The Guardian view on Greta Thunberg: seizing the future
The Swedish teenager’s clarity and urgency have cut through layers of obfuscation and helplessness – and forced climate change up the agenda
Nobody could have predicted that a Swedish teenager would shift the terms of the global climate debate in the way that Greta Thunberg has done. Since she began her school strike in Stockholm last August, Greta has addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, the European parliament and the UN climate talks in Poland. Last week she met the pope in Rome. On Tuesday she met UK political leaders at the House of Commons. That Theresa May opted out of an encounter with one of the world’s foremost young activists is an embarrassing error of judgment. By any rational calculus, Greta is in the process of doing humanity a huge favour.
That is because we struggle to give the global warming and wildlife crisis the attention they deserve. We have the science, with predictions of a manmade greenhouse effect dating back to the 1890s. (One of Greta’s distant relatives, Svante Arrhenius, was a pioneer in the field.) We have the international structures to collate the experts’ findings: the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its first report in 1990. We have some, although not all, of the knowledge and technology we need to wean us off our addiction to fossil fuels: wind and solar energy; healthy alternatives to meat; bicycles and trains. Many nations have laws to help us transition to a low-carbon future. The world has the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the agreement struck in Paris in 2015.
But for reasons that are psychological as well as political, we seem mostly unable to concentrate on the existential threat we face as global warming gathers pace (20 of the hottest-ever years were in the last 22) and climate chaos unfolds. Something else is always more important – or more manageable. Even those who recognise that we must use all the tools at our disposal, to stop emitting greenhouse gases as soon as possible, struggle to be heard.
Thanks in no small part to the eye-catching tactic of the school strike, over the past nine months the movement spearheaded by Greta Thunberg has cut through. Green activists and scholars have spoken for years of the generational injustice of climate change. The school strikers belong to a 21st-century generation who have either taken this idea on, or arrived at it through a process of deduction of their own. Greta, who believes her outlook has been influenced by her autism, says she learned about climate change at school aged eight, and became depressed at 11. By 15, her angst had translated itself into a distinctive form of civil disobedience – the Friday school strikes which spread around the world.
Hints that Greta has been manipulated by adults appear to be unfounded. As a teenager, she is in any case entitled to advice. And while it is natural to focus on her as a figurehead, the movement does not depend on her. As she told the audience at a Guardian Live event on Monday, she does not see herself as a leader, but as a participant.
How the wave of demonstrations she helped start develops will be fascinating, as will the progress of the Extinction Rebellion protesters. Peaceful protest and activism are vital to democracy. The climate crisis makes them urgent and necessary. But decision-making requires processes and structures. This is not easy, and partly explains why so many of the successful civil disobedience campaigns of the past have been shaped by charismatic individuals.
The school strikers’ message, similar to the extinction rebels, is that we should panic. Our house, in Greta’s memorable phrase, is on fire. We must embrace “cathedral thinking” – laying the foundations for the carbon-free future without knowing how we are going to paint the roof. This way of thinking does induce fear. But since doing nothing is not an option, except for nihilists and misanthropes, the rest of us have little choice but to battle through these darker emotions – and act with hope. The IPCC said last year that the next 12 years are critical, a warning echoed on the BBC by David Attenborough in a landmark documentary last week. The film should have been made a decade ago. We should have been alert to the dangers before children went on strike. But we still have some time.
Greta Thunberg tells EU it needs ‘cathedral-thinking’ on climate change
“Notre Dame will be rebuilt”, Thunberg told MEPs, “I hope its foundations are strong, I hope ours are even stronger.”
THE SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD SWEDISH climate change activist Greta Thunberg addressed the European Parliament’s environment committee to tell them to use “cathedral-thinking” in tackling climate change.
At one point during an impassioned speech, Thunberg became visibly upset when she listed how humans were causing “climate economical breakdown”, such as deforestation, air pollution, the extinction of animals and the acidification of oceans.
Accusing world leaders of being too relaxed in tackling climate change, she said that she wants leaders to panic, evoking an image of a house on fire.
“A great number of politicians have told me that panic never leads to anything good, but when your house is on fire, then that does require some level of panic,” she said.
But when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground, then that does require some level of panic.
Speaking about the fire that destroyed the main roof and spire of the Notre Dame cathedral, Thunberg said that “Notre Dame will be rebuilt, I hope its foundations are strong, I hope that our foundations are even stronger, but I fear they are not.”
If our house was falling apart, our leaders wouldn’t go on like the way they do today [in tackling climate change]. You would change everything you do.
Criticising EU leaders for flying around the world in business class, or for not phasing out coal immediately.
“You wouldn’t hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and environment,” she told MEPs.
You wouldn’t be celebrating that one single nation like Ireland may soon divest from fossil fuels…. It’s 30 years too late for those types of celebrations.
“If our house was falling apart the media wouldn’t be talking about anything else. You wouldn’t spend all your time arguing about taxes or Brexit. Well, our house is falling apart.”
At 16, she said that she is too young to vote in the upcoming European elections, but said that people needed to “unite behind the science”.
You need to vote for us, for your children and grandchildren. You vote for the future living conditions of mankind.
“You cannot ignore the scientists or the science, I beg you please do not fail on this.”
Scottish Nature Notes
Have you ever sent one of your mates a text or email and then got really annoyed because they didn’t reply immediately? Or skipped a track on your playlist because you couldn’t wait the three minutes it would take to get to the one that you wanted to hear right now? Yep, me too – we can be a pretty impatient bunch.
I got thinking about this last week when I was down in York – it was a nice summer evening so I decided that the pubs by the river could wait and strolled up to the Minster to have a wee sit outside. No matter what your religious beliefs (or lack of) are, it’s an impressive building and a bit of an understatement to say that a lot of work went into it. 250 years of work, in fact.
York Minster (bbc.co.uk)
This is worth repeating – it took 250 years to build York Minster. So, the people who wanted a cathedral and designed it never got to see it finished. Nobody they ever knew got to see it finished. Neither their grandchildren nor their great-grandchildren got to see it finished. Yet they still went ahead and started the events that led to the building we see today. This needed vision and foresight, and it was all done with the absolute knowledge that they wouldn’t see the finished product. It is as far from instant gratification as you can get. Imagining and starting long-term projects that you will never see finished – there’s a name for it, Cathedral Thinking.
I think it’s brilliant that people are willing to do things that they know they won’t see come to fruition but it requires you to believe in two things. You need to believe that there is a future. Ducking back quickly to York Minster, one hundred years into the build the Black Death hit and by some accounts over half of the entire population of England was killed by bubonic plague. It must have seemed like the world was ending but they carried on.
And it also requires you to believe that the people in that future will continue what you started – that they will still be driven by the same emotions and feelings as we are, that they will share the same values and be inspired by the same things.
I blogged recently about the ‘State of Nature’ report and how we all need to start doing our bit for wildlife, to start putting something back. And we need some quick hits – helping create a pond which newts will soon make home, planting flowers for bees and butterflies.
Good for nature, good for you.
But as I looked out the train on the way back to Inverness at the passing countryside, I thought we need Cathedral Thinking for nature too. Just as someone once looked at a flat, empty spot in Yorkshire and could think of it being filled with a magnificent cathedral, we can imagine a different kind of countryside. One of old forests, of animals now extinct in Britain that we can bring back, of large areas connected together and not just poor fragments.
None of us will live to see all of it happen but we can make a start. And the millions of people whose lives will be enriched by these places and who we will never know will be so glad we did.
Cathedral Thinking: Can Houses of Worship Become Beacons of Sustainability?
Notre Dame de Paris took 182 years to build. No less than 140 years of construction passed before the Duomo in Florence was finally complete. Accordingly, “cathedral thinking” refers to deep dedication to a complex endeavor that will outlive its architects. Today, it’s imperative to apply this philosophy to the global crisis of climate change — a threat that has taken centuries to create and will require unprecedented, strategic engagement of mankind to resolve.
With the science of climate change no longer up for debate, the call to action is immediate. Leaders from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates have pushed for government, industry, and civil society to combat climate change as its impact on our nation begins to intensify. One of the most direct ways to affect climate change is to choose clean energy sources, including solar power, over ones that emit greenhouse gases.
As they have across the centuries, houses of worship stand ready to heal our wounds. Decades ago in America, we witnessed African-American churches stand valiantly at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Today, we face a crisis that threatens the success of all civil and spiritual missions, regardless of color or creed. Using solar power, the more than 300,000 houses of worship across America can empower both their rooftops and their communities through sustainability.
Cathedral thinking calls for collaborations between diverse partners. The Solar Foundation, a charitable research and education nonprofit, has joined forces with Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, one of the most prominent religious networks in the country, to raise awareness and use of clean, affordable solar energy within faith-based communities. With the help of Clinton Global Initiative America, the new Solar Faith and Empowerment Initiative will provide assistance to religious leaders in understanding the benefits of solar energy to their communities and the earth.
