Greta Thunberg set off this week to sail to New York to deliver a speech about climate change at the United Nations. People have attacked her for this. Not attacking why she is doing it or issues of climate change. They are attacking her for being a sixteen year old girl. Mature adults criticising a sixteen year old girl for being a young girl. What on Earth is going on here?
I remember being sixteen. I was utterly confused by the world. The crazy way society is organised, the sheer amount of plastic starting to appear in the supermarkets and simply how inefficiently the world was organised. This had already led to huge losses of forests and space for wildlife in the world. Surely, this is crazy, I thought, how is the world in general not aware of this and why aren’t things being done to sort these things out.
I could have devoted my life to raising awareness and getting these things sorted out. I didn’t because the messages as I was getting was that I was too young to understand and in any case my peer group in the farming community I grew up in thought my views were weird. I was the exception, I was the minority. I was also suffering from social anxiety, partly because I was different. However I can completely understand Greta’s position and thoroughly admire it. We really do live in a world where sixteen year olds can be right and fully educated adults can be wrong.
Nonetheless I became vegetarian and tried not to produce too much waste and kept voting for politicians who expressed a commitment to sorting out the environment and making society a little less crazy and kept talking about the issues. This isn’t enough, it’s a drop in the ocean, the actions of one strange person are not enough. To make big societal changes you have to grow a movement, find a way to get your message across clearly and fight and fight and fight until the cows come home.
One problem is that I grew up in a society that encouraged compromise: You have to behave a certain way to fit in, you have to dress a certain way, you need to do certain activities and not do others, you need to get a well-paying job and then if you do all these things you may be in a position of authority and then you can do something about it.
To get there or even just to get any job, you have to compromise for example by commuting, wasting the resources of 2 hours of car travel everyday or helping an organisation you don’t like. You have to buy plastic wrapped bananas, because you can’t afford the unwrapped bananas in the posh shop.
However this doesn’t work, it took me a long time to realise this. Firstly you end up twisting your personality into knots to try and act the “right” way, you can’t trust what you think and thus lose access to your natural abilities and do some very strange things. All these compromises stack up, you try to justify them all and and up with some very strange positions and being objective about any issue becomes more difficult. Secondly, all the authority figures aren’t doing anything useful and their ability to change things, even they really want to, is minimal.
There has been a growing awareness of these perils of conformity. Society in Wales and across Europe has become much more accepting of difference, whether it be sexuality, mental illness, race, religion, language &c. Fortunately it is now much easier to be a minority and be accepted. When I was young people people hid themselves so much more for fear of being “found out” and probably beaten up for it. BAME families had to be constantly demonstrating exceeding the highest moral standards to be accepted in society, whereas any lapses from white people were quickly ignored and forgotten about. To get to this better position took a lot of fighting, campaigning organisations, pride festivals and so on. We have started to live in a world where being in the privileged class is no longer a pass ob to a position of authority. It’s a lot less likely that by sheer luck you happen to be someone who matches the prevailing conventional personality and attitude traits so have some authority. People who cared about the environment were sidelined, fortunately that is becoming less the case.
Now that we live in a world where difference is much more in the open and that is much healthier. However it has created a opposing reactionary force. A force that seems largely composed of those that were able to conform, that being in the privileged group no longer makes things easier for them and they don’t like it. This has created division and turned things into black and white issues. It seems that it’s no longer a question of how much of an issue climate change is, but rather that people that advocate much more needing to be done as the goodies/baddies and those that advocate not doing anything about it as baddies/goodies. The skill of being able to view arguments form the other side seems to be being lost. This ignores all the complexity inherent in the issue.
