By Jonathan Cook
October 02, 2019 "Information
Clearing House" -
more Greta Thunberg articulates the terrifying
emotions of awakening to our imminent extinction as
a species – as she did, filled with trembling rage,
at last week’s UN “action summit” on the climate
crisis – the more a section of the progressive left
digs its heels in to resist her role as an agent of
I am not talking here of the “let’s keep our head
in the sand” left that denies climate change. Or of
the “all we need is for the people to seize the
means of production and then pillage the planet on
behalf of the workers rather than the bosses” left.
Both are annoyingly visible.
I mean the progressive left that understands we
are hurtling towards a climate catastrophe
engineered by the hubris of a tiny power-elite and
our own unthinking, complicit greed. This is the
left that knows we need to radically overhaul our
societies and priorities, and quickly ween ourselves
off fossil fuels, to save life on the planet.
And yet nonetheless, a segment of this left gets
angry every time Thunberg appears on TV to set out
methodically and movingly why our societies are in
the grip of a collective, self-destructive madness.
Confronted by Thunberg’s activism, their natural
antagonism towards the rich and powerful collapses
into a mire of cynicism towards Thunberg herself.
Their arguments fall into three main categories.
Let’s assess each on its merits.
1. It’s child abuse!
It is strange to see how some on the left
suddenly turn into Victorian prudes the moment the
16-year-old Swede says exactly what they have been
thinking but does so to much greater effect.
Children, it seems, should again only be seen, not
Thunberg and her generation are living on a dying
planet, a planet the older generation – through
their greed, their alienation from the natural
world, and their spiritual emptiness – plundered and
despoiled with no thought for those who would follow
The people who organised the pillage are our
leaders, an elite that dominate the economy and
control our politics and the media. But we all
conspired in the planet’s destruction. We bought the
unnecessary goods they produced and marketed. We
believed in their fairy tale of endless growth on a
finite planet. We allowed ourselves to be distracted
with mindless entertainment while the planet grew
hotter and choked on our pollution.
Our generation carried out a slash-and-burn
policy across the entire surface of the planet,
leaving our children with no sanctuary while the
Earth spends centuries recovering. The most
venerated among the grown-ups, our business leaders,
wonder whether we can now travel into space to
start all over again. And some call Thunberg
The idea that any adult has the right to tell
Thunberg and the millions of other children we
betrayed that they should simply shut up, stop the
strikes and go back to school to finish their
studies is ludicrous – and insulting. Teach them
what? Teach them the same foolishness, the same
selfishness that we were raised on in those
educational production lines that turned us into
compliant, consumption-loving drones? Do these
children really need yet more of the neoliberal
brainwashing that prevents most adults from going on
strike too to save the planet?
Of course it’s not right that Thunberg has to
spend her childhood protesting so that she may enjoy
an adulthood. But her choice to sacrifice her
teenage years is not the abuse; it is our behaviour
that denies her a future, that forces her to spend
her youth marching on the streets with millions of
other children in an attempt to bring us to our
2. She’s being exploited by the corporate
The proof that Thunberg is not to be trusted, it
seems, is that she is now receiving so much
coverage. The corporate media is owned by big
business, so if they are prepared to air Thunberg’s
grievances it must be because it serves their – that
is, a corporate – agenda. Thunberg is a tool of the
rich and powerful, so we are told, whether she
herself understands it or not. Whatever the words
coming out of her mouth may say, however harshly she
criticises those who rule us, the truth is that her
arguments cannot be trusted because of the corporate
platform on which they are expressed.
When I hear this reasoning, I wonder how we would
have reacted back in the 1950s and 60s to Martin
Luther King. Had all-pervasive social media been
around then, would we have been filled with such
certainty that MLK was nothing more than the black
mascot of the white establishment? Because after
all, he received lots of media coverage too. Would
we have reacted as cynically to the Selma march as
we do to the climate strikes today? Would we have
told MLK he needed to go back to preaching to his
congregation, just as we tell Thunberg to get back
to her school studies?
This criticism of Thunberg treats the corporate
media as if it is only a propaganda
machine. There is no harsher critic of corporate
media than me. I have spent years using
my blog to show that even the most liberal
corporate media, such as the Guardian, where I
worked for many years, is a sham, constructing for
us a largely false image of the world that serves
the interests of the rich and powerful.
But with that said, I also recognise that the
corporate media is filled with real human beings,
with journalists. They are overwhelmingly white,
middle-class, privileged, complacent and
career-oriented. They care little for truth outside
the narrow parameters set for them by the corporate
culture they operate within.
But these corporate journalists also have dreams,
fears and children. Whatever the media’s commercial
priorities, its staff live in the real world, where
species are dying off in unprecedented numbers,
where the seas are rising and filling with toxic
plastic, where fearsome storms are brewing, where
chaos is starting to unfold. Be sure, many of these
journalists do not understand how bad things already
are, and the extent to which they will get worse.
Like the climate scientists, they have been trained
through their education and filtering to be
conservative and deferential.
But despite this, they know things need to
change. They increasingly understand that the coming
climate crisis is a story that they cannot afford to
ignore, because it will soon affect their own lives
and those of their children.
The journalists themselves are reaching a tipping
point. Some, especially the environment
correspondents, wanted decades ago to tell us about
the dire future in store for us. I worked with some
of them. But they were stopped by a corporate
culture that was not ready for their “pessimism”.
