Dorian Lynskey recently wrote a piece celebrating Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday entitled 'Bob Dylan doesn’t like you'. The article highlighted the disdain Dylan has for fans, critics, journalists, and even the Nobel Prize Committee. Feted as the voice of a generation, and often acting like it, he still has nothing but scorn for those who acclaim him as such.
Another 'voice of a generation', some three generations removed, Greta Thunberg has been acclaimed by many politicians for her climate activism. But there is little sign that Thunberg has anything but scorn for them in return. It would be fair to say to most world leaders 'Greta Thunberg doesn’t like you'.
The most obvious example was her famous speech at the 2019 Climate Action Summit:
'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 in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!'
Now, there may be arguments to be had about some of the substance of her words. But it was certainly refreshing to see politicians scolded for their empty rhetoric. Thunberg had a point when she lectures leaders who want climate summits to be a feast of mutual back-slapping for announcing costly, ineffective policies.
This week, Thunberg was interviewed on BBC Newsnight ahead of anticipated policy announcements from the G7. In a publicised excerpt
(that mystifyingly didn’t make the main cut), she proceeded to make the following claim:
'You can’t live sustainably today. It’s insane. Just by, basically, paying taxes you are contributing to environmental destruction.'
Greta's impact has been such that it is surely only a matter of time before there are court cases on non-payment of tax, using this claim as a defence. Will we see a wave of environmentalists 'conscientiously objecting' to paying tax?
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) June 8, 2021
Is it possible to live sustainably in today’s society?Activist @GretaThunberg believes it isn't, telling #Newsnight people are contributing to environmental degradation by simply paying taxes, adding responsibility for change lies with government 👇https://t.co/RuwUXYKYsp pic.twitter.com/gDLv82yBrj
I doubt this is what Greta actually wants. A more reasonable reading of it in context is that an individual cannot reduce their contribution to climate change solely by their own actions. Why? Because simply by being a citizen of a developed country (with the payment of taxes being a signifier of being a good citizen) you have an indirect impact on the environment through the actions of your government.
Greta's ambition is therefore to create a hostile environment for politicians who refuse to act. Elsewhere in the interview, she says:
'What we don’t have is political will. And political will you get from people demanding climate action. So what is needed now is to spread awareness, to create public pressure to create real pressure and demand for climate action on politicians.'
It doesn’t sound like Greta is going to be easing up on world leaders any time soon. They should have listened to Kipling; having paid the Danegeld of feting her in public, politicians are discovering that they can’t get rid of the Dane (or the Swede, for that matter).
This doesn’t mean that she’s right, of course. Governments are just instruments of the public. While they can show leadership on issues such as climate change – and should also take a longer-term view of issues than the average person – the fact remains that governments don’t pollute, people do.
And while governments can make laws which restrict people’s freedom of action to spoil the environment, ultimately it is people’s choices which cause harm.
Greta Thunberg is popular in many quarters because she attacks governments for not doing enough, while largely leaving individuals alone.
All of us enjoy at least some of the conveniences of modern life, the spoils of those 'fairy tales of eternal economic growth', which keep us healthy, well-nourished and content.
The generation that Thunberg allegedly speaks for may be more inclined to be vegan but they are less likely overall to act in environmentally friendly ways.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that whether you’re a fan, a critic, a journalist, or even on the committee who nominated her for a Nobel Prize, Greta wouldn’t much like you either. The authentic voice of a generation indeed.