There are strong economic benefits for religious communities to become more sustainable. As energy bills rise — and houses of worship, like other facilities, struggle to keep the doors open — solar energy can reduce costs. As corporations such as IKEA and Walmart, known for shrewd business models, and the U.S. Defense Department, with its needed security and reliability, rapidly adopt solar energy solutions, why can’t houses of worship?
While some faith-based communities are moving on solar, the speed of action needs to match the urgency of the climate challenge. Champions such as BlocPower founder Donnel Baird, carrying out a commitment through Clinton Global Initiative University to retrofit churches and other buildings in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C., are leading the way. In fact, after working with BlocPower, six Catholic schools are now hiring three teachers with the money saved from lower energy bills.
Some faith leaders have imbued this call to climate action with a biblical obligation of good stewardship of the earth. With its “Carbon Covenant,” Interfaith Power and Light exemplifies the deep connection between the sacred and profane in the fight against global warming. Sadly, most religious communities lack the resources, capacity or understanding of a viable path to sustainability that doesn’t require sacrificing core missions of faith. In truth, sustainability enables enhancement of such missions, not their sacrifice. The Solar Faith and Empowerment Initiative seeks to make the path to success in both missions of faith and overcoming climate change easier to follow. The road must be more understandable, but also self-sustaining — which is why, with the help of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, we’re strategically building relationships with those communities of faith that can inspire others to take action.
Reversing the consequences of climate change won’t happen overnight. But then again, cathedral thinking, like spiritual leadership, is not about instant rewards. It’s about giving future generations the opportunity to lead sustainable, spiritual lives — and the chance to care for the earth centuries from now, when dirty energy is in the history books, alongside Michelangelo and Wren.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in recognition of the latter’s fourth meeting of CGI America (June 23-25, 2014, in Denver). CGI America convenes business, government, and civil society leaders each year to make commitments boosting the economic recovery and long-term competitiveness of the United States. For more information, click here.
The first thing that struck me about this short statement is the tired phrase, Stewardship of Creation. Immediately it brings to mind a notion of hierarchy and management.
The Cambridge English Dictionary give this definition of stewardship:
Someone’s stewardship of something is the way in which that person controls or organises it: The company has been very successful while it has been under the stewardship of Mr White.
The Oxford Dictionary is similar:
The job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property: ‘the funding and stewardship of the NHS’ or ‘responsible stewardship of our public lands’.
In my opinion this is the wrong message delivered in the wrong language. I have no idea where ‘stewardship of creation’ comes from, it is not biblical, but it has been around for a long time. Stewardship is not a good word. There is no heart, no humility, no love in it. We are certainly not in control. We are not shop stewards of a factory floor, we are co-inhabitants of an astonishing planet that challenges and nurtures us and provides us with resources and wonderment. The earth and all its life forms are the source of our creativity and daily joy. We are not in charge of this planet, but we have a profound and holy responsibility towards it.
The statement then goes on to recognise “an unprecedented ecological crisis,” which I hope embraces not only climate change but also the extinction of species. Yet again, however, the phrasing is cold and arm-wavy. I personally don’t like the use of the word ‘ecological’. Ecology is a field of study, like biology, theology, geology. We wouldn’t say there is a biological crisis on earth, but there is certainly an environmental one. I do know that this phrase has slipped into common vernacular but it lacks a depth of understanding that comes from pondering and contemplation on the real meaning behind words.
Why am I being picky about language? Because language matters and words matter. We are acutely aware of the language people use. When the church says it is a steward or talks about ecology, that sets the tone for the discussion.
It is also lazy thinking. Simply presenting phrases someone else devised a long time ago gives the impression that this is the sum of things, that this phrase is the best way of expressing the situation and that nothing has moved on. Clichés are detrimental to progress. They are superficial and simply graze the surface, they bring no fresh thoughts or ideas. This is a great shame. We are in unprecedented times and we need a new language that expresses that urgency. Words matter. Expressed well, they bare our uncertainty and pain, desire and weakness, acceptance and humility. We can do well to learn from Greta Thunberg’s eloquence and authenticity.
“It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking. I ask you to please wake up and make change possible.”
And, yet again, David Attenborough strikes the perfect tone. He is a consummate and emotional storyteller who engages the heart as well as the mind. “We need”, he said, “to fall in love again with the earth.” Words matter.
