X Close

Greta Thunberg, post-liberal prophet

September 26, 2019 - 12:45pm

Amid the continuing tumult of Greta-mania and Greta-phobia, Jeff MacMahon of Forbes has noticed something in Thunberg’s words to the US Congress that everyone else has missed. Here’s the relevant passage:

Wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum spending their time making up and telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep. These are ‘feel-good’ stories about how we are going to fix everything. How wonderful everything is going to be when we have ‘solved’ everything. But the problem we are facing is not that we lack the ability to dream, or to imagine a better world. The problem now is that we need to wake up. It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science. And the science doesn’t mainly speak of ‘great opportunities to create the society we always wanted’. It tells of unspoken human sufferings, which will get worse and worse the longer we delay action – unless we start to act now.
- Greta Thunburg

MacMahon argues that this implies a criticism not just of the those who deny there’s a climate crisis, but also those who accept the science and advocate action to deal with the problem – selling it to voters with promises of all sort of side benefits. Even something as radical as a Green New Deal, as proposed by the Left of the Democratic Party in America and, in the UK, by the Labour Party, is promoted as something we’d want anyway – a new New Jerusalem.

But Greta’s not having it :

This is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses or green economic growth. This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.
- Greta Thunburg

The liberals tripping over themselves to touch the hem of Greta’s garment haven’t twigged just how heterodox her message is. Liberalism, whether of the Left or the Right, rests on two fundamental precepts – the maximisation of individual liberty and faith in the inevitability of progress. These principles are qualified in various ways, but on the whole they remain in place.

So, yes, our wealth-creating industry is screwing the climate, but switch technologies and we can not only unscrew the climate but have a better, free-er world. And all because we’re so brilliant. In that respect everyone from the Green New Dealers on the statist Left to the ‘New Optimists’ on the libertarian Right are on the same page.

But not Greta. For her, the side-benefits of climate action are, at best, incidental. Her key messages are that our progress has led us to the brink of an unprecedented disaster and that whether it ultimately advantages us or not, it is our responsibility to avert it.

Favouring low carbon modes of transport, she has driven a coach and horses through the liberal conceits of the modern age. She states what the greenest of liberals will not – which is that thanks to our freely chosen actions we have arrived at a stage where neither progress nor liberty can be said to be the only, or even the most important, objectives.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments