30 September 2019

Thoughts on Thunberg and ordinary politics

Greta Thunberg
Last week, shortly after adolescent Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg angrily addressed the United Nations, I posted the following on my facebook timeline:

The world is in crisis; there is no denying that. It has always been in crisis and always will be in the present age. There are so many injustices to be angry over, and I went through such a period of grieving and anger in my youth.

But watching this performance prompts me to wonder whether this still very young woman is assuming too much responsibility for the entire globe, more than is emotionally healthy for her. It suggests to me that her parents need to offer her better guidance, perhaps encouraging her towards engineering or some profession that will give her hope that she can make a difference in some fashion.

No one person can cure the ills of the world, and Greta should not be encouraged to shoulder this burden, especially not in so public a fashion. Take time for family, hobbies, friends and, yes, political causes, but don’t be consumed by them.

I knew that some people would likely take issue with my assessment, but I was not expecting to have more than one-hundred comments, in response to which I thought it appropriate to make some clarifications.

To begin with, I do not believe Thunberg is being manipulated by her parents or by her adult associates. Her own statement leads me to conclude that she is sincerely passionate about the issue of climate change. Many young women her age spend their time outside the classroom milling about at the local mall indulging in typical adolescent amusements. It is refreshing to see someone so young taking on a serious issue with global ramifications. I am reminded of Canadian Craig Kielburger, who undertook to raise public awareness of the exploitation of child labour while he was still in his second decade. Yes, young people sometimes do impressive things that put them in the public spotlight. Thunberg is one of these. For this she is to be applauded.

That said, her own words and the anger with which she delivers them tell us that she would rather not be doing this at all. She would prefer to be back in the classroom with friends. This is what prompted me to wonder whether she is bearing too much of the world’s weight on her own shoulders. We need the zeal of the activist. We need the Martin Luther Kings, the Ralph Naders and the Jane Jacobses of the world to bring neglected issues to the surface of people’s attentions. We need both the social justice warriors and the social conservatives to make their respective cases for their fellow citizens to come onside of their proposals. But we need to weigh their proposals in the balance carefully, because it is so often the case that the activists are seeing only one side of the total picture, willing to sacrifice their own and others’ multiple and mundane interests on the altar of that overriding cause.

This is why it is so important, in the midst of the back and forth of advocacy politics, to maintain support for and to strengthen the ordinary procedures for deliberation that make up our democratic political institutions. This requires a high degree of patience with the slowness and untidiness of politics, as Hannah Arendt, Sir Bernard Crick and Jean Bethke Elshtain are at pains to remind us. Constitutional democracies provide a forum for our representatives to talk with each other and, more importantly, to listen to each other. A politics which descends into shouting at people from behind barricades is a politics in danger of succumbing to the allure of ideology.

Crick has much to say on ideology and its connection with totalitarianism in his classic 1962 book, In Defence of Politics, which I would strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in the subject. In particular, he notes that totalitarian regimes cultivate an ethic of sacrifice and an indefinite state of emergency to justify their continuation in power (p. 50). During states of emergency, governments take on powers they would not otherwise claim, as when Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the American Civil War and when Franklin Roosevelt deported Japanese-Americans from the west coast of the US in the midst of the Second World War. Both of these actions would not have been justifiable during peacetime, but were thought permissible during a state of war.

Now I admit that I, along with most other people, do not know the science surrounding climate change well enough to offer an assessment, and I certainly will not do so here. If the vast majority of scientists are leaning in a particular direction, my instinct is to trust that they know what they are talking about. Furthermore, if those most forcefully denying that climate change is real are in the employ of the fossil fuel companies, that provides further reason to doubt the so-called deniers.

At the same time, throughout my lifetime we have seen numerous warnings that the world is in a state of emergency due to a population explosion, a new ice age, a shrinking ozone layer, rising sea levels and global warming, the implication being that the time is short to do something to rectify the associated coming disasters. Because these forecasts are delivered with such insistence and authority, many will be tempted to doubt whether the normal political processes are adequate to address the situation. Perhaps something akin to martial law is needed to bypass the stubbornness of legislators and implement radical measures to stave off catastrophe.

Here is where the danger arises. When every cause becomes an emergency, constitutional governance is threatened. The temptation to declare one’s own cause an emergency is by no means limited to those pressing for ecological remedies. The same could be said of urban poverty, the drug abuse crisis, functional illiteracy, high unemployment, annual budget deficits, the national debt, regional physician shortages, and the high cost of health care. Of course, there are no quick fixes to any of these issues, all of which are worthy of attention. Advocates lobby governments with single-minded zeal to bring their particular issue to the top of the political agenda. And there is nothing wrong with this. We need such persons.

Yet the advocates are often not the best people to place directly in public office where they will be making policy for everyone, because they are likely to underestimate the significance of other issues not directly related to their own. If Crick is correct that politics is the sometimes messy task of conciliating diversity peacefully within a particular unit of rule and that “we must not hope for too much from politics,” then we should be wary of anyone who promises a solution to our problems by short-circuiting normal political processes.

This brings us back to Thunberg’s climate activism, which in one sense is admirable. I strongly believe that God has called us to care for his physical creation. I am old enough to remember what Lake Erie was like before the adoption of environmental regulations around half a century ago. Swimming as a child in a smelly lake filled with dead fish was not a pleasant experience. I am grateful that people like Rachel Carson summoned people to action to address the dangers of pollution. Our world is a better place because of them.

Nevertheless, if we believe, as I do, that God calls government to do public justice, and that fleshing this out requires careful and thoughtful deliberation over the multiple factors at stake, then we need to assess critically the claims of the advocates, even if they are delivered in anger with a single-minded insistence. Ordinary politics may be incapable of resolving crises definitively and to everyone’s satisfaction, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is almost certainly better than the alternatives currently on offer.

Cross listed at Kuyper Commentary.

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