People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier marked Greta Thunberg’s arrival in North America by viciously attacking the teenage climate activist, calling her mentally unstable in apparent reference to her having Asperger syndrome.
Bernier doubled down in a subsequent volley of tweets, in the manner of the self-described "very stable genius," U.S. President Donald Trump.
It was an odious bookend to the criticism levelled at Thunberg during her sailing voyage, which kicked off in earnest when New York Times contributor Christopher Caldwell denounced her climate activism as "radical" and undemocratic in “The Problem With Greta Thunberg’s Climate Activism."
Caldwell gamely rationalized his criticism, stating, “Kids (Thunberg’s) age have not seen much of life. Her world view might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.”
Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish teenager who began protesting government inaction on climate change outside the Swedish parliament last August, has catalyzed the global school strike for climate movement (sometimes called Fridays for Future). After stealing the show at the COP24 climate change conference, she inspired an estimated 1.4 million students, including thousands of Canadian youth, to join her in a global student strike this past March 15.
Bernier, Caldwell and all the critics in between have been widely pilloried, but a more sympathetic view is warranted.
Older men are known to experience anxiety on realizing they lack what society’s vigorous youth possess. Psychoanalytic theory tells us their coveting of younger generations’ environmental conscientiousness leads to feelings of inferiority, and defensive or compensatory behaviour.
Seeing past the green-eyed monster
Not wanting to give oxygen to the outbursts of a sixth-rate Canadian party leader (according to 338Canada.com, Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada is polling sixth behind the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, Green party and Bloc Québécois), I’ll focus on the New York Times piece, which paints its argument with a substantial intellectual veneer.
I’m not sure whether Caldwell is more of a Hatha or Ashtanga man, but his rhetorical yoga is supple, and he shows sublime command of advanced contortions. The root of his argument seems to be that the future should not be the purview of the young and the restless, but the old and the bloviating.
Alas, the days of sinecure-holding think-tank personalities imposing a tight monopoly on American public discourse are over. Social media has thrown the Overton window wide open, and in this newly free marketplace of ideas, Thunberg and company are running the table.
There can be nothing more democratic than an idea winning hearts and minds on the strength of its own merits in a deregulated marketplace, nor anything more dangerous to self-appointed gatekeepers of serious debate.
Sadly, Caldwell conflates his punditocracy with democracy — a Freudian slip? — and cobbles some logic for fearmongering’s sake. In truth, activism is the beating heart of a healthy democracy; the only threat it presents is to Caldwell’s favoured ancien regime.
While Bernier’s inchoate rage impoverishes rather than enriches the public dialogue, climate advocates would also do well to recognize that some of Thunberg’s critics’ core concerns do have merit. As Langley chemist Blair King noted in an articulate recent blog post:
"It is easy for climate strikers and their activist supporters, who go to bed well-fed and warm in Canada and Europe, to tell the world they should use less energy. But the governments of China and India still have deep poverty and hardship to fight and will ignore those cries because they are dealing with louder and more pressing cries of citizens who need food and shelter today."
While we must transition from fossil fuel combustion as quickly as possible, we must never over-simplify the complexities and challenges of doing so, or we will alienate those affected and risk shrinking our coalition into impotence.
Consider proposed bans on single-use plastics: I hesitate to declare my support unless such bans are narrowly targeted. Grocery bags may be easy to replace, but the sterile, single-use medical-grade plastics used when I donate blood are much less so. And while paper straws have been adequate for my drinking needs, permanent exemptions for those needing bendable plastic straws for accessibility seem warranted.
There is also the challenge of affirming the need to transition beyond fossil fuels while discouraging boasting by those naively believing they’ve already done so. I can think of few things more counterproductive than my fellow early adopters extolling their electric cars’ carbon chastity as if they’d been fitted for vehicular purity rings.
These boasts won’t only annoy the oilpatch but public transit and cycling advocates as well, given that climate nudges may reduce support for truly transformative change. As Green Leader Elizabeth May has noted, the enemy of climate action right now (which in cities means housing density, cycling and vastly expanded public transit) is incrementalism: the belief that switching from combustion to electric vehicles is magically adequate. Zero-emission vehicles are absolutely necessary, yet still insufficient as a complete climate solution.
While we loudly condemn the Berniers, compassion may be the most appropriate response to the Caldwells of the world. Pundits of such stature have not seen much of life; decades of curated company narrow their worlds and acculture them to the comforts of patrons’ stately pleasure-domes, from behind whose ideological fences they propound pseudo-profundities. They are courtiers of a modern Versailles, insensate to the experiences and fears of the global majority outside.
As tempting as condescension may be, we must never forget that if we ourselves travel in too narrow an intellectual circle, our opinions will also likely decay into reality-detached platitudes and ignominy. Our best hope is for exposure to a diversity of views, and to hope that even in the sunset of our faculties, our empathy even for those whose ideas we dislike or despise remains an ongoing and growing sunrise.