You could call it the Greta effect. In recent decades, as the global climate and biodiversity crises deepened, the environmental movement has at times seemed almost moribund. It has been essentially the same tiny handful of activists facing off in an asymmetrical struggle against public indifference, media disengagement and political apathy.
That this wall of wilful silence could remain intact in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence about the depth and gravity of the global ecological crisis is of itself astonishing. What is no less remarkable is just how quickly things can change.
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect describes how small, seemingly insignificant events can be dramatically amplified in complex systems. When a 15-year old girl walked out of school with her hand-made sign and began a silent one-person protest outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018, it would have been impossible to predict the sequence of events her actions would unleash.
In July, just months after Greta Thunberg triggered the global school strike movement, the secretary-general of Opec, representing the major oil-exporting countries, labelled this movement as “perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward”. Mohammed Barkindo pointed out that the children of senior Opec officials “are asking us about their future because they see their peers on the streets campaigning against this industry”.
Thunberg’s Sweden has seen an eight per cent increase in rail travel and a similar drop in domestic aviation since her campaign began. While some commentators have derided this ‘flight shaming’ as pious virtue signalling, the reality is simply that as people confront the fact that their values are in sharp conflict with their own behaviour, some will choose to modify their behaviour.
This sense of profound shame has yet to penetrate Ireland’s department of Climate Action and Environment, where minister, Richard Bruton and his officials continue to defend the issuing of offshore fossil fuel exploration licenses with the increasingly desperate argument that if we don’t do it, someone else will instead. This almost exactly mirrors the industry and political rhetoric defending emissions-intensive Irish beef and dairy production.
For me, the unmistakable sound of radical social change began as a low, distant rumble, as we walked up Kildare Street in the direction of Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green. As we grew closer, the sound rapidly rose into a wall of noise, a cacophony of young voices cheering, chanting, hooting and singing.
That was Friday, March 15th last. I joined the throng, estimated to number up to 15,000, accompanied by my teenage daughters, who were barely toddlers when I first began to grapple with the climate crunch. This was a profoundly emotional moment.
It was impossible not to be swept along by a wave of genuine hope, even optimism, as we watched the boisterous, good-humoured but fiercely determined student protestors spill onto the streets in their thousands.
Our generation - my generation - has burned down much of the world in pursuit of the chimera of economic growth, and in so doing, has critically degraded our children’s future and narrowed their horizons as we expanded our own. This globalised intergenerational grand larceny has been underway for decades. It might be comforting to say we didn’t know what we were doing, but this is simply not the case.
In just the three decades during which co-ordinated global efforts to ostensibly tackle the climate crisis have been underway, we have released as many emissions as in all of human history prior to 1990. And in 2018, we burned more fossil fuels than ever before.
What we now confront is existential, not just environmental. “The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope”, the United Nations rights chief, Michelle Bachelet told a recent conference in Geneva. “The economies of all nations, the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every state, and the rights of all your people, and future generations, will be impacted”, she warned.
In the wake of the cruel summer of 2019, which saw unprecedented wildfires rage from Australia and the Amazon to the Arctic Circle, Siberia and across Africa, as well as the climate- fuelled monster hurricane Dorian, which laid waste to the Bahamas, it would be easy to retreat into apathy and despair or shelter behind lazy cynicism.
However, while dangerous tipping points in the climate system loom ever closer, politics and social movements equally have hidden inflection points. Today sees students once again take to the streets in Dublin and across the world. This time, it is hoped the adults will come out in force too, in solidarity and support.
In tandem with the school strikes, the international Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with, a moral crusade employing peaceful civil disobedience in defence of the living planet and our children’s future.
As George Orwell put it, ‘in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’. Now is that time. See you on the streets .
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator