Blah, Blah, Blah: Young People, the Climate Crisis, Hope and the ‘Dithering’ of Adults

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In a recent article in The Guardian, Damian Carrington (2021) presents a number of extracts from a speech by Greta Thunberg to the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy, on Tuesday September 28, 2021 – a speech that was timed in relation to the upcoming COP 26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland. Greta’s targets in the speech are political, business and community leaders (adults) and their (empty?) rhetoric about what is to be done in the context of the climate crisis.

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah…This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

“Of course we need constructive dialogue…But they’ve now had 30 years of blah, blah, blah and where has that led us? We can still turn this around – it is entirely possible. It will take immediate, drastic annual emission reductions. But not if things go on like today. Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal toward all present and future generations.”

She is sceptical about these adults, and their invitations to young people to participate in these dialogues.

“They invite cherry-picked young people to meetings like this to pretend that they listen to us. But they clearly don’t listen to us. Our emissions are still rising. The science doesn’t lie.”

At the same time, she outlines where she sees ‘hope’ residing, and the form that it takes, when, for so many, there is so little of it, or so little cause for it.

“We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.”

In this blog I want to use Greta’s words, her anger, her scepticism, but also her hope, to think about the institutionalised politics of the climate crisis, why it is that that this politics continues to produce so little concrete action to address the crisis, and what ‘hope’ is, or might be in relation to the crisis.

The Dithering (of the Institutionalised Politics of COP26 and Beyond)

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/27/cop26-climate-talks-will-not-fulfil-aims-of-paris-agreement-key-players-warn

Vital United Nations climate talks, billed as one of the last chances to stave off climate breakdown, will not produce the breakthrough needed to fulfil the aspiration of the Paris agreement, key players in the talks have conceded.

The UN, the UK hosts and other major figures involved in the talks have privately admitted that the original aim of the Cop26 summit will be missed, as the pledges on greenhouse gas emissions cuts from major economies will fall short of the halving of global emissions this decade needed to limit global heating to 1.5C. (Harvey 2021)

I have written about the concept of ‘dithering’ in the face of the climate crisis in a number of places – including a chapter to be published in the edited collections that we are preparing from the Bilbao Conference in 2019.

This is a concept that comes from the climate fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson (see this link to a previous blog on cli-fi).

Over the past decades a new genre of fiction – Climate Fiction or Cli Fi – has emerged at the intersection of sci-fi and ‘speculative fiction’ (SF, Haraway 2016). 

The genre traverses and constitutes a sense that our futures, fundamentally embedded in and shaped by our pasts and presents, might range from the utopian to the dystopian. In this way, there is also often a sense of hope and of possibility in these probable futures – even if that hope and possibility is tempered by our presents. Kim Stanley Robinson is an important and influential figure in this space, and his novel 2312, provides a name for our present. Gabriel Metcalf writes in a 2014 article from The Urbanist that:

There is also a name for the period of historical time we have entered, which I suggest we take from Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the great writers of our time: the Dithering. As seen from Robinson’s science fiction–imagined future, this is the period of human history, following modernism and postmodernism, in which humanity failed to act rapidly or decisively enough to avert catastrophic climate change. (Metcalf 2014)

This name comes from an imagined sociologist and historian whose periodisations of our futures – her pasts -resonates in our present. For the fictional Charlotte Shortback, writing at the end of the 23rd century, The Dithering,was the time between 2005 and 2060: ‘From the end of the postmodern’, a date ‘derived from the UN announcement of climate change’, ‘to the fall into crisis. These were the wasted years’. The Crisis, from 2060 to 2130, saw the:

‘[d]isappearance of Artic summer ice, irreversible permafrost melt and methane release, and unavoidable commitment to major sea rise. In these years all the bad trends converged in “perfect storm” fashion, leading to a rise in average global temperatures of 5 K, and sea level rise of five meters – and, as a result, in the 2020s, food shortages, mass riots, catastrophic death on all continents, and an immense spike in the extinction rate of other species’ (Robinson 2013, 245).

So, we dither when we know we face a problem, when we know we should do something about that problem – but we don’t!