They were too isolated, too afraid of losing their
jobs to dare to make a noise. Now they feel
liberated because they have found enough of their
colleagues think the same way.
Thunberg is getting attention from corporate
journalists because she is giving vent to many years
of journalistic frustration. She articulates the
journalists’ own justified anxieties and does so in
a way that they can accommodate in the trivial,
man-bites-dog way they were taught was
professionalism. Like some benevolent pied piper,
this Swedish child with Asperger’s is leading
millions of other children to the barricade. This
dimunitive, shy figure is bold enough to express
what we adults have long wanted to say to an elite
that isn’t listening. She is a readymade Davina
confronting a corporate Goliath.
The suicidal elite at Davos and at the United
Nations enthusiastically clap at her criticisms
because none of them want to be singled out as the
emperor who is naked. Their welcome is beaded with
sweat for what she could yet unleash. It is fear
driving their applause. If they can tame her, they
3. She’s a tool of big business!
As I have pointed out before (here
here), the inevitability of the climate
catastrophe we now face was predicted with absolute
precision – almost to the week – by scientists
working for the fossil fuel industry back in the
early 1980s. They knew long, long ago that this
moment was coming. The corporations successfully
stalled a response for four decades so that they
could keep ravaging the planet undisturbed. And we
fell for their deceptions and time-wasting over and
Now the game is up. As those scientists on the
corporate payroll secretly predicted long ago, the
effects on the planet’s climate can no longer be
concealed from the public simply as the short-term
vagaries of weather. A different kind of approach is
It goes without saying that the corporations hope
to maintain for as long as they can the neoliberal
capitalist system that has enriched them and
conferred on them almost limitless power. Their best
tactic at this stage, given how real-world events
are unfolding, is to abandon their denial of a
climate crisis and persuade us instead that it is
too late for action, that we have missed the boat.
If the sky has already fallen in, then there is
no point trying to save the planet. Its fate is
sealed. The best response to unstoppable climate
breakdown, they will argue, are technical fixes
(that will once again line their corporate pockets)
to delay the worst effects while we all carry on
regardless, partying till the music stops. We will
be urged to plunder for our team before the other
side gets its hands on the last of the goodies.
There will be plenty more of this kind of
argument in the next few years. But there are no
signs it will come from Thunberg and the child
If the corporations are creating or adopting a
figurehead to neuter the climate movement, Greta
Thunberg is a strange choice indeed. Her
forthrightness has been liberating. Her indignation
and anger emboldening. Her guilelessness infectious.
Her youthful commitment a sharp, shameful slap in
the face to our own laziness and worldweariness.
We on the left have long prayed for mass
mobilisation, for ordinary people to get off their
behinds, take to the streets in protest and reclaim
their power against the elites ruling over us. And
yet when someone finally manages to do it on a
global scale – a teenager, no less – all we can do
is sit in judgment, scoffing at her and those who
cheer her on.
Does it mean, now that she and her protests have
exploded on to the international scene, that our
corporate rulers will not try to coopt Thunberg or
her cause? Of course not. It is a given that they
will seek to redirect these new, dangerous passions
in futile and fruitless directions.
Thunberg is not Wonder Girl. She will have to
navigate through these treacherous waters as best
she can, deciding who genuinely wants to help, who
is trying to sabotage her cause, and which partners
she can afford to ally with. She and similar
movements will make mistakes. That is how social
protests always work. It is also how they evolve.
Martin Luther King himself manoeuvred, sometimes
clumsily, between the pressing demands for equality
from black America he sought to articulate and the
fears of a white America that felt its privileges
were in danger. It is quite reasonable to argue that
he failed in his mission, that his dream was
derailed. The United States is still a deeply racist
society decades later. With the help of the
corporate media, US leaders have largely coopted
MLK’s legacy, reinventing him as a non-threatening
totem for a non-existent coexistence.
But despite his failure, MLK’s inspiring words
and actions changed the US in ways that can never be
reversed. He gave a moral voice to a cause that
garden-variety racists now usually feel the need to
pay lip service to. He may not have succeeded in
ending the institutional racism of the US
single-handedly, but that failure does not taint his
legacy or undermine what he achieved before he was
silenced by an assassin. Certainly, it does not
suggest, except to perennial conspiracy theorists,
that he colluded with white racists or did their
Thunberg and the next generation have an even
steeper hill to climb than MLK. They must change our
relationship not just to the worst elements in our
societies but to the planet itself. That will
require an entirely new vision of our future – and
the place where such a vision is most likely to take
root is among the ranks of the young, those whose
idealism has not yet been crushed by our education
and career systems.
Should Thunberg be captured, wittingly or not, by
western elites, there is no reason to assume that
the many millions of young and old alike joining her
on the climate strikes will not be able to recognise
her cooption or whether she has lost her way. Those
making this argument arrogantly assume that only
they can divine the true path. They assume that
Thunberg’s words have no life, logic or moral force
independently of who she is or whether, like MLK,
she is ultimately silenced.
More worrying still, they deny the possibility of
a gathering collective wisdom, a rapid growth in
consciousness of the kind necessary to save us as a
species. The dismissal on the left of Thunberg and
the climate protests is likely to sow seeds of
despair and hopelessness – the very outcome the
elites who are trying to neuter those protests so
is a Nazareth- based journalist and
winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for
Journalism. No one pays him to write these
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