Cunning stunts and climate tokens
What was Greta Thunberg thinking by travelling to the UN climate summit in New York on a small ‘carbon-neutral’ yacht across the Atlantic instead of flying like any normal person or even – since she admitted there was no hope of changing Donald Trump’s mind about climate change – staying home?
She surely wasn’t suggesting that a two week yachting cruise instead of a 7-hour flight was somehow the more practical or the safer option, or even realistically available to anyone apart from the rich and leisurely. She wasn’t claiming that air travel, at around 2 percent of global carbon emissions, was the world’s biggest problem. She wasn’t seriously asking the world to revert to the nineteenth-century age of sail, was she?
Of course not, it was a media stunt, a token activity with no other purpose than to grab headlines. Seasoned media watchers won’t be surprised by this. In just a few short months Greta has gone from schoolgirl-on-a-mission to a global ‘brand’ to be steered and navigated through the world’s front pages by an expert PR team. It’s a bit sad really. What the world loved about Greta Thunberg was her plain-speaking naivety, her quasi-autistic inability to dissemble. Now she’s started pulling media-targeted eco-stunts like any selfie-obsessed YouTuber, it’s hard not to see the tacky side. Her on-message team will have meant well, of course. Turning her into a global influencer means the potential to influence global climate policy, or so they hope. But in doing so they’ve played capitalism’s game and commercialised her into a product. No doubt businesses are already bombarding her with eco-sponsorship deals. No doubt her engagement diary is fully booked and hefty appearance fees negotiated, all for the cause. But it’s not quite the same now she can no longer stand apart from the system she is criticising.
Greenwash, or eco-tokenism, is equally evident in the much-vaunted ‘global general strike’ on 20 September, in which adults are asked to join schoolchildren in widening the protest against climate change. In one sense this was always going to happen, since children are not wage-workers and thus their withdrawal of ‘labour’ can have no realistic effect on capitalism’s economy. But for a start it’s not really a ‘global general strike’ – at the time of writing no or virtually no strikes are scheduled anywhere in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Gulf states, North Africa, South and Central America, Canada or (weirdly – considering who started all this) Scandinavia. Nearly all the activity is confined to western Europe (except Spain), India, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and the US (https://globalclimatestrike.net/).
Secondly, what about the call to ‘unleash mass resistance’? Resistance to what, exactly? Workers are asking their bosses for permission to go on this so-called strike, and getting it! One architect firm is keen to get behind the climate message by effectively giving its workers the day off: ‘A number of our staff [have] asked whether they could join the protests (the answer: of course!)’, (architectsjournal.co.uk/opinion/why-bennetts-is-joining-the-global-climate-strike-on-20-september/10044022.article). They’re not alone, as firms right across the sector scramble to get in on the act and proclaim their green credentials (see ‘Architects sign on for the Global Climate Strike’ – archpaper.com/2019/08/architects-global-climate-strike-september/). Other industry sectors able to spare a one-off Friday holiday will surely join the stampede.
There are signs that some state authorities are adopting a similar strategy (‘Edinburgh youth climate strikers allowed one school day off a year’, bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-49369163). One day off in a year to fight climate change? They must be kidding themselves because the kids won’t fall for it.
It’s not a strike if your bosses are giving you permission. All you’re doing is making tokenistic statements and giving your bosses the opportunity to indulge in some useful ‘virtue signalling’. Everybody wins, but nobody accomplishes anything.
The problem with the environmental movement is that it doesn’t know who the enemy is. It thinks we’re all in the same boat and that cooperation is all that’s required. But we’re not, and it isn’t. The enemy isn’t air travel, or industry, or agriculture, or plastics, or your personal heating consumption – these may be factors but they are not the main problem. The real enemy is the stranglehold on decision-making possessed by the global billionaire elites – the One Percent – together with their puppet state administrations. It’s their drive for profits – not some generalised human greed – which is ruining the planet. Universal democratic cooperation is out of the question while they remain in charge. They may pretend to be looking for a solution but they will try to prevent any activity which threatens to dethrone them.
And how do they do that? Brute force, in the last resort, however in capitalist economies where bosses wear suits and not battle fatigues they generally like to be more subtle. The trick is not to confront opposition directly, which might create sympathy for it. Instead you direct and channel it into the mainstream where its narrative is gradually diluted out of existence. If there’s a figurehead you can’t ignore, mock, bribe, discredit or kill, you can try to drown them in celebrity-wash until they become as transparent and irrelevant as any other reality star. That’s another reason not to follow leaders.
So, if it’s all tokenism, what’s the point of this global climate strike? Well, at some level it’s a valid consciousness-raising exercise and if you’re in a position to take a free day off then there’s no harm in it. But it won’t trouble the corporations and the government mandarins, and it won’t move the world a single step closer to what it really needs, the global abolition of the capitalist system with its class ownership and market economy. Instead of tokenism and virtue signalling, workers need to take the world into a new era of common ownership and democratic guardianship of all the world’s resources. But don’t bother asking your boss’s permission for that, because you certainly won’t get it.