There just seems to be so much ignorance of the advantages privilege confers. Perhaps largely because if you are lucky enough to be privilege you don’t notice the advantages you have. In Wales, we are fortunate in that our history gives us an insight into both sided. Wales benefited hugely from being a part of the UK, as a country close to the heart of the British empire. Conversely Wales has also suffered from being a “England’s last colony”. Arguably the Welsh suffer both from the guilt of imperialism and the exploitation of a subjected people. As a Welsh white male I have benefited from being regarded as a member of the dominant group and suffered from being an outsider at the same time. Yet there must be a lot of people who don’t have this dichotomy or are even aware of it.
My social media feeds have almost been flooded by posts like the above about agriculture being unfairly attacked for the contribution of methane from ruminants to climate change [I don’t know how they got to these figures, would question them, I’ve included them for illustrative purposes]. This is largely because I know a number of small family farmers who are worried about their future. Methane is ‘bad’ as it’s a terrible greenhouse gas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have any, we all fart. There is evidence that suggests than grass fed cows produce a lot less methane than grain fed cows, which small farms specialise in. So the ‘all the cows are bad’ rhetoric is overly simplistic. It’s getting worse as small farms are going to the wall as they can’t compete on price with cross-subsided big [unsustainable] ag’.
On the other hand I also see the posts of the type ‘Everyone should go vegan’. Again this is overly simplistic. Maximum sustainability includes some farm animals. Also in sustainability terms having meat from a local animal is better sustainability wise than shipping something from the other side of the world where it’s grown with stupid amounts of fertiliser on heavily degraded soil.
The sustainability answer lies somewhere in the middle, where nothing gets banned, there is just some things humanity needs to do a lot less of. The problem is that measured arguments don’t get a full hearing and drowned out by the simple messages that resonate with people: ‘Eating animals is natural’ ‘Veganism will save the planet’ ‘Welsh is a dead language’ ‘Let’s take back control’.
Such easy slogans are easily debunked and have long been debunked, yet still they somehow persist. Humans eating animals is natural and has been done since pre-history, but modern intensive agriculture of the last hundred years is not ‘natural’ by any definition. Reducing land devoted to growing food will help the environment and will probably improve many people’s diets, but won’t by itself save the planet. I think reducing average meat consumption in the Western world to something like 10% of current consumption is something like this part of the answer, but it’s how we do it that matters, not the headline figure. Os mae’r iaith cymraeg wedi marw sut medra i sgwennu hwn [If the Welsh language is dead how am i able to write this?]. Greater localised democratic control to reduce negative impacts of large scale global solutions is a way forward, this was the phrase that arguably won the Brexit referendum in the UK. Yet no-one has yet suggested any democratic or constitutional reforms for after the UK leaving the EU that will achieve this.
I’ve written before about how Brexit is divisive and lumped people into being Leavers or Remainers. The ‘Take Back Control’ phrase was more about a general despair with the crazy world we live in (remember my second paragraph), for traditional values and communities where everyone could relate to each other (apart from the outsiders who know how to keep quiet) because the actual Brexiteers are against electoral reform (perversely in my view). I think there is also an element of wanting life to be simpler, more traditional and this view is most heavily supported by those losing privilege; the white, heterosexual, conservative older generations who did what they were told.
Maybe there is simply a frustration as people who have sacrificed parts of themselves to conform, put up with plastic and long commutes to try to get some control over their lives. Was all this personal sacrifice for nothing? I share this feeling as someone who overly tried to conform and still do to some extent to stay in employment. It could simply be that this young girl comes along who isn’t compromising. She’s travelling the world without using an aeroplane and has become an authority and has helped raise awareness and put pressure on those with power, by not compromising. This kind of breaks the conformist contract, many Western cultures have, that the feeling is she doesn’t deserve influence as she hasn’t done all the horrible compromising, so shouldn’t have a voice. The ability to conform is highly valued and gives people solace. However, she is right in my view, as I was at 16 and we all need to get over ourselves and not criticise people for being right, but instead support them and help build momentum behind sorting out the horrible mess our economy and society is in. We need to unshackle ourselves from our personal hangups to enable humanity to make it to the next century until the cows come home.