Greetings from India. Let me begin, by expressing my unequivocal admiration for what you have achieved in the environment space in such a short period of time. I mean, there are already people who are vouching for a Nobel Peace Prize, which is so fascinatingly peculiar.
It is really heartening to see a young lady like yourself leading a charge on a global scale at such a tender age. When I was that young, all I could worry about was the marks that I would score in my exams and runs that Sachin Tendulkar (India's batting legend) would score in the one-day matches. Your candour and passion for climate issues are curious and impressive at the same time.
16-year-old Swedish Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US, September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Over the past year or two, I followed your progress, especially your speeches from "Our House is at the fire" at the World Economic Forum in Davos to the "You are not mature" at the EU Parliament. It's laudable how you are able to show the mirror to all these global leaders without as much as batting an eyelid.
And funnier too, to watch the same people applaud and cheer on, even as you rip them asunder for their hypocritical and vain approach to conservation. In many ways, you remind me of Marvel's Jennifer Walters after she has been stressed out. You are like the She-Hulk of environment conservation, except that your frame is diminutive and tone of your skin is different.
How Dare You!
There’s one more trait that you share with the Marvel super-hero. Quite like Jennifer Walters in the comic series, you seem to prefer the angrier-greener avatar over the more regular one. This can be discerned by the tough stance that you adopting in your speeches off late. When you started off, you seemed desirous and keen to impress people with your point-of-view, with facts, statistics and so on. Nowadays, there's nonchalance on display. You seem keener to punch and shame rather than talk and debate. Confrontation seems to be preferred over conciliation, brazenness over prudence.
Not An Accidental Hit
The best example of the same can be found in the latest speech at the UN General Assembly where you railed against leaders for stealing your dreams and childhood with empty words on climate change. "How dare you?" was the impassioned cry. The speech went to highlight the usual bits; the sixth mass extinction, the carbon budget, the inability to agree to a wholesome cut on CO2 emissions, and so on. The speech was a hit, promoted extensively via social media. In fact, it was trending as a hashtag too, "#HowDareYou". Am sure it was not merely an accidental hit.
FILE - In this Tuesday, March 26, 2019 file photo, a young girl walks through floodwaters near Beira, Mozambique. Beira's mayor Davis Simango dreamed about protecting his people from climate change with much of the city being below sea level on a coastline that experts call one of the world's most vulnerable to global warming's rising waters. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)
Indeed, climate change is an undeniable reality and we are witnessing the impacts on a global scale. Yet, the essential trouble with your confrontational approach is that it reduces the whole climate change discussion into binarism. People are coerced to take sides. Either you are against the capitalist companies and leaders who seem unwilling (or unable) to reduce emissions or against the climate-pacifists who wish to protect the planet at whatever cost. Either you are for the climate (change) or against it. The 'with-us' or 'against-us' kind of thing.
While that may seem like a logical approach to you, it certainly is not a prudent one. There is much more depth to the issue of climate change than just the number of species that are going extinct or the amount of CO2 that is being dumped in the atmosphere. Your repeated rhetoric assertion of "How Dare You" might have earned you plenty of plaudits, but it lacked empirical heft to back it up.
What came out that day, was a soliloquy right out of a Shakespearean play, wherein a young tragic actor makes an impassioned plea against the previous generation, who have wronged her in an appalling manner.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!"
The end if your speech was even more dramatic.
“You are failing us. But young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
The Other Side Of The Coin
Ignoring the theatrical aspect of the speech, the very core of your argument seems exaggerated if not entirely flawed. You seem to be pining for a Utopian world that has been sullied by the machinations of the past couple of centuries. The idyllic peace of this planet in which young people lived and aged happily has been debased by the toxic fumes of progress. The unstinted growth spurred by the liberal free-marketers has resulted in a catastrophic chain-of-events, the consequences of which will be shattering in the years to come.
It is the You-versus- Us part of the speech that really bothers me. While there’s no denying that the unfettered growth has come at a cost. There’s also another aspect of climate change that many people seem to be oblivious of.
Bear with me, as I bring to fore the other side. Let’s begin at the very beginning, say with the most popular symbolic manifestation of the climate change movement, the famous Hockey-Stick graph. The very same one that was made famous by Al Gore in his documentary the Inconvenient Truth and has been a part of million PPTs ever since. The graph shows a co-relation between Green House Gases and Global Warming.
As the graph hints that there has been a dramatic rise in emissions since the 1800s when the wheels of the Industrial Revolution were set in motion. The lines of rising CO2 levels match up to the lines of increasing global temperature.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, far left, and young environmental activists look on as Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, far right, addresses the Climate Action Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
But do you know what else do these lines coincide with? A line that reflects human progress. This is something that not often gets spoken about. Possibly because it is so obvious that it is taken for granted. Wouldn't it look ludicrous to find that as the carbon emissions were building up in the atmosphere, on terra firma we were going from strength to strength as a species? On almost every parameter of the Human Development Index, our world has moved phenomenally from the turning point of the 1800s, that marks the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The beauty of this shift is that just like the climate change shift, the human progress line is empirical as well. And while there's science behind climate change, there's science behind human ascendance as well.
To give an idea of the shift Greta, let's pick a few parameters. First up, it is the sheer number of us on this planet or as one calls it the explosion of the human population. You see, in pure biological terms, the success of a species can be primarily judged by how well it has grown in numbers.
So, if the tigers in India (in the wild) are growing in numbers, it’s good news for them or if the lions in Africa are decreasing, bad for them. Even, the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species, the IUCN Red List classifies species based on their current numbers.
Human population after being almost steady for many millennia, zoomed from under 1 billion in the 1800s to 7.6 billion as of now is an indicator of how successful the hominid species have been. No other species in the history of this planet has been as successful in self-propagation in the way humans have been.
Yes, the impact of this growth has been disastrous for the rest of nature, forests have disappeared, seas have been dirtied, thousands of animals, birds and other species sacrificed at the altar of our greed. Yet, the past 200 years would be assessed as a success from a pure species kind of POV.
Now, let's come to the living standard of this burgeoning population. According to the United Nations, extreme poverty is defined as "a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to service". In numerical context, an individual earning anything less than $1.90 per day is classified to be 'extremely poor' by the World Bank.
Let’s Talk Statistics
Going back to our turning point in the1800s, at that time more than 85 percent of the global population lived in conditions of extreme poverty. That means, for every 100 people that lived back in 1800s more than 85 of them were struggling to source their next meal. Today, the total population of people below extreme poverty is around 9 percent of the world population. Now combine this with the earlier statistic of population growth, this dramatic shift of numbers almost becomes unbelievably incredible. According to economist Max Rosser, the newspapers could have run a headline, "the number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday", every single day for 25 years. And they'd still be right.
Indeed, there has been criticism raised against this proposed shift from extreme poverty. Especially, as it fails to capture the income inequality between the have-nots and very-very tiny haves. But the fact remains that poverty rates have fallen across the globe. A good indication of what would be how in the past extreme weather events would lead to disasters like famines killing millions frequently, but nowadays, it is an exception rather than a norm.
Here's what Economic historian Joel Mokyr told the Washington Post in an interaction, “Until about 1800, the vast bulk of people on this planet were poor. And when I say poor, I mean they were on the brink of physical starvation for most of their lives. Life expectancy in 1750 was around 38 at most, and much lower in some places. The notion that today we would live for 80 years, and spend much of those in leisure, is totally unexpected. The lower middle class in Western and Asian industrialized societies today has a higher living standard than the pope and the emperors of a few centuries back, in every dimension.”
Time For A Progress Check
Now tell me Greta, is that not progress? Is it not fascinating how we have moved in the past two centuries? Not only are there many more of us, but much lesser of us also are poor and guess what, we are even living a lot longer.
Before 1800, life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between 30 and 40 years of age. So, if you were born before the Industrial Revolution in Sweden, you would not be referred to as a young lady at 16, but rather as a middle-aged woman not likely to live beyond the 30s. And this was not the case merely in Europe. We have seen life expectancy numbers go up across the globe. In fact, in 1905, the life expectancy in India was a paltry 24 years. It was 68.56 years in 2016.
