Greta: You failed, but you could learn from Hong Kong.
After a year spent mobilising the middle-class masses, calling out UN bureaucrats and trolling Trump, Greta’s battlecry marching into 2020 is: “We have achieved nothing.”
Greta Thunberg and her pigtails took the world by storm last year, bringing entire cities to their knees and forcing world leaders to shut up and listen. She didn’t make life easy for herself, our Greta. Going against every self-help book ever written, she set herself the gargantuan task of single-handedly saving the world and all its people from the consequences of our own actions.
One does not simply walk into Mordor, after all.
In his edited collection charting the course of British protest from the peasant revolts of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War protests of 2003, Ra Page argues that the instance of popular rebellion itself often leads to incremental changes in government policy which favour the demands made by the rebels and protesters, irrespective of whether the movement ended with their leaders in gallows or government.
But where incremental changes might work for the gradual emancipation of the working classes, the climate crisis is a little too urgent to be addressed over the course of centuries.
Enter Hong Kong, and the astonishing success of a a few hundred thousand voices against the world’s richest and most resilient authoritarian regime.
In Hong Kong, what began as a protest against the proposed China extradition bill has since spiralled into a democratisation movement (CFR). Though the future of Hong Kong’s new, far more ambitious movement is uncertain, the successes of their early anti-extradition protest provides a useful lesson for Greta and her tribe.
In short: Bigger isn’t always better.
Following Ra Page’s protest checklist, albeit half a world a way, Hong Kong’s protests were sparked by a specific complaint against a single legal change that would harm an already-marginalised group. Namely, allowing those arrested in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China for trial and imprisonment and the threat this posed for democratically-minded Hong Kongers.
The target was limited, strictly demarcated; it allowed a large group of people to speak with one voice for an outcome easily summed up in a single sentence: The dismissal of the China extradition bill.
Unfortunately, not all of the Five Demands are so easily qualified.
The biggest and, in the eyes of the Chinese regime, most problematic of the five is the demand for democracy. Unlike the dismissal of the China extradition bill, the outcome of democracy is far less easily defined and delineated.
Rather than answering a question, “democracy” raises several more: What kind of democracy? Who would be eligible to participate? Which authority would oversee this democracy? Does democracy necessarily involve elections? Are elections enough to achieve democracy? If democracy is allowed, does independence follow?
All companies, banks, institutions and governments participating should immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction, immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies and immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.
For a start, it would be very difficult to measure whether this target had been reached; investments made by non-publicly-traded companies, for example, are often confidential and nationalised oil production run by governments is often shrouded in a thick veil of bureaucracy and corruption — particularly in developing countries.
The timeline, “immediately”, causes more problems than it solves; some developing countries are completely reliant on fossil fuels to fund social services. Changing international markets for oil are already harming some of the world’s most vulnerable communities in countries like Venezuela and Iraq.
She is also, casually, asking for the end of capitalism.
With the success of the anti-extradition bill protest in mind, however, one aspect of Greta’s demand is worth honing in on: Ending all fossil fuel subsidies.
Cutting subsidies for fossil fuels can be temporally limited (to the contract period of each specific subsidy, for example), it has a clear target for who is to be held accountable (governments and institutions) and the terms are easily defined and qualified — the EU, for example, provides an estimated 55 billion EUR per year in direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
Rather than seeking to solve the climate crisis or reduce global CO2 emissions within a year (Bloomberg), Greta and her tribe need to learn from Hong Kong’s surprising success in defeating the China extradition bill.
Keep it simple and specific. Fight one battle at a time. One demand achieved is better than five rejected.
Luckily for the rest of the world, Greta seems to have regained her mojo since declaring the school strikes a failure. I’ll end with her words:
“You haven’t seen anything yet.”