on and on and on and on: in appreciation of Greta Thunberg

Last year, Rhys and I were invited to write a chapter for a book project exploring practices inspired by the idea of a Pedagogy of Vulnerability. Our chapter explored some of our own experiments with opening up critical conversations around climate change in our teaching and research. Most of these, we felt, had been less successful than we’d hoped – they hadn’t provoked the serious engagement that we think is needed or made much discernible difference, even within our own setting. As I write, we’re just putting the very final touches on that chapter. As I write, our valley is perilously close to flooding, yet again. And meanwhile, over a million young people around the world have taken part in school strikes to demand urgent action on climate change. Greta Thunberg has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A year ago, we hadn’t heard of Greta Thunberg. According to her own account, she was the quiet girl at the back of the class, deeply concerned about the climate crisis and puzzled at the lack of engagement and urgency from much of the rest of the world.

What Greta observed in most of us has, I think, been aptly expressed by Naomi Klein – the everyday ‘on-again-off-again’ dynamics of our engagement with and denial of this crisis:

We look for a split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it onto a joke (‘more signs of the Apocalypse!’). Which is another way of looking away.

Or we look but tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle… Which … is yet another way of looking away.

Or we look but try to be hyper-rational about it (‘dollar for dollar it’s more efficient to focus on economic development than climate change, since wealth is the best protection from weather extremes’) – as if having a few more dollars will make much difference when your city is underwater. Which is a way of looking away if you happen to be a policy wonk.

Or we look but tell ourselves we are too busy to care about something so distant and abstract – even though we saw the water in the subways in New York City, and the people on their rooftops in New Orleans, and know that no one is safe, the most vulnerable least of all. And though perfectly understandable, this too is a way of looking away.

Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving – but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that’s too much ‘bad energy’ and it will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, because many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.

Or maybe we do look – really look – but then, inevitably, we seem to forget. Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right.

We have experienced and practiced the ‘on-again-off-again’ engagement/denial dynamic that Klein describes ourselves, repeatedly. We recognise the presence of this dynamic both in our personal lives and in our work as researchers and teachers. We also recognise it in our colleagues and students. We have taught classes, organised workshops and given and attended lectures and conference presentations that have challenged participants to look; we have then joined others in the comforts of small-talk or shifted attention to other topics.

The difference between Greta and us, I think, is that for her, it’s not ‘on-again-off-again’, but ‘on-and-on-and-on-and-on’. The strategies that most of us use to look away don’t work for her. And interestingly, in not taking part in these on-again-off-again dynamics, and in speaking only when it matters, she seems to have found ways of speaking that resonate with more of us, that some of us may have been longing for without realising. Ways of speaking with sincerity, honesty and urgency. Ways of speaking that don’t shy away from difficult knowledge and that don’t pander to political sensibilities or etiquette. Ways of speaking that are backed up by personal integrity, by a real sense that she believes and is prepared to act on her own conclusions. Ways of speaking that take away easy hiding-places. For Greta, ‘now is not the time for speaking politely, or focusing on things we can and cannot say. Now is the time for speaking clearly’.

And Greta does speak clearly. She is not afraid to tell senior politicians or businesspeople that they are behaving like ‘spoiled, irresponsible children’, that ‘they will be remembered as the greatest villains of all time’, that the systems they sustain have failed, that they are failing. For Greta, these issues are black and white – we either succeed, or we fail. Many of us, particularly in academia, have learned to resist either-or logic, to explore complexity instead, to speak in nuanced ways. And yet, as Kei Miller reminds us in a different context, ‘not all truths are equal, and it is a sad thing when nuance is co-opted so that some of us might get away with only facing the less important ones.’ Nuance can be another way of looking away.

In writing our book chapter, we were inspired by Kevin Anderson’s challenge to ‘[i]magine a space where climate academics and others could be truly honest about their analysis and judgements and where disagreements were discussed openly and constructively’. We felt then that such a space – one in which ‘we reject rhetoric, dishonesty and fear and embrace the challenges and opportunities posed by clear thinking, integrity and courage’ – still felt a considerable way off. And in many ways, it still does, including in our teaching in Peace Studies. As Lise Van Susteren puts it, ‘in our society, our culture, there’s not much room to talk about this, and when you bring up climate at a dinner party, or climate change, or what’s going to happen, it lands with a thud’.

And yet, such spaces have started to open up in the last few months. We have got a better sense now of what they sound and look like. It is interesting that it has taken a teenager with Asperger’s and selective mutism to start shifting things in ways we didn’t foresee this time last year. There is something hopeful about this, not least because it helps some of us to feel less isolated and more connected with others who share a real sense of urgency. As Greta herself would say, though, ending on a hopeful note, with a feel-good vibe, would be dishonest.That too, is another way of looking away.

Can we, instead, take up her challenge to keep looking, to stay switched on and to start acting?

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