Sometimes in history there are individuals who step up to take a collective burden upon themselves.
Sometimes they might be saying the exact same things as countless others, but their character and bearing lend a weight to their actions that strikes a chord in others, stirring them to action.
We’re talking here about a kind of moral authority that leads by example. An example that holds a mirror to our souls in these dark times and finds them not wanting, but full of potential.
An example that breathes life into our battered hearts, a palm, unclenched, bearing the radiant flower of the possible, the still-possible, in a time of deepest terror and despair.
Not that we have already plumbed those depths: I’m sure there is an endless well of terror and despair waiting to be realized, if we let it happen.
But for now, let’s talk about hope.
In her seminal work “Hope in The Dark”, Rebecca Solnit talks about hope not as “it will all turn out right in the end”, but as a leap into an inevitably dark future:
“But hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises…. I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.”
Solnit, Rebecca. Hope In The Dark
Let me tell you a little bit about myself.
In 1989 I had been living in West Berlin for two years, in the north of the city, about a kilometre from the Wall that separated East and West.
Like most people of the time I had been following developments in the East. Masses of people were on the streets, demanding reform. There was an increasing flow of refugees taking advantage of the open border with Czechoslovakia to seek asylum in the West German embassy in Prague. Pressure was building. The East German leadership had just announced that the wall “would be standing for another hundred years”. Police units in Dresden were being instructed to expect the possibility of the “Tiananmen Square option” in dealing with protesters.
No-one, East nor West, was expecting the Wall to be opened. No-one was expecting the collapse of the regime’s power.
But it happened. And, inconceivably, it happened without violence. The police in Dresden refused their orders. There was no slaughter of protesters. Only a river of disbelieving but joyous East Germans streaming across a border none of them thought they would ever live to cross.
It was a time when the powers-that-be on both sides were caught unawares. When power literally belonged to the people.
I remember listening to East German protest singer Stefan Krawczyk on the radio, with his song Wieder Stehen (a pun on “rise again” and “resist”):
For long enough we’ve lain on ice
Long enough we’ve cried in vain
But before the frost can take our hearts
Our stiff limbs must move again.
Hope won’t come before grief’s accepted
There’s no salvation in our impotence,
Life is but of short duration,
No time left for abstinence.
I am writing this during the final days of the UN climate conference – the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) – which is being held in Katowice in Poland. The conference itself is in such dire straits, is being so roundly sabotaged by big polluters and their supporting governments, that among activists it is being retitled the “Conference of the Polluters”.
But of course the state of the conference is nothing compared to the state of the Earth.
We are in the middle of the Sixth Extinction, losing 200 species a day. Animal populations are crashing. Carbon emissions show no signs of peaking, and the even more dangerous greenhouse gas methane is leaking into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost. The risk of runaway, uncontrollable heating of the planet grows greater by the day. The UN Secretary General has stated that we have until 2020 for carbon emissions to peak, if we want to stand some hope of reining in the level of damage climate change will inflict on the planet. Time is of the essence. Our so-called leaders prevaricate however, in thrall to the vested interests of the fossil-fuel producers, who have decided that the best way to deal with the crisis is to deny it, whilst maximizing profits.
We are in the middle of a full-blown planetary emergency, and our leaders are telling us to do – nothing.
What are the qualities we expect of leaders, or even first responders, in an emergency? I’m no expert, but I would suggest the following provisional list by way of an answer:
We would expect that person to remain calm, clearly state what was happening, and develop a plan, a way of tackling the crisis. We would expect laser-sharp focus on the crisis, and the exclusion of all extraneous issues. We would expect decisiveness, imperturbability, foresight. Tenacity, conviction. A willingness to stand alone if necessary and a strength of purpose, with enough moral authority to sway the undecided.
To the best of my knowledge, these were qualities in short supply amongst the government delegates to COP24, most of whom didn’t get where they are today by standing up against the interests of the fossil fuel companies.
Enter, stage left, a fifteen-year old girl. A young person who has been studying the effects of climate change from the age of nine. A girl who felt so depressed by the state of the planet that she spent a year not talking. Someone who thought that going on strike to save the climate would be a good idea, and who, when nobody joined her, just did it herself. Someone who camped out alone on the steps of the Swedish Parliament with a hand-painted sign saying “school strike for climate”. Someone whose Asperger’s syndrome has enabled her to focus on the sole issue of climate change to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in hagiography. I’m just saying that in desperate times, sometimes people get leadership and inspiration from the most unexpected of places.
So, the scene is, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg goes to COP24 in Katowice and gets to give a speech to the UN Secretary General and the plenary session of the conference. The abridged version goes something like this:
“For 25 years countless people have stood in front of the United Nations climate conferences, asking our nations’ leaders to stop the emissions. But, clearly this has not worked since the emissions just continue to rise.
So I will not ask them anything.
Instead I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis.
Instead I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us.
Because we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness….We can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.
So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.
We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”
This is the real revolutionary message of Katowice, delivered, not by some cigar-smoking veteran of a war of liberation but by a soft-spoken teenager with plaits in her hair. A message implicitly sanctioned – to his eternal credit – by the Secretary General himself.
This is about as clear as it gets.
In the time frame left to us – less than two years to start bringing emissions sharply down – we can no longer count on our governments, or on the “One Percent”, having our best interests at heart.
They have betrayed us. They have betrayed Earth. They are so devoted to their so-called business model that they are willing to see the planet sacrificed on the altar of money and profit.
We have one chance, for ourselves, and for future generations: We must rise.
With regard to climate change, the future is still unwritten, although it may soon be set in stone, beyond any human influence.
Let me tell you a little bit more about myself.
I am desperately pessimistic.
I am also desperately optimistic.
My pessimism and my optimism are both born of my despair. My optimism is borne forth by the knowledge that our only hope now is action.
There is a saying in German which goes “Du hast keine Chance, aber nütze sie”. A rough translation would be “You don’t have a ghost of a chance, better make the most of it”.
The farce of the “Conference of the Polluters” is a slap in the face for us all.
But Greta’s message is echoing round the globe. Today, students in fourteen cities in Germany went on climate strike. Powerful demonstrations have been recorded in Australia, Canada, other European countries.
The youth are rising. Let us rise with them.