It would be something of an understatement to say that Greta Thunberg is making waves at the moment. For those not paying too close attention, it would seem her main activity these days is to randomly show up at prestigious places meeting important people and sternly telling them about the importance of taking a proactive stance on environmental issues. She’s here, she’s there, she’s everywhere. Mostly, she’s in the news.
Like all things done by women that achieve a non-zero amount of attention on the internet, this has garnered quite an outsized response in terms angry adults eager to express said anger. More often than not, those doing the expressing tend to be male, comfortable, and suspiciously silent on literally every other environmental issue there is. Whenever she happens into the conversation, however, things heat up, and they find it very imperative to express an anger that seem far too pent-up to be coming out of a spur of the moment, or indeed even a series of subsequent spurs spanning many moments. The anger is disproportionate to the situation, and yet, it persists.
One reason for this can be found in Greta’s message. It is a very simple message, one which does not require lengthy explanations or elaborate circuitous discourse to explain in full. Stated in the simplest possible terms, it is thus:
Be a grownup, and act in accordance with the view of yourself as a good human being whose actions make a positive contribution to the world in general and to the environment in particular.
I think we can all agree that, if we all acted in accordance with this imperative, the world would see a series of substantial improvements in several areas, both local and global. In the same vein, we can probably agree that this message is rather vague on the specifics. The exact nature of how one goes about being a responsible grownup is not clearly spelled out, and — it has to be said — it would rather defeat the point to spell them out in exhaustive detail. One cannot, after all, be a grownup whilst slavishly following the dictates of someone else.
Seen this way, it might be difficult to see how Greta’s message can make people so angry. Being a grownup and acting wisely should be the default setting of just about everyone come of age, and only a fool would insist that acting childishly and unwisely is the way to go. There is no great insight to uncover, no difficult concept to grapple with, no existential mystery to bravely face. There is just an appeal to the better angels of our nature, whose advice we as good people should probably heed anyway.
Here, ancient philosophy can be of help. In many of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is the great philosophical hero, who expounds the fundamental insights with regards to human nature. More often than not, the dialogues take the form of some fool trying to convince Socrates that bad is good, wrong is right, up is down, and at the end of it coming out looking very much like the fools they are. The more effort said fools put into their attempts, the more they reveal to the world that they are indeed fools. As Newton put it, their attempts to force the issue lead to an equal and opposite response.
Similarly, Greta’s message cast people in the role of fools. All she does is tell everyone to be good persons who act in accordance with their views of themselves as virtuous and responsible. The implied message in this is that you are not, in fact, living up to your image of yourself as a good person. This is not a flattering thing to hear, especially if you already suspected you do not live up to your ideal vision of yourself. Thus, rather than to sit down to have a long and hard introspective think about this, people opt for the slightly less effort-intensive alternative to lash out in anger. If she is wrong, then everything is okay again; if she’s right, then the time of change (and possibly reckoning) has arrived.
It goes without saying that this anger can not be alleviated by anything Greta does, nor that she is not even in a position to do anything about it. The issue is not between Greta and everyone, but rather it is between everyone and themselves. Like a modern day Socrates, she has exposed us all as fools, and now we need to rise to the occasion. As the wise grownups we are, we surely possess the wisdom required to overcome our own petty bickering and come together to face the immediate challenges posed by climate change.
It shouldn’t be too difficult. We’re good people, right?
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