Why Greta Thunberg’s activism is damaging public discourse in pursuit of solutions.

We have all seen the environmental speech delivered to the UN by Greta Thunberg. The 16 year old, Swedish environmental activist delivered a heartfelt and passionate speech about governmental powers choosing to prioritise ‘eternal economic growth’ over protecting the earth. Greta Thunberg is a courageous character, without a doubt. With a head of knowledge, far beyond her years, you must admire her tenacity and confidence to change the course of history. For this, she must be commended. However the content of the speech is actually damaging to public discourse surrounding the topic which is the quintessential requirement for problem solving. 

Greta Thunberg, clearly visibly upset, delivers her speech to the UN.

The issues with Greta Thunberg’s (and really activist’s) passionate speech

When it comes to talking about the environment, it is almost impossible to have a conversation if you do not share the view put forward by Thunberg and other like-minded activists. It has become a vitriolic soup of hatred for so-called ‘deniers’ and for the government for not acting. With so much animosity in the air already, I would argue that Thunberg has merely done nothing but throw more fuel onto the fire. It is understandable that this level of irritation stems from the appearance of a lack of government action. However, the aggressive yet phatic language used by Thunberg is specifically designed to stir up the base in the midst of a movement. It is brilliant marketing but awful for working through the issue and developing effective policy prescriptions. When you have a situation where people, on a particular side of the isle, are pushing a narrative with such aggression and based on significantly heightened emotion, it becomes almost impossible to work on solutions as it is so much harder to separate the issue from the politics. Discussing the risks, flaws and rewards of each action to take on the environment, in such an atmosphere of vitriol, is bound to also stifle rational thought and unfortunately, Thunberg has contributed to this.

The big flaw of the environmental movement

It is all well and good wanting to protect the environment. I mean it, it really is. We should all be accepting personal responsibility and playing our part, on an individual level to change it. The fundamental problem with the climate change movement on the world stage is that nobody knows what they want. Seriously, it is. It may seem obvious that the end goal is to mitigate the effects of climate change and global warming as best we can. However, inconvenient and aggressive protests procreate a message along the lines of ‘something needs to be done, now’. But what is it that needs to be done? Just like any political party coming into an election, they would need a manifesto of policies they want to implement and goals they want to achieve, the climate change movement needs specific goals and they need to be the frontline of the argument in order to not be deemed trivial, hysterical or annoying.

The incompetence of government

When it comes to the issue of environment, what Thunberg has said is largely true. Higher up the political chain you go, there is more investment and potential for political manipulation and dodgy dealings. If protecting the environment hurts the bottom line of MP’s or political campaigns and figureheads, it will likely be rejected. This should reinforce the physical (and arguably moral) incompetence of government. You can use the environmental debate as a compelling case to strip power from the government. I am heavily in favour of a weak government. By that, I mean a strong government but not a powerful one. The government should be the provider of basic financial and physical services like sanitation and refuse collection, for example, to ensure we have strong national security and be diplomats in the event of international negotiations. That is really all we need them to do, by and large. Pledging funding to a government but in return expecting them to handle EVERYTHING we ask them to is a quick recipe for failure, stagnation and societal polarisation. 

The climate movement should aim to take matters into its own hands. It is evident that relying on government to play ‘nanny state’ and solve all the world’s problems hasn’t worked and will continue to fail. The green movement should be looking to build a manifesto, be willing to discuss with politically opposed people about the benefits, risks and rewards of such an undertaking and make the movement one that can’t be ignored. The unfortunate reality is that, at this moment, it can and will be ignored and it is indicative of a nature of greed within the government

Author: Danny Sutton

I love a bit of politics. Challenging societal norms and asking the bold questions is what politics and discussion is all about. If you are lucky enough to have landed on this page, feel free to immerse in a plethora of opinion pieces. Feel free to comment and educate me, this area of writing is one where we can all learn from each other. All views are my own.

11 thoughts

  1. (Your use of the provocative and disparaging term “nanny state” is unfortunate.) I agree that the statement “something needs to be done” is essentially worthless, and that specific, quantifiable goals should be put forward. Let’s remember, though, Greta Thunberg is only 16. She’s not a scientist, she’s a figurehead for a youth movement. My baby boomer generation has failed miserably regarding the environment, and according to a vast majority of climate experts, time is running out. Government (at least here in America) is the strongest, most expeditious way to implement positive change through regulation of fossil fuel industries and tax credits toward alternative energy industries. The only alternative is private industry, and private industry (particularly fossil fuel industries) have made it has made it abundantly clear they will not regulate themselves. And they donate massive amounts of cash to political puppets to prevent outside regulation, and have succeeded very well, most recently in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

    Without the strong arm of the federal government, DDT would still be on the market, leaded gasoline would still be at the pumps, America would have no national parks or wilderness areas, and there would be no Clean Air or Clean Water Acts. So your statement “That is really all we need them to do, by and large (pick up waste and negotiate internationally)” is – respectfully – somewhat naïve.

    Thanks for listening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really do appreciate your comment, it is talking about issues that really gets ideas flowing so again thank you.

