The prophetic utterance of Greta Thunberg

Prophets speak truth to power. Our children will not forgive us for ignoring them.

Paul Tyson
31 October 2019, 7.31pm
Greta Thunberg, February 22 2019.
Flickr/Stephane_P. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Sixteen year old Greta Thunberg from Sweden has inspired a global movement of young people pushing for genuine action to slow down and stop carbon dioxide emissions, and then start reducing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. On 20 September 2019 I went with my 17 year old daughter to a student strike and public march for climate change action in Brisbane, along with about 300,000 other Australians.

Shortly afterwards, Greta gave a brief and bracing speech to the 2019 United Nations Summit on Climate Change. I watched her speech. I wept. I could not eat. I could not sleep. I did not know what to do with myself in response to the power, urgency and truth of what she said.

She pointed out that “listening” to young people like her is a sop for hope when no action to give hope is being taken. She pointed out that parents are failing their children and she was not going to accept false comfort as we power past tipping point after tipping point in global warming. Given the consequences of not taking radical action, and given that our children and their children will have to suffer our inaction, Greta refused to accept a counsel of despair about how hard the problem is to fix.

If our energy, production, transportation and consumption norms remain largely as they are, and if the global corporate powers who profit from those norms remain profitable within the current (plunder) model of profitability, the balance of the earth as we know it will be destroyed. If we look to economic solutions to these problems that treat money-making and the global economy as real, and the actual world - real people, plants and creatures - as secondary abstractions, then we will fail.

In relation to our failure to ‘walk the talk’ it is clear that we parents prefer fantasies and fatal resignation over reality and hard headed responsible action. In this we do not simply fail our own children, but we fail all the creatures of the world and the generations to come in a way that is unconscionable and unforgivable.

How dare we, says Greta. Our children will not forgive us for this betrayal. She is right. It is time for those of us who are adults to grow up, to stop pretending there is nothing we can do, and to stop – in obscene irony – pretending that the world will end if we take swift and decisive action to divert disaster.

Yes, such action will be at the cost of power, privilege and comfort now. Yes, such action may not actually even save us. But only action that is really in earnest will restore some good faith between us and our children. Surely that is more intrinsically important to us, as parents, than asking the band to play another song as our Titanic sinks. In inaction, we prefer hubris and fatalistic passivity to facing reality and changing our ways, even when this means disregarding the welfare of our own children. How dare we.

In Australia there are obvious things we could do immediately. We could stop exporting coal; we could move our own energy grid to at least 90% renewable power sources; and we could open up renewable energy, sustainable farming and land-care, and carbon sequestration as large-scale, state-supported employment and production sectors. That would give our children hope. That would restore some level of good faith between us and the generations to come.

If we do not do things as obvious and immediately doable as this, there is a drastic failure of political will. We don’t need to wait for new technologies, as Damon Gameau concludes in his well-researched docudrama “2040.” Baseload power generation is no longer an insurmountable problem for a high-percentage renewables national power grid as Dr Glenn Pratt has pointed out. Economics professor John Quiggin has shown that the Adani coal mine is not commercially viable without heavy subsidies from the Australian government, which makes no economic sense for Australian tax-payers.

But it seems that our politicians are acting in cahoots with the financially-powerful international non-renewable energy sector. Together they spread misleading, fear-based public messages about jobs and the economy, pushing us to keep exporting coal and slowing the growth of the renewable energy sector. Voting parents should not let this happen.

If the political will to do the right thing by our children is present, we will work out how to make not exporting coal and having a near fully renewable national energy grid fly economically. If that will is not present, we are failing our children. We are failing our children. With exact truth, Greta challenges us: how dare we.

But perhaps there is something even more fundamental going on here. Let’s talk about religion.

In the immediate aftermath of Greta’s speech to the UN there were three kinds of responses. First, applause. Adults who agreed, in principle, with what she said, wanted to affirm it, and did so via applause. Second, dismissive patronisation - this girl might make all sorts of statements about things she did not really understand, and her voice might be harming young people who should not worry themselves with ‘fabricated’ stories of doom and disaster; just trust the adults to do the right thing by them. When she is older she will understand better. Third, outright mockery.

But – being a religious person myself – it seems to me that none of these responses are appropriate. It seems to me that Greta is speaking to us within the genre of prophetic utterance.

You may wonder what significance prophecy has today. In Australia and around the world, there is a branch of Christian faith that practices prophecy as an active gift of the Holy Spirit. They are called Pentecostals, and the Australian Prime Minister is a Pentecostal. The genre of prophetic utterance within Christianity is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Biblical prophets have always had a lot to say about justice, about the judgement that follows injustice, and about the manner in which droughts and the degradation of the land are symptoms of injustice, hubris and idolatry. Such prophets speak unwanted truth to complacent power. Perhaps our milieu is exactly right for prophetic utterance.

Greta makes no reference to religion, but the prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition do not treat moral and environmental matters in isolation from matters of right worship. Oppression, injustice, ignoring the just claims of the vulnerable (such as the cry of children for a viable ecological future), and the biblical promise that the land will “spew out” those who fail to keep the law of God (Lev 20:22) when the “pleasant land will become desolate” (Zech 7:10-14), have obvious relevance to the global climate crisis.

The Christian Scriptures inform us that the lips of children should not be silenced; that leading children into sin is a horror to God; and that the crushing and frustration of children by the pride and sin of their parents are matters to be treated with the utmost Christian seriousness.

I believe that Greta is speaking to us in prophetic utterance. She is making an inspired call to us for very serious repentance from a hubristic, abusive, intergenerationally unfair and rampantly-exploitative attitude towards the resources of our planet. This call is entirely in line with the apocalyptic warning that God will destroy those who destroy the earth (Rev 11:18).

Surely, if Greta Thunberg is speaking prophetically, the right response should be to do what the prophets order – to ‘rend our clothes,’ ‘sit in the dust,’ and drastically and radically change our ways. This process is called conviction and repentance. As parents, there is no other conscionable alternative.

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