It is true that everyone is both a storyteller and a lover of stories, it is how we communicate what is important to us. “Stories are just data with a soul” said the inspirational psychologist Brené Brown. Yes, indeed they are. Allow me to tell you one story about a visit I made recently to a nature reserve in Yorkshire.
The Lower Derwent Valley is a National Nature Reserve, an area of open grassland that floods in the winter and dries out in the summer months and provides soft soils, worms and insects for all kinds of life. The wetness of the soil has, so far, saved it from intensive agriculture and conurbation, although both of these press in all around. A hundred new houses are being built nearby and already the site is under increased pressure from dog walkers, light pollution and noise. On this calm spring morning, though, it was beautiful. A whitethroat sang in the bushes and sedge warblers were remarkably prominent as they caught insects for their young that were hidden somewhere in the low shrubs. My favourite sound, the bubbling soul-cry of the curlew, rang out in the distance.
I sat in a hide with the ranger and we watched 30 whimbrels feeding in long grass about 200 metres away. They are fabulous long-distance migrants that spend the winter in West Africa and breed in Iceland. Their average round trip is 16,000 miles and the fields of the reserve are a stop-over site, or avian service station, that provides food and safe refuge while they gain strength for the final leg of their journey. The birds used to feed in a wider area, in the agricultural land surrounding the reserve, but the continued drainage, intensification and development of the land, as well as increasingly dry weather, has made this very difficult. If this reserve were ever to be requisitioned, the birds would die. It was so sobering – this group of beautiful, tough, long distance travellers are now totally reliant on a couple of fields in a nature reserve in Yorkshire to survive. “You can set your calendar on the day they arrive, 99% of the time on April 19th, its incredible how they time things,” said the ranger “but it also shows their vulnerability. They have to come here, there is nowhere else left.”
The whimbrels had just flown in from west Africa where they spend the winter months. That part of the continent has seen a 5-fold increase in the human population level since 1950. Back then there were 73 million people but this is projected to exceed 1 billion by 2060. It is the fastest growing region in the world, and 40% of the population is Christian. It is also true that Africa is the future heartland of Catholicism. The number of baptized Catholics on the continent is growing at a significantly faster rate than anywhere else in the world.
What then for the whimbrels? They face increasing pressures from the spread of agriculture and development on their African wintering grounds, an increase in intensive agriculture and urbanisation in Yorkshire and accelerating climate change affecting their arctic breeding grounds in Iceland. All of these are related to the huge and embarrassing elephants in the room – population increase and rampant consumption, including a diet rich in meat and dairy. All of these difficult issues have to be addressed directly and honestly if any progress is to be made, but I wonder if there is the courage and conviction to do so. It will be painful to tease out what the Church can contribute, but there is no doubt that it has a lot to offer if it squarely faces the challenge.
Whimbrels, godwits, terns, ducks and geese, to name but a few world travellers, use the whole planet to live out their wild lives, they don’t inhabit just one place. They tie the world together in great migratory flights and we are privileged to host them for just a few short weeks. The responsibility on us is huge. They are telling us an important story.
I hope the bishops’ environmental committee recognises that nothing is seen in isolation, that England and Wales are not isolated from the rest of the world. A whimbrel may not be on the bishops’ radar, but all wildlife tells us about the state of the planet. According to the devastating UN biodiversity report published on May 6th, we are in danger of losing 1 million species because of the way we are using the earth, especially for farming. We depend on the intricate web of life to keep ecosystems functioning to provide us with pollinators, fresh water, clean air and rich soils – to name but a few essential ‘services’. It is also a terrible tragedy because we are losing the wellspring for so much that makes us human. Not to mention the fact that other life on earth has a right to exist too.
Catholicism is a global religion and in a prime position to address these global concerns. Arm waving statements about an ecological crisis and saving creation only go so far. The Church has 2000 years of truly beautiful and poetic wisdom to draw upon. It has profound insights into the meaning of human and other life on earth. It has the words of inspiring environmental writers like Thomas Merton and Thomas Berry. I hope that these will be drawn out in the summer environment paper. Now, more than ever, we need to be moved to action. We live on a planet that is connected by a web of life upon which we all depend, but there is little in the statement so far that even comes close to recognising this. However, we wait to see, and I wish the authors the very greatest of blessings as they write.
This article was first published on Mary Colwell’s website Curlew Media. See link below: