“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” These were the spirited words of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in her address last week to the United Nations.
Miss Thunberg’s claim that we are “in the beginning of a mass extinction” may be a tad melodramatic. Nonetheless, the evidence for climate change is now overwhelming, and most scientists would agree that carbon emissions are a significant contributing factor.
Our capitalist economies, as currently structured, produce high levels of carbon emissions and thus contribute to rising temperatures, with traumatic knock-on effects for communities exposed to flash flooding, rising sea levels, air pollution, or longer heatwaves.
On the other hand, there is a real danger that the climate movement may be indoctrinating an entire generation of school children into believing that there is just one major threat to their future and their children’s future, namely, the environmental impact of climate change, and that other threats are minor by comparison.
Climate activists, notwithstanding their good intentions, seem to be emotionally blackmailing us into single-mindedly diverting our emotional energies and economic resources into averting a climactic catastrophe, and sidestepping a string of other pressing problems on our own doorsteps.
And what is wrong with that, a climate activist might retort? Surely it is all to the good, if the sort of fear and desperation transmitted in Miss Thunberg’s speech could prove contageous, and inspire her peers to do all they can to save the planet?
There are two things that are wrong with it. First of all, an intense emotion of fear, driven by a vague sense of impending doom, but not informed by an adequate rational assessment of the nature of the threat and its possible remedies, is not necessarily a recipe for rational and clear-headed thinking, and may actually lead to knee-jerk policymaking that blindly clings to whatever seems like the most visible and emotionally satisfying solution to climate change, independently of its economic or scientific merits.
After all, of the hundreds of thousands of school children who have poured onto the streets in protest at climate change over the past year, how many have the first idea of what the actual scientific consensus is about the scale and timing of the threat posed by climate change, its underlying causes, and the pros and cons of competing solutions?
The second difficulty with inculcating overwhelming fear and panic into young people about climate change is that it risks converting the climate crisis into an event of such dazzlingly apocalyptic proportions that it blinds us to the presence of other major threats confronting humanity, no less deserving of our attention.
The fate of human societies does not just depend on the integrity of our natural eco-system, but also on the integrity of our social ecology. Human society is a complex system of action, reaction, and interaction, that behaves in many respects like a natural ecosystem.
An obsessive focus on climate change risks blinding us to significant dysfunctions within human society itself, with far-reaching implications for our future. Human beings, through their individual and collective behaviour, are already destroying the fabric of their own social ecology, with no need for any climate crisis to assist them.
For example, virtually all Western nations are having children at below-replacement levels, meaning that their rate of reproduction tends in the direction of societal extinction. Why is this cumulative pattern not on the radar of climate activists?
Or consider the fact that countless children in Europe and the North America will grow up with only one stable parent in their life, and suffer heightened risks of experiencing a host of well documented behavioural and psychological problems associated with growing up deprived of a two-parent home, such as less satisfying personal relationships, poor school performance, delinquency, and elevated rates of depression.
Many climate activists worry about the knock-on effects of pollution on the natural ecosystem and human well-being, yet think little of the fact that millions of our offsprings’ lives are terminated every year before they take their first breath, with the full complicity of the very societies and governments that should be nourishing and protecting them.
I could go on, and discuss how many societies across the world are ravaged by war, violence, corruption, and criminality, often at the highest levels.
None of this entails that we should sit back and let the planet burn. But it does mean that those who urge climate action would do well to put their complaints in perspective and open their eyes to the multifarious problems that are already destroying human societies from within.
If we have good reason to care about the integrity of the planet’s natural ecosystem, then we have at least as good of a reason to care about the structures of human society, many of which are in a process of advanced decay.
If we must put out fires, let us not forget the ones that are blazing on our own doorsteps.
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. Twitter: @davidjthunder