Popular figures like Greta Thunberg & Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez surely have their hearts in the right place, but their methods and messages are failures.
There is no doubt that it can be gratifying to see women put the patriarchy on blast for the damage they have done and their impotence in addressing it. On an emotional level, seeing a Latino woman or an articulate teenager giving the system what-for for the mess it made seems like an act of justice in and of itself. However there are two very big issues here.
1. The System Itself Is the Problem
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the patriarchy. It has become fashionable to reduce the concept of a patriarchy to the definition given in male-oriented dictionaries, which is a system that is dominated by men. However that concept has been refined over the last centuries from its literal ‘ran-by-men’ to a far more complex explanation which acknowledges that the features of patriarchal systems are more defining than gender alone. Those features include structured hierarchies, centralization and the threat of force. Since this describes every nation state that ever existed, including the one that AOC participates in, she is part of the problem.
Her methods and messages all ask that very same system to take responsibility for addressing climate change — through centralized, structured hierarchies who make and then enforce laws with a threat of force.
Now I am not saying that we should leave all those poor corporations alone, because they are the problem. But the thing to remember here is that a corporation is an entity created by the patriarchy. Granting corporate status is the chief role of the state in our post-agricultural civilization. That status removes the responsibility from individuals, allowing them to profit while the corporate fiction takes on the liability, meaning that actually nobody does. Individuals who pollute our environment with such reckless abandon would be arrested and/or sued for their actions, and would be effectively prevented from continuing them. Individuals who profit from corporations will just sink that ship and build a new one, while not taking any of the responsibility. The ruling elite are even protected from the lower classes potential revolt through the states force. Those who profit from the damage corporations do are shielded from personal responsibility from all angles.
Put more simply, this is not a bug of the system, it is a feature. The state is not failing to do its job, it is doing it perfectly. It is protecting the special interests of the ruling elite from the majority of humanity. It is naive to expect the system to put itself in check.
However, it is not just that it is ineffective to do so, it is that it validates, reinforces and creates consent for the predatory system to do so. This is not how you tame or destroy the monster, it is how you feed it.
When I was a precocious 16 year old myself, I did not understand all of the nuance and subtlety of these larger issues, and even though Greta Thunberg is obviously a very intelligent young woman, she doesn’t quite see the bigger picture yet, either. If you follow her reasoning, however, the conclusion of her logic is also eventually an appeal to the system. She is unwittingly empowering the very people and structures that are the problem.
I do not fault her. But I do think her popularity has less to do with the power of her message, and more about how our culture revolves around figures who excel at acts of performative outrage. It is not her ideas which are powerful, but her ability to draw attention for taking the piss out of competing figures. Western society responds more to fame and rapier wit than it does to valid solutions.
Before I move on, I do want to recognize that Greta has also appealed to individuals to change how they are living, but this is also naive, and lacking in class consciousness. The number of people and number of changes is just too great to turn around in time, especially considering how rapidly the world is making new people and converting old world societies into modern industrial economies. And many of the options available for converting to a green lifestyle simply remain too expensive for a large portion of humanity. The environment is, for many, a concern too abstract for the reality of their struggles.
2. They Offer No Working Solutions
The icons of environmental issues are succeeding in turning the tides back in favor to their side of the clapback competition, but they are not offering any valid solutions. And since I recognize that their intentions are genuinely altruistic, I place most of the blame on clapback culture itself, and a public who demands rhetorical blood to satiate the thirst of their identity validation with mere symbols. Attention to good people for the wrong reasons merely to affirm who we are and what we believe in is not helpful, and is just pushing us further into maze of cynicism we thrive on.
When societies focus all their attention on these spectacles, they begin to lose sight of what really matters, which is solving the problems. At a time when we need to exalt creativity, so that it can thrive and provide solutions, we have gotten distracted by a circus of competition and fame. There are probably thousands or millions of people laboring away to solve the problems through thought and technology, but they languish in the shadows of our culture while we cheer on the talking lions in the arena.
Empty gestures are worse than doing nothing at all, because they allow us to believe that something meaningful has been done when it has not. When we merely signal our desire for change, rather than actively create its framework, it becomes easy to just move on, with a feeling of unearned satisfaction, while the problem continues.
So while figures like Thunberg and AOC cannot be held at fault for not having invented the way out, their followers make that less likely by shifting the focus away from solutions, and onto theatrics which only tend to gratify us in the same way that the mindless consumerism that got us into this environmental mess does.
3. Irony Prevention Measures
In order that you don’t just walk away from these criticisms thinking me a hypocrite, and in the hope that the following ideas might make their way to the superstars of environmental advocacy, I offer you my solution.
The most basic fact which contributes to our environmental, socio-political and economic realities most is that of scarcity. There are a limited number of resources scattered unequally across the planet which are taken at a cost to the environment and all living beings. Because of this humanity has developed an instinct for hoarding and dominion. But both the limitations of scarcity and the psychology it produced can be countered with technologies that make scarcity irrelevant.
Consider the technology of Star Trek. It was not space travel that made their world a virtual utopia, it was the invention and equal distribution of replicator technology. When they were able to harvest latent energy from thin air and covert it into matter, they ended the stranglehold of scarcity on humanity forever. No longer were resources harvested by the few and distributed for profit to the many, at great cost to equality and the environment. And because supply chains and labor became obsolete, compulsory interdependence was also eradicated, which granted individuals liberty and the opportunity to cooperate from a position of genuine interest and consent.
Rather than blabber on for thousands of words how these post-scarcity technologies could make the worst parts of human civilization obsolete, which I often do, I will implore you to use your own imagination and critical thinking to conceive of how great the effects would be to every aspect of our lives. If it is not within your imagination to see the massive opportunities this would present, it is probably not within it to appreciate my explanation, so this is work best done in your words, not mine.
However, if these ideas were being thrust to the front of the newsfeed day in and day out, as are the artifacts of clapback culture, humanity would realize their creation far sooner. If we were urging every ripe mind to invent post-scarcity technologies, and creating a cultural framework in which they could be distributed equally to all once they arrived, then we could conceivably begin to turn this disaster around in meaningful ways in a decade or less. With our collective will firmly pushing these things into existence, we could solve not just climate change, but countless other ethical issues that human existence currently contrives.
This is the message we need. While we put people on pedestals for fighting with facts, they are getting us nowhere. The answer lies elsewhere.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
— Albert Einstein