Not as good as you have it in Sweden at 82.20 years, but much better than what we have a century back. The reason for this dramatic shift can be attributed to improved health care, sanitation, immunizations, access to clean running water, and better nutrition. To give you an instance of how much progress our medical facilities have made, take the case of Flu Influenza.
In 1918, a human influenza virus known as the Spanish flu pandemic spread through Europe and the US, infecting close to 500 million and killing between 50-100 million people. That's almost killing around 3-6 percent of the global population. Compare this to the 2009 flu pandemic, it is estimated that 11-21 percent of the global population contracted the illness, and around 18,500 to 150,000 died. In less than 100 years, our medical systems had become resilient enough to stall the deadly march of Flu pandemics, which has been a scourge for us through all these centuries, starting with the Black Death in the 14th century.
Similarly, there are many parameters that would amply highlight the progress made by humanity in the post-Industrial Revolution world. From infant mortality to gender diversity, from literacy rates to per capita income, from access to clean water to our ability to communicate (read Internet). The world has indeed become a better place, even as environmental degradation on a mega-scale has taken place.
In short Greta, the world that your predecessors have gifted to a young lady like you is much more equal, healthier, and fancier than what would have been otherwise. Were you to been born in the 1800s, when the world was much more pristine as per the Hockey-Stick graph, you would have missed upon the privileges of health, longer life, better food, education and so on. I doubt you would have much liked that.
Of course, there are grave issues that confront us; the melting ice-caps, the burning jungles, the warming oceans, the loss of biodiversity, and so on. We urgently need to find answers to these issues. And while you cringe and cry over what sort of world you inherit. But then you are one of the lucky ones who will be largely immune from the consequences of climate change, primarily as you are born in a first-world country like Sweden.
Honestly, I am much more worried about the impact the worsening climate scenario will have on the vulnerable populace. Environmental degradation can have consequences that stretch over time and come unseen, unlike the creative Hollywood movies that show sudden cataclysmic events. For instance, before the civil war broke out in Syria, the country had been facing the worst drought in a century stretching over a period of three years.
The drought situation exacerbated the fragile situation resulting in war. Places prone to resource scarcity, like water are also most likely to witness civil unrest. This is the case in Africa, Asia, and even South America.
Finding a Resolution
Somehow, you feel that people striking all over the world can bring a change. The core issue with this contention is that you haven't yet espoused what is the change that you really aspire for. The Paris Accord is surely a benchmark, that you relentlessly refer to. But how do we move towards that world that is less dependent on fossil fuel, and equal as well.
The best example of this dichotomy is in India. While the nation is the fourth largest emitter of CO2, it is also a developing nation with 1.2 billion people. Should its populace not aspire for the same perks that you enjoy in Europe? Connectivity, electricity, roads, public transport and so on.
It is an undeniable fact that going clean is costly, so who will bear the costs? Should India prioritise the needs of its millions or sacrifice them at the altar of global good?
And this dilemma is not unique to India. Numerous countries across the world are facing the same predicament. For them, the Paris Accord is shining goalpost but the immediate crisis within their borders is much more urgent. Yet, over the past year or so, you have emphasised over and over again, the role played by governments.
A World Of Difference
In your world, individual actions seem to account for much little. Besides the shaming of air-travellers, I have not seen or heard much on what are the actions that each one of us must take to mitigate the CO2 impact. At your strikes I see a lot of protesters holding card-board placards and sipping on water from plastic bottles, should we just ignore it as collateral damage in pursuance of global good. Or is it something that we all should consciously control?
By externalising the responsibility of fighting climate change to government agencies, your philosophy liberates the individuals from any sort of responsibility towards the environment. By focusing solely on the Sixth Mass Extinction and such grander things, we seem to be missing out on little actions that can have great consequences. Let me tell you an anecdotal story to illustrate this point.
Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa. It is listed among the world's least-developed countries and has a low life expectancy and high infant mortality. Some 130 kms to the north of its capital Lilongwe, lies a region called as Kasunge. Back in 2002, there was a crippling famine in the region because of which many of the people residing in the area had to migrate from the place.
A 15-year-old Malawian boy named William Kamkwamba had to drop out of school as his family was unable to afford the tuition fee. But William was not daunted by the challenge. He started self-education through books loaned from a local library. One particular book impressed him much, namely, Using Energy, so much so that he decided to build a windmill based on the principles listed in the book.
Being resourceful, William used locally sourced raw materials like blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and materials collected in a local scrapyard to fashion a functional windmill to power multiple electrical appliances in his ramshackle home. His efforts gained traction and he went on to build a solar-powered water pump that supplied drinking water in his village for the very first time and two other wind turbines, the tallest standing at 12 meters (39 ft).
Dubbed as the Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, his story is an inspirational one of what changes a single individual can bring in the society. In fact, I can tell you numerous stories of such individual feat from India itself, there's Jadav Payeng, who has single-handedly planted a forest that is spread over 550 hectares in the past few decades. Another story is of how Rajendra Singh, a water activist in India has revived water-systems in hundreds of villages using traditional knowledge.
Have you heard of the Rainbow Warrior, the ship did not paint itself with Save the World signs in bright colours. It went into action head-on, confronting the French government from conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific atoll.
Jane Goodall did not fret and time over how we were losing species. Instead, she spent a lifetime in Tanzania, helping us bridge the gap with our primate cousins, the chimpanzees.
Sir David Attenborough did not make a virtue of parsimonious approach to mode of travel, rather focused on cataloguing the diversity of this planet in a manner that had never been done before.
Rob Stewart relentlessly risked his life, till he lost it, trying to change the manner in which we look at the sharks and bringing to fore what industrialised fishing is doing to the species.
All these individuals and hundreds like them did not let adversity dampen their spirits, they did not start blaming others, they did not dare anyone, they started making a change in whatever little way they could think of.
A journey of a thousand miles is started with one step and not by standing on the sidelines and indulging in procrastination. By continuously being exposed to negativism, people tend to slip into a state of inaction. If the end is inevitable, is there any merit in even trying to fight it out. Could that be one of the reasons that people of Troy could not believe the words of Cassandra even when she was stating the truth because she was also warning about gloomy outcomes.
Let’s Hope, Not Despair
In the end, as an 'adult' who has seen and felt more summers that you have, my simple suggestion is that you need to soak in a bit more. Don't merely go by the accounts that you chance upon during your readings or interactions, but open yourself to experiences. While the term Anthropocene is not something that we should pride upon, given the impact we have had on the overall environment, we need to accept it for what it is.
Let us also not give way to despair. Remember, we are not merely a species that lords over the planet, but also the one that peers across the galaxies and aspires to reach them. All we need to do is pool our resources, collectively and individually and change can be wrought. The only thing that we need to fear and guard against is inaction.
Your generation is a special one, Greta. There's a lot of responsibility that you carry on your shoulders, and you also inherit of all our collective knowledge. From the paleolithic cave paintings in Indonesia dating back to 40,000 years to the E-book being whipped by an AI program, you get it all. Through our very many years, we have surmounted many such odds. We could do that again if we all willed. Am sure you would know how we all plugged a hole in the Ozone layer, years before you were even born
There's a beautiful quote in Sanskrit that goes something like: gate shoko na kartavyo bhaviShyaM naiva chintayet | vartamAnena kAlena vartayanti vichakShaNAH.
Which can be loosely translated as; don't mourn the past, or excessively fret over the future. Worry about your actions in the present time and live by them.
With these words of ancient wise men, I would conclude this note to you. Wish you all the luck in your endeavours and pray that you enjoy the wonders of this fascinating world like an old lady in the future.
Good luck and may the power be with you. :)
A somewhat-optimist Indian
Shashwat DC is Features Editor at CNBC-TV18. He is closet-activist for sustainability and CSR, when not pondering over the future of humanity or contemplating the launch of the new Android phone.
Read Shashwat's columns here.
First Published: IST