When I was sixteen: An open critical letter to Greta Thunberg
I will probably get lots of flak from Greta Thunberg supporters, friends and colleagues of mine. After all, a good number of you know I’ve a deep passion for international/global development, took a masters degree in the subject, wrote a doctoral thesis relating to the topic and have some practical experience on development. Ok, not exactly on environmental causes or climate change but close. And yet here I am, criticising a sixteen-year-old climate change activist.
When I was sixteen Greta, climate change/saving the earth/environmental protection wasn’t new to myself but quite far away from my priorities. Sixteen meant fretting over ‘O’ Level or in British terms, GCSEs, worrying which Junior College—in British terms, Year 12 and Year 13/Sixth Form—I would go to, how my educational future would look like and what sort of jobs I could acquire. Climate change was not just featured through my O Level Geography. It came about during my primary school years, where we children were taught to re-use paper, not throw away un-recyclable waste, and save water. The last item is still heavily featured in my country and my mind. The name ‘Jie Sheng’ has a meaning but is also known as 节省 or jié shěng, to save. We school children were thus taught to ‘jié sheng yòng shuǐ’ or ‘save up/use water wisely’. I was teased over it so much over it.
Anyway, what it showed was that environmental protection was a key issue for me, but not through campaigning or sailing with your father through the Atlantic from Sweden to New York. Such conservation was as Miss Thunberg demands, was already government-led in my country. But to demand that all governments switch towards climate protection, whether be in in 2001—when I was sixteen—or now in 2019, is a very tall order. At sixteen, I had little idea about the effectiveness of government policies. Within the next year, in Junio College, I was taught about effective and inefficient governments in economics and this education on government actions continued throughout my academic studies and practical experience.
My message to Greta is simple: You can’t just fault or pressure governments to act on climate change. You come from Sweden, where the tax rates are extremely high and the government reciprocates my providing almost all social services to people right to the old ages. I’m from one of the successful Asian Tigers, where rational government policies along side the private sector worked to create a country which has grown rapidly and created sustainable development policies long before the formulation of the MDGs or the SDGs or any of your campaigning. There are also faulty government policies from industrialised and developing countries which at best, improve the environment for only elites in a country. On the other hand, private actions, not exactly sailing across oceans in a multi-million-dollar yacht or being vegan, have a role to play in saving the earth or as my namesake says, ‘jié shěng’.
My second message is about the style of campaigning or activism Greta uses. She convinces—present tense because it might still occur—teenagers or children to skip school and protest against their governments to focus on climate change. In simple terms, the message is:Listen governments, you better focus all your efforts on climate change, or we won’t go to school. Now, I’ve dabbled with campaigning in my undergraduate years, albeit not to Greta’s extent or success. But campaigning should not be, first, threatening, or second, detrimental to one self or third, shooting yourself in the foot. Greta and her fanatical followers commit all three acts: They threaten themselves more than the governments:1) By skipping school, they receive less education and 2) lower their skills set and thus reducing their chances of long-term employment. As a result, governments and future governments will have to tend to a group of low-skill, highly unemployed activists believing in doomday.
This brings me to my third criticism, that the focus should be on the climate/environment during global talks like the UNGA or G8 or G20 or regional talks. Greta says, ‘you destroy my childhood dreams.’ In a jovial argument, I say my childhood dream was to be a train engineer, which ironically, means I would be polluting the earth. But I never managed to enter that world. She also mentioned that governments focus on eternal growth and not climate change.
Seriously, is a discussion on economic growth really detrimental? Let’s walk back to East Asia’s development. If there wasn’t focus on economic growth, East Asian governments, as well as China who entered the development realm later, wouldn’t have the economies they have today and the capabilities to curtail—I do not really believe in the term combating—climate change. It is churlish to say there should be a focu onlys on the climate—nearly all UNGA, G8, G20, whatever multilateral or regional forum there is—includes environmental protection in their final communiques, alongside economic growth or sustainable growth. Furthermore, ask a government official in a least developed country: Would you focus on the climate or would you focus on ways to improve your economy so you can have sustainable progress and reduce foreign official development assistance?
Finally, let’s look at the future which being campaigned. As mentioned, education and jobs were at the forefront of my mind at sixteen. Apparently, destroyed child dreams is one of Greta’s messages to governments. Deal with the climate because you are destroying my dreams. As I mentioned, I dreamt as a child to be train engineer and oh, my dreams are destroyed, albeit not by the climate. Yes, the future will be literally bleak if there aren’t policies to curtail climate change, but this doesn’t mean you should encourage children should skip school to protest. No, again, faulting governments or sailing yachts isn’t the way forward. To twist former US President Kennedy’s phrase, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your world. Activism is fine, but make it rational and strop thinking governments are to blame or the way forward.