      This isn’t a character assassination of Thunberg as she is young. However it doesn’t stop the speeches having unintended consequences in the social sphere for public discussion.

      As for government regulation, it is also them that are responsible for fossil fuel subsidies for things like the car industry. Without these we would have had fuel efficiency a long time ago as a result of free market ingenuity I believe. Government subsidies provided no incentive for change.

      My point is top down governmental policy isn’t always the best option for dealing with issues and I think in this case, it is potentially detrimental.

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      1. Well, I’m not sure how you think governmental regulation of fossil fuel industries, and encouragement/support of alternative fuel industries, is “detrimental.” Especially with the potential catastrophe of a global weather meltdown. So I guess we agree to disagree.

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      2. The only I disagree with that particular solution is it is a lose-lose. If you tax/heavily regulate a company, they won’t stick around and have a moral change of heart. They will just shift its money resources to a country that doesn’t do it, so the pollution is still happening whilst your country looses tax revenue and income.

        I am in favour of nuclear power as a 0 emission substitute until we, as a species, have made clean renewable sources economically viable and reliable. It will also give us time to create a plan B which involves working on geopolitical tensions to create a plan on where to move displaced people as a result of rising sea levels if it does go west.

        I hope that clears things up a bit better

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      3. Strongly disagree with your first paragraph. Can you cite specific examples of pollution-causing companies that have shifted elsewhere to escape regulation? There may be isolated examples, but I’ll bet they’re in the minority.

        I urge you to read the history of the U.S. Clean Air Act (sounds like you might be from the UK). The Wikipedia history of that act is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_Air_Act_(United_States). The “Big Three” (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) are still going strong here, 56 years later, despite having to adhere to stricter fuel and emissions standards. Additionally, regulation of these companies led to “creation of the catalytic converter, which was a revolutionary development.”

        And your second paragraph about nuclear power stirs up a whole different hornets’ nest, but is slightly off-topic, so I won’t go there.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I am from the UK yes. That looks very interesting, I’ll give it a read over!

        In response to your disagreement, there are 2 reasons I think, why almost every single huge corporation in the US and western world offshores production of its products to developing countries.

        1) Cheap labour and relaxed labour laws
        2) little to know restrictions on pollution and waste disposal (like what has happened to the Citarum and the Ganges).

        Pretty much all the big companies outsource and have no desire to control waste disposal because of no financial incentive and it increases their profit margin. To add insult to injury, shipping the products back to the mainland adds more carbon emissions. Regulation and heavy standards do mean people and companies outsource.

        I don’t think anybody is willing to give up their standards of pay and work safety anytime soon.

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      5. There are many reasons for companies’ outsourcing, all of which, as you said “increase their profit margin.” I disagree that “almost every single huge corporation in the US” produces products in developing countries due to cheap labor and to escape environmental laws, although they are factors. But given you are correct, I don’t believe advocating a reduction in U.S. environmental standards (or any country’s standards) to retain business is a wise choice, for both domestic and global health reasons, ethical reasons, and probably also for economic reasons. Lax pollution laws to encourage economic prosperity is not a healthy recipe. It’s a recipe for disaster, and we have ample scientific evidence to validate that claim.

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      6. I am not advocating the relaxation of laws to slow carbon emissions. That policy would not work for the reasons you have clearly pointed out. However, the notion that companies do not shift to poorer areas of the world for relaxed restriction and an increased profit margin is ludicrous in my opinion. I think we need to agree to disagree on this one for now.

        Thank you for the comments and the insight extra info!

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      7. You’re welcome. I did a little reading, and I’ll concede that some companies do shift to poorer areas of the world due to relaxed environmental laws and cheaper production costs (the “pollution haven hypothesis,” which has its controversies). So…point taken. However…and getting back to your original essay…this only underscores that governments can and should play a role in environmental protection, including monitoring private industry – whether in Western or non-Western nations – because private industries have proven over and over they cannot monitor themselves. Do you really think we should let Exxon Mobil have carte blanche to drill wherever and whenever it wants? I would hope not. And is there an entity, other than elected officials who can pass legislation (i.e. government), that can keep them in check? I don’t think so.

        Don’t get me wrong. I’m with you in distrust of Big Government. It can do just as much harm as good (and has done harm). The U.S. Forestry Service has been relentless in selling large chunks of public land to private entities for drilling, timber removal, and development. But, at least in America, government is also currently the most effective way toward protection and environmental health. Grass roots climate movements, like that which Greta Thunberg is leading, can awaken people. But they can’t make the big, practical changes we need. John Muir awakened President Theodore Roosevelt to the value of wilderness areas like Yosemite. But it was up to Roosevelt and the U.S. government to establish our National Park System, which has been called “America’s best idea” and has since spread worldwide.

        Peace to you…and nice to have a conversation, on a controversial subject, that remains civil!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. It is all well and good arguing that things need to be done now on an individual level, but the reality and the facts are that 70% of the greenhouse gases polluting our environment is being churned out by only 100 companies in the world. The governments of the biggest countries need to be getting at these companies and countries who are producing the most and get on their case. All Thunberg did was emotionally shout about something that can’t be changed overnight.

    Liked by 1 person

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