia here is what Svetlana Boym, in her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, calls “restorative nostalgia.” It means that we use the feeling to inspire us to try to recreate or regenerate certain conditions of our happiness, like relying on oil and gas for cheap energy and plastics, even if they are problematic—even if they are threatening for our future. Not to imply that there is no such thing as emotional intelligence, but the feeling overrides our thinking. That’s what Grimes and Trump are doing by hearkening back to the yesteryears of industrial growth and glory.
Although I have a practical solution for one of our local energy efficiency problems that I will try to write about soon in my next entry on this blog, I also have my own message for young people. I won’t tell them not to listen to their elders, but I will say that they should listen to elders who have mainly the future at heart, not the past, unless the past is treated with much more critical reflection.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Greta Thunberg's Young Intellectual Appeal to Climate Science." Publicly Interested, 22 Jan. 2020, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.