January 31, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
I read in the press recently that Greta Thunberg is “happier” these days, according to her father. That is news her critics should not be begrudge her or anybody, though happiness is of course a relative thing. Greta will never be “happy,” since happiness is clearly beyond her reach and probably her desires as well, as anyone should be able to surmise from a glance at her photographs. She has that generic liberal face, instantly recognizable by connoisseurs of the breed–the face that all dyed-in the-wool, 100-percent, red-blooded liberals, female ones especially, have and that consequently she shares with the late Coretta Scott King, Maxine Waters, Elizabeth Warren, and Rashida Tlaib, among innumerable others past and present. (Odd that these examples are all women; I hadn’t noticed that before.) It is a face that expresses profound, unrelieved, ineradicable, and indignant anguish over the deplorable state of the world for which Other People exclusively are responsible, carefully combined with the stern hauteur appropriate to a noble soul. To this face Greta has added further touch, also definably liberal but not so common: one that, when her indignation and anger are fully aroused, gives it a truly satanic expression—the tightened mouth like a bloodless razor wound, the glowing eyes that would put the most competent exorcist to instant flight. It is not that she is an ugly girl, or even a plain one. With a little attention paid to her appearance and an improved attitude toward life, she could be an attractive girl. As it is, Greta Thunberg at sweet sixteen suggests a half-grown child of the Addams family who has recently put aside the normal childhood play of drowning kittens and pulling the wings off flies in favor of adult pursuits like reviving the Anti-Saloon League and sugaring the gas tanks of Caterpillar’s heavy equipment. In her efforts in the field of what a century ago was called The Uplift she has enjoyed a certain success, and certainly fame, at the global level. So it’s no wonder that Greta is happier now than previously; but she is not yet done with us yet. When she is done—if she ever is—the human possibility exists that she will be truly Happy; Happy as the saints on Earth and those in Heaven are Happy. Possible, that is; not probable. Or even likely.
That is finally up to her, of course. And to her long-suffering but determinedly cheerful facilitators, the Thunberg family. She’s not finished with them either, though they’ve drastically altered their manner of life to accommodate her ideas and commitments. Neither her father nor her mother, a professional opera singer, were interested in matters pertaining to “the environment” and “climate change” before their daughter became obsessed with them, nor did they become vegans before Greta chose to do so. Even today they seem unconcerned by, and uninterested in, climatic issues save insofar as their daughter’s involvement with these partially compensates for the burden of her Aspergers Syndrome by giving her a purpose in life and the sense that she is accomplishing something, that she is being taken seriously–above all, perhaps, that as an adolescent celebrity she is receiving the attention of the world. These are natural and human satisfactions and pleasures, and it is hard, as I say, to begrudge someone in her position for them.
Yet while Greta seems entirely sincere in her concerns, it is equally natural to speculate on her honesty—her consistency that is, both in acting upon them and in recognizing the truth that she, as much as anyone alive, has been a beneficiary her whole life of the material advantages the capitalist-technocratic industrial system has bestowed upon her generation, as it did previous ones. What comforts, pleasures, and conveniences, one wonders, has she given up since her Awakening? Exchanging a private catamaran and three weeks at sea for an airline ticket is bound to sound to a lot of people like a pretty good deal; considering especially that the boat’s captain flew home in a big bad jet leaving a carbon footprint more than 3000 miles long. Only a couple of weeks ago, Greta traveled to Switzerland to give Davos Man the same evil eye she leveled at President Trump last year. I don’t know her mode of transportation, but it certainly wasn’t a catamaran, nor was it a pair of waxen wings like those of the unfortunate Icarus. Nevertheless, she was greeted by the assembled billionaires flown in on their private jets as if she were Mother Greta arrived from Calcutta after a ride of a couple of thousand miles across mountains and deserts astride a donkey.
In short, Thunbergs all seem to be making out pretty well from the international exposure, fame, and attention just one of them is receiving. Success in the modern world, Raymond Chandler observed, is always to some extent or another a scam. Might Mother Greta and her crusade be another of them? We shall see, I suppose. Time will tell. Even the most ingenious and successful scams have a limited lifespan. My own jaundiced prediction is that Greta will end by profiting far more from her activities and her reputation than she sacrifices by them. How, after all, could even the most conscientious, frugal, and self-sacrificing person contrive to live in the contemporary world without remaining, as environmentalists regard human beings, one of 7.5 billion parasites sucking the life from Gaia? Meanwhile, with regard to a massive global action depending for its success on the good will, self-sacrifice, and full cooperation of those same seven and a half billion, representatives of drastically diverse societies comprising highly competitive, combative, and mutually suspicious and self-interested nations: This is just the sort of Babel-like project human beings are least suited to succeed at. No matter how many international agreements and pacts are signed, however many summits held, it is doomed to failure as every party seeks to maximize its advantages relative to those of the others and fudge on its promises—in short to cheat, and cheat on a scale as massive as the effort itself.
One needn’t be a cynic—or a prophet–to foresee that the War on Climate Change will produce nothing more than fear and ultimate frustration at the global level, and the enduring image of Greta Thunberg preserved for posterity as the grim and angry face of “caring” liberalism than consumes and exploits the natural world and humanity more than it cares about them, while maintaining its hypocritical self-image by lying to and deceiving itself.
But will Greta grow happier, every day in every way?