The TIME magazine ‘Person of the Year’ award is in essence an excuse to have a big old argument. Every year, TIME recognizes an individual who has earned a great deal of attention, in an attempt to attract some of the excess to their publication. In winning ‘Person of the Year’, then, Greta Thunberg sits alongside not just Gandhi, Lech Wałęsa and Pope John Paul II but a rogues’ gallery that runs from Putin and George W. Bush to Hitler and Stalin.
If they are going to have this dumb, opportunistic award, then, it makes sense to give it to Thunberg. Who has been at the heart of more controversy? Don’t say Donald Trump. Hardly anyone is interested enough to even try understand the impeachment scandal outside the US. The Hong Kong protesters? Their courage is undeniable but thus far their demonstrations have had little effect. Jeffrey Epstein? Now we’re talking. (But let’s be realistic.)
As our own Dominic Green has argued, the Thunberg phenomenon did not emerge organically. Behind Thunberg are ‘green lobbyists, PR hustlers, eco-academics, and a think-tank founded by a wealthy ex-minister in Sweden’s Social Democratic government.’ On the other hand, there are plenty of political ad campaigns that gain no traction. Thunberg’s success is evidence of how emotionally compelling her story is.
Emotionally compelling? In Dominion, Tom Holland argues that the Western world is still in thrall to the narratives of the Christian faith. Sumantra Maitra writes that there is something paganesque about our treatment of Ms Thunberg, but I think it is quasi-Christian. The pure soul is bearing the sins of the world, and through admiring her we are redeemed. People have continued to fly in planes, drive cars, eat steak, trash plastic bottles et cetera, but through elevating Thunberg to sainthood we maintain a sense of righteousness to which we are attached.
There is, of course, another archetype on which the Thunberg phenomenon has been patterned. Her youth, and the simplicity of her rhetoric, remind us of the child who observes that the emperor has no clothes. One problem with climate change as a political question has been that the complexity of the science involved has been dampening its force. Ms Thunberg’s blunt moralizing cuts through the haze of models, statistics and bone-dry debate.
Right-wing commentators have been typically inept in countering Ms Thunberg’s activism. Professional idiot Dinesh D’Souza argued that her pigtails evoked Nazi propaganda. Laura Ingraham compared Thunberg to the youthful cult members of the film Children of the Corn. Of course, leftists are using Thunberg’s youth and vulnerability as shields to deflect criticism but such boorishness has only played into her hands.
Other conservative commentators have leaned on the charge of hypocrisy, which is among the most popular and the most inane of the charges that right-wing people like to fling at leftists. An exhaustive and exhausting analysis at the website ‘Oil Price’ accuses Thunberg of wasting tremendous amounts of carbon with her voyage across the Atlantic in a yacht. Okay, so wasting carbon is bad? And is it really an earth-shattering revelation that her voyage was a publicity stunt and not a sincere attempt to conserve fuel?
Even valid criticisms of Thunberg’s campaign tend to glance off its surface. Definitely, her focus on Western countries is off-base when China emits almost twice the carbon of the US, and when Russia, India and Japan also emit more carbon than any other European country. Nonetheless, raising the question of she intends to make a difference in those countries also raises the question of how we intend to make a difference.
In essence, Greta Thunberg is a left-wing Donald Trump. By this I do not mean she shares the personal qualities of the swaggering president but that she is ‘meme magic’. Like Trump, she is anti-fragile. Every criticism, in her admirers’ eyes, confirms her righteousness and her opponents’ malignancy. Every charge of radicalism and demagoguery confirms the image of her opponents as spineless or dull-minded. Every act of rhetorical extremism can be excused by its association with the greater good.
But like Trump, Thunberg is being absorbed into the machine. Did you really think Trump’s backers and advisers wanted a wall and an end to Middle Eastern intervention? Do you really think the kind of super-wealthy, hyper-connected, probable Joe Biden voters who organize TIME magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ awards want to sabotage international economic systems? No, just as mainstream conservatives allowed Trump to expend the energy of 2016 in harmless bluster, mainstream liberals are allowing Thunberg to expend the energy of the climate justice movement in futile sermonising.
As someone who thinks climate change is a serious threat but that the ‘Green New Deal’ is premised on socialist opportunism and a desperate faith in the progress of renewables, I have mixed feelings about this. Climate apocalypticism is dangerous inasmuch as it suggests that no solution could be worse than the alternative. (This was the logic of liberal hawks in 2003. The hysteria struck me as misleading then and the hysteria strikes me as misleading now.) Still, there is something strange and a little discomfiting about how bourgeois managerialism reasserts itself; reordering its frame around a new phenomenon. ‘I want you to panic,’ Thunberg told liberal elites. They are responding with a party.