I have looked at two brief videos of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish sixteen year old who sparked off the school strikes against global warming. In one, she was addressing the European Parliament, and in the other meeting the Pope – who gave his support to the next school strike. She had travelled by train. At one point near tears about the damage to the planet, she looked more like an old-fashioned child than a 21st century teenager. Her moving and prophetic speech was received with a standing ovation by the European parliamentarians. She spoke with a disarming and fresh moral authority.
The recent school strikes in Britain had been touching a chord, but there was always a suspicion that the strikers had found a cool way to get off school for the day. There was nothing cool about Greta Thunberg. She resolutely embodied the concern of a generation that their future was being sacrificed by the inertia, irresponsibility and fatalism of the older generation.
When you think of it, we in the UK have stumbled into a common understanding of childhood and our moral responsibilities towards children in the UK. In a world in which actions are often described as neither right nor wrong, only “inappropriate” or “unacceptable”, there is an unambiguous moral condemnation of the use and abuse of power over children. A dead migrant child on a beach, an injured child in a bombed hospital, images of sexually abused children sent round the world, evoke clear condemnation, compassion and disgust. And this is one great step away from the past for mankind. But it is as if we can only be fully at ease and of a settled mind with strong moral judgements that concern vulnerability and adult power over the child.
Perhaps these reactions to the plight of children represent a residue left of the broader Christian teaching in Matthew 5: “I was hungry and you did not give me to eat….” The strong public support for international development agencies like OXFAM, ActionAid, Red Nose Day, would suggest something of the sort. But the powerful impact of Greta Thunberg’s condemnation of adult, corporate and governmental, pusillanimity, self-interest and, yes, greed, illustrates the reality that moral demands are strongest when they express the interests of children. What more uncomfortable when we are destroying the planet to have someone looking mightily like a child telling us in the British and European Parliaments that we require “permanent and unprecedented changes” “because our house is falling apart”?
It is governments who have the capacity to bring about permanent and unprecedented changes on the scale needed to address global warming. Such dramatic changes have been made in the past and not only in wartime: universal education and the Welfare State for example. But where speed has been needed, war has been the context, and the goal has been destruction of the enemy. The Manhattan Project gave us the atomic bomb. But there could be peace-time equivalents of the Manhattan Project with international experts corralled under pressure to produce results, to invent effective batteries to store wind, wave and solar power, when renewable sources are not on stream, enable carbon capture, and fulfil all the glamorous promises offered by governments as future solutions to impending destruction.
“I want you to act as if the house is on fire”, Greta Thunberg told the European parliamentarians. Can the movement begun by this Swedish Joan of Arc galvanise middle-aged politicians as well as young people? Will rapid, concerted action follow? Or is this just a series of photo-opportunities for Greta Thunberg’s audiences, virtue by association. There is a major global school strike on 24th May. It is the anniversary of the release of the 2015 papal encyclical on the environment, Care for Our Common Home, Laudate Si which joins concern for poverty and the environment, in a new form of solidarity. “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is amongst the most maltreated of the poor, she ‘groans in travail’.”
We had better hope that Greta Thunberg’s impact is permanent. Meanwhile, mea culpa. Will try to do better and stop grumbling about vegetarian food.