When 16-year-old Greta Thunberg let fly with her now iconic “how dare you?” speech at the UN, it was like she had just socked the “adult” world very hard in the solar plexus and they didn’t quite know how to react. Some rubbed their abdomens ruefully, accepting the blow, others sneered like playground bullies and most responded in typical “adult” prissy fashion. “She’s such a happy and cheerful kid, isn’t she, with such a lovely life ahead of hers?” “She’s just a teenager, what does she know of the real world?” “She’s just shooting her mouth off to get attention, throwing another adolescent tantrum” (like many world leaders?). “Why isn’t she in school, a disco, video parlour, sniffing drugs, vaping or doing things teenagers do?”
Did teens have any idea how all their smartphones, computer games, the entire internet and social media world were made available to them? The scooties, mobikes and hot hatchbacks — stuff they couldn’t now live without for even 30 seconds? Well yes, they did — they were made available, cheaply and with great bargain offerings by the adult world. It’s like telling toddlers to go berserk in a chocolate shop and then blaming them for getting sick. Or worse — again, the adult world’s doing — get them hooked on stronger stuff (“see, the first one’s free!”) — and then, complain when they rob little old ladies on the streets so they can get their fixes.
And now, when they resist and protest — in fact, behave like responsible and concerned citizens (adults, even) we point the finger at them? Look at how we (in “developing” economies) behave when we’re told to go slow on carbon emissions and deforestation and dirty coal-mining. We pout and point the finger westwards and whine: “They did it; they did it first and see how rich they’ve become, so why can’t we do the same? It’s our turn now.” Sure, they did it and most of them even colonised and pillaged entire continents and yes, they are responsible for much of the mess, but does that mean we should continue chopping down our forests and fouling our rivers and air just like they did? Should we too be as morally reprehensible and bankrupt? Besides we have another little problem. We have mind-boggling numbers of people — all of whom want to drive around in SUVs.
Too often the “environment” is seen as the implacable enemy of development. Trees come in the way of coach sheds (but who was there first?), tropical rainforests (and all life within them) have to be felled so we can “tame” rivers and build gigantic dams (which silt up very quickly) and dig for coal. Ah, you might say, but at least we’re plogging on the beaches (‘we shall plog on the beaches, we shall plog on the landing grounds, we shall plog in the fields and streets, we shall never stop plogging…’) and have taken up cudgels against plastic. Well, we can plog away till we’re blue in the face, but the next tide is going to wash up the same quantity of trash as the previous one.
As for plastic — it’s just another example of what we’re best at doing: Letting the genie out of the (plastic) bottle and then running around frantically trying to put it back in again. Yes, till recently, several “rich” countries tried to dump it back in other — poorer — countries’ backyards, but that is thankfully being stopped. Sure, plastic is very useful — but not in many of the ways it is being used these days. Do the toys of two-year-olds need to be armour-cased in bulletproof plastic cladding? At functions, is it necessary to place a plastic bottle of water on every seat?
Actually, the developing world should be able to throttle back: we have congenital “thrift” genes, which are programmed to recycle and reuse. We need to reboot those.
Children and teens and Greta Thunberg, you may argue, tend to think in black and white, very simplistically. Like all trees should be sacrosanct. Well, maybe that’s what is needed right now. And yes, of course, there’s climate change: we had three seasons in India: the hot weather, the monsoons and the winter. Now as it’s being said, we have the “pollution season” in lieu of winter. As for weather extremes, I’m reminded of the warning from Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall from the early ’60s: I heard the sound of a thunder it roared out a warning/ Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.
The fat cats and politicians need to try one thing: Stick their heads into a bell jar full of carbon dioxide (and other noxious gases) and breathe. That’s the future they’re handing over to their beloved heirs (and electorates). And all the gold and money and stock options and bribes in the world are not going to be of any use when your last breath is a rattling gasp. Believe me, there’s no feeling quite like when your lungs fold up like a soggy brown-paper bag and you just can’t breathe.