When I first encountered the story about a teenage girl who was encouraging “school strikes for climate” all over the world, it seemed to me that she’s fighting for a noble cause. Nevertheless, it felt quite unbelievable – from a purely practical perspective – that a fifteen-year-old, no matter how smart or capable she was, could create a world-wide movement so easily.
Spontaneous movement or social engineering?
When Greta started her strike in front of the Swedish Parliament, first photos and tweets about her were published by the organization “We don't have time” (“WDHT”). WDHT aims to create the world's largest social network for climate action, and they want to acquire 100 million members to pressure the world leaders to action. Highly ranked people from IKEA, different investment funds, sister organizations from Al Gore's “The Climate Reality Project“ and other green businesses sit on WDHT's Board. Their business model works by giving reviews to organizations, companies and politicians (similarly to the Tripadvisor), based on fulfilling the expectations of environmentally conscious users. For this model to work, a big number of users is needed. In other words, it needs a movement.
CEO of WDHT, Ingmar Rentzhog, was recognized by the Swedish magazine Miljö & Utveckling in 2018 as the "no. 1 environmental influencer", followed by Greta in the second place. In the interview for leading Swedish newspapers, Dagens Nyheter, Rentzhog and WDHT asked the politicians for a broad political consensus on climate action. The appeal was signed by several Swedish intellectuals, businessmen and politicians. Among them was an opera singer and a climate activist Malena Ernman, Greta's mother, who was awarded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2017 as ”environmental hero“ of the year, and also strongly promoted by Greenpeace.
According to some eco-activists, the interest behind "The Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg" is a financial one: artificially created consensus among the people will legitimize directing of trillions of dollars into "green" industries and public grants for "green" NGO’s. (Recently, the EU Commissioner-designate for Budget stressed that 25% of the overall EU budget for 2021-2027 will be allocated for climate action.)
The point of these information is not to create some "conspiracy theory" around Greta Thunberg, but to stress the obvious: Greta is not "an accidental star", a regular girl with the Asperger syndrome who one day sat in front of the parliament building and spontaneously became a global celebrity tomorrow. Behind her success there is a wide network of activists, NGO’s, tech start-ups, political players and interest groups.
Religious characteristics of Greta’s movement
Greta can be completely right in what she's saying, but the campaign built around her almost completely disables the rational debate about the causes of climate change and models to solve the problem.
Greta’s speeches resemble too much those speeches made in the "cookbooks" of advocacy groups. Since I find myself often in this milieu, I developed a certain sensibility for lobbyist’s phrases which surround us every day. This type of speech is carefully planned, full of soundbites and easily repeatable phrases, ideologically carved terms and emotional appeals. Put simply, no one speaks this way naturally (that’s why there are communication advisors and media trainings) and it’s especially unbelievable that a smart fifteen-year-old would speak this way on her own.
The whole campaign is built around the model of "storytelling", which for some time now plays a key role in marketing. As David JP Phillips, a Board member of WDHT says: "How is it possible for you to be so easily tricked by something so simple as a story? Because you are tricked. Well, it all comes down to one core thing and that is emotional investment. The more emotionally invested you are in anything in your life, the less critical and the less objectively observant you become."
Greta’s fight to save the Earth has all the characteristics of a good religious story. As in Christianity, the Messiah comes in the form of a child. In her UN speech, Greta condemns the world leaders in the manner of Biblical "woe to you" (Mt 23: 13-32). The narrative portrays Greta as a sacrificial lamb, a child which will be sacrificed for the salvation of mankind, similar to Prophet Isaiah's Servant of God "despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain" (Isa 53, 3).
The story has also other important religious elements, such as cardinal sins – polluting, emitting CO2 etc., as well as redemptive actions, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other "climate-friendly" policies. Greta starts her mission alone, no one is with her in the first days of strike ("There was no room for them in the inn", Lk 2: 7), but soon she gathers first followers (The Twelve) and spreads the movement. The followers quickly got the religious point and in the protests they carry icon-like painting of Greta with the halo around her head, in which it reads ”Our house is on fire", similar to the Biblical ”Look, your house is left to you desolate" (Mt 2" 38). Personality cult and the iconography are quite well developed.
For the efficient mobilization there is the apocalypse, the Judgement Day in the form of final destruction of Earth, which will happen if the mankind doesn't repent from their sinful ways. Apocalyptic atmosphere is augmented with strong slogans about the fast-approaching Judgement Day: "We don’t have time!", "Our house is on fire!", "Climate action NOW!", "The world has only 12 years before the catastrophic level of global warming", etc. Greta clearly illustrated the contours of this religion of fear with her message: "I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”
This quasi-religion has its heretics – so called "climate deniers", as well as prophets and high-priests – political leaders (Al Gore, Bernie Sanders etc.) and climate scientists with their official doctrine. About the latter Greta tells us: "Don't listen to me, listen to them", in parallel to Abraham's "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them." (Lk 16: 29). For the heretics, there are public pyres on social networks and in the media: it's not their bodies that are being burned, but their social reputation.
Spreading of the "green religion" demands sacrifice, and as in the pagan religions, for the gravest of sins and most demanding results, the human sacrifice is needed. Hence, a title in The Guardian says: "Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children", in line with long discredited myths of overpopulation. A human person becomes a means to be sacrificed on the throne of gods.
And where's the truth?
Here the problem is starting to emerge. I personally tend to believe that there is some kind of a problem with the climate change and that there are manmade causes to this change. However, in the atmosphere of the excessive storytelling¸ intentional polarizing of the public and labelling "heretical" opinions, it's almost impossible to evaluate different positions on the basis of Popper's maxim that each scientific theory should be, at least in principle, falsifiable. On the contrary, this new religion has elements of fideism and of that which Voegelin recognizes as a characteristic of all ideologies: prohibition of questioning. The fundamental truths of the doctrine shall not be questioned and those who do question it become excluded from the debate as heretics.
Even if it’s true that there are manmade causes of the climate change, and it seems to me that it might be the case, this still doesn’t mean that all the solutions are equally good. The clearest example are "population control policies", which are nowadays experiencing a revival. They are based on severely flawed Malthusian theory, which doesn’t take enough into account human ingenuity and the possibility of exponential growth of production efficiency. Apart from being economically flawed, policies based on these theories caused severe human rights violations (forced sterilizations and abortions, feminicide etc.). As a responsible citizen, I would like to be able to rationally criticize such proposals without being unjustly labelled, which is not possible in the current atmosphere.
And that’s the point of the whole story. I don’t think the problem is Greta herself, but the methods and ways used around and through her. Some would say that she’s not a scientist, but an activist who will bring this topic to the agenda. Fair enough, we can congratulate her for bringing such an important topic in the public focus. However, this doesn’t justify everything which came along: quasi-religion, prohibition of questions, labelling, emotional appeals, etc.
My point is this: if someone has to save us from the destruction of the Earth, this will certainly not be the movement which created Greta.