In an interview from The Atlantic monthly journal in April 2013 (Beauchamp, 2013) Kim Stanley Robinson, in the context of making claims for the power of the sorts of speculative, science fiction that he and others use in grappling with what it means to be human, with our possible futures, and our messy pasts and presents, suggests that:

Capitalism is a system of power and ownership that privileges a few in a hierarchical way, and it has in it no good controls or regulation concerning its damage to the biosphere…So we are in quite a bit of trouble here, because capitalism is a cultural dominant and the current global way of conducting things… and yet completely inadequate to the situation we face.

If we take seriously these observations, including the ‘dithering’ that is still all too evident in the institutionalised politics of an event such as COP 26, then how can we understand the ‘hope’ that Greta and her colleagues and peers still speak to, still ‘cling’ to.

Hope and an Affirmative Politics of the Future

https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/we-need-to-reignite-the-spark-of-hope-in-the-covid-generation-1.4657849

In an article that my colleagues – Seth Brown and James Goring – and I are currently working on (in review) we engage with particular understandings of the ‘future’, and the ways in which ‘hope’ is involved in the ‘figuring’ of those futures.

The sociological literature on ‘futures’ is extensive and ranges across registers such as reflexivity, risk and the colonisation of ‘empty’ futures (see for example, Beck 1992, Giddens 1990, Urry 2016). 

In addition, recent scholarship in sociologies of youth has also engaged with particular understandings of futurity and temporality in exploring young people’s sense of their futures, generational relations and technological change (see for example, Duggan 2019, Leccardi 2012, Woodman 2011). 

In the paper we draw on the work of Barbara Adam (2010), Rosi Braidotti (2013) and Donna Haraway (2016) to develop a discussion of the ways in which ‘scenario planning’ approaches offer critical, qualitative research in sociologies of education and youth a productive mechanism by which to engage with ‘futurity’ in times of crisis and disruption (see the link here to our blog on the project)

Barbara Adam’s (2010) work offers an initial orientation to the relationships between pasts-presents-futures in doing the sort of work we have been doing. For Adam (2010: 1), ‘daily life is conducted in the temporal domain of open pasts and futures’, in which we are ‘mindful of the lived past while projectively oriented towards the “not yet”’. She suggests that we are capable of moving ‘in this temporal domain with great agility, pirouetting and swivelling to face both past and future, twisting and turning in the knowledge realms of perception, memory and anticipation’. In these everyday practices ‘we alternate perspectives between future presents which we anticipate and present futures which we enact’. 

From this perspective, Adam (2010: 9) provides a sense of the ways in which sociologies of education and youth can do the work of making future presents:

If we as sociologists and social theorists want to encompass not just present futures but future presents and if we want to acknowledge the reality status of futures in the making, then we need to change our implicit assumptions and our modes of inquiry. To bridge the gap between daily life and the study of that life we need to take futurity seriously and encompass the complexity that such engagement entails.

If this sense of ‘futurity’ becomes central to what sociologies think and do, then, ‘we can begin to critically support and, where necessary counterbalance, the innovative policies and activities that shape our world for contemporaries and untold generations of successors’ (Adam 2010: 9).

As a form of futures oriented praxis, scenario planning, in the ways that we discuss in the paper, is also shaped by our reading of what Rosi Braidotti (2013) has identified as an ‘affirmative politics’ and a ‘posthuman ethics’. 

For Braidotti (2013: 185), the future is ‘nothing more or less than inter-generational solidarity, responsibility for posterity’, and ‘is also our shared dream’. Citing Stefan Collini she suggests that ‘we are merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create, and which is not ours to destroy’. 

In doing critical sociologies, we can imagine that the future is ‘an active object of desire’, that ‘propels us forth and motivates us to be active in the here and now of a continuous present that calls for both resistance and the counter-actualization of alternatives’ (Braidotti 2013: 192). 

For Braidotti (2013: 192), the ‘yearning for sustainable futures can construct a liveable present. This is not a leap of faith, but an active transposition, a transformation at the in-depth level’. In a scenario planning framework that is informed by ideas of a posthuman ethics, a ‘prophetic or visionary dimension is necessary in order to secure an affirmative hold over the present, as the launching pad for sustainable becoming or qualitative transformations of the negativity and the injustices of the present’. 

In this sense, it becomes possible to imagine the future ‘as the virtual unfolding of the affirmative aspect of the present, which honours our obligations to the generations to come’.

The concept of ‘generation’ has figured prominently in sociologies of education and youth for many years, and debates about this concept have re-emerged in recent years (Wyn and Woodman 2006, Roberts 2007, France and Roberts 2014). 

Elsewhere, James Goring, Meave Noonan and I have engaged this debate to suggest that a generational perspective in sociologies of youth – one that is re-imagined through the concept of ‘generational entanglements’ – is fundamental to both the concept of ‘sustainable development’, and the ways in which the concepts of ‘hope’, ‘preferred futures’ and ‘affirmative politics’ are entangled with these emergences (Kelly, Goring and Noonan 2021). 

Importantly, in the context of the convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the 6th Mass Extinction, and the ways in which our pasts and presents are exploiting and using up our futures, young people’s futures, before they arrive, a generational perspective should provoke an ethic of care to the possibilities of futures and generations. 

The place-based scenario planning project we discussed provides an example of a collective project that is ‘aimed at the affirmation of hope, rooted in the ordinary micro-practices of everyday life’, and which provides a mechanism for mapping and establishing ‘sustainable transformations’ (Braidotti 2013: 192). Here:

Hope is a way of dreaming up possible futures: an anticipatory virtue that permeates our lives and activates them. It is a powerful motivating force grounded not only in projects that aim at reconstructing the social imaginary, but also in the political economy of desires, affects and creativity that underscore it. (Braidotti 2013: 192)

As Greta observes: 

“Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.”

References

Adam, B. (2010) Future Matters: Challenge for Social Theory and Social Inquiry. Cultura e comunicazione. 1: 1-10. Retrieved from: https://www.coursehero.com/file/32366161/sardinia-FM-Conference-Paper-301009doc/

Beauchamp, S. (2013) In 300 Years, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science Fiction May Not Be Fiction, The Atlantic, April 1, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/04/in-300-years-kim-stanley-robinsons-science-fiction-may-not-be-fiction/274392/

Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society, Sage Publications, London.

Braidotti, R. (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Carrington, Damian (2021) ‘Blah, blah, blah’: Greta Thunberg lambasts leaders over climate crisis, The Guardian, Tue 28 Sep 2021 10.00 BST, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/28/blah-greta-thunberg-leaders-climate-crisis-co2-emissions

Duggan, S. (2019) Education Policy, Digital Disruption and the Future of Work: Framing Young People’s Futures in the Present. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG

France, A. and Roberts, S. (2014) The problem of social generations: a critique of the new emerging orthodoxy in youth studies. Journal of Youth Studies. 18(2): 215-230.

Giddens, A. (1990), The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Harvey, Fiona (2021) Cop26 climate talks will not fulfil aims of Paris agreement, key players warn, The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/27/cop26-climate-talks-will-not-fulfil-aims-of-paris-agreement-key-players-warn

Hattenstone, Simon (2021) The transformation of Greta Thunberg, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2021/sep/25/greta-thunberg-i-really-see-the-value-of-friendship-apart-from-the-climate-almost-nothing-else-matters

Kelly, P, Goring, J & Noonan, M. (2021) School Strikes for Climate: Young people, dissent and collective identities in/for the Anthropocene, in B. Schiermer, B. Gook, & V. Cuzzocrea (eds.), Youth Collectivities: Cultures, Objects, Belonging, Youth. Routledge. London.

Leccardi, C. (2012). Young people’s representations of the future and the acceleration of time: a generational approach. Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung / Discourse. Journal of Childhood and Adolescence Research, 7(1), 59-73.

Metcalf, G. (2014) The Great Dithering, The Urbanist, Issue 532, https://www.spur.org/publications/urbanist-article/2014-04-10/great-dithering

Roberts, K. (2007) Youth Transitions and Generations: A Response to Wyn and Woodman. Journal of Youth Studies. 10(2): 263-269.

Robinson, K. S. (2013) 2312. London: Orbit Books.

Urry, J.(2016) What Is the Future? Cambridge: Polity Press

Woodman, D. (2011) Young People and the Future: Multiple Temporal Orientations Shaped in Interaction with Significant Others, Young 19(2) 111–128.

Wyn, J. and Woodman, D. (2006) Generation, youth and social change in Australia. Journal of Youth Studies. 9(5): 495-514.

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