Greta Thunberg makes me uneasy these days. Which is not to discredit or diminish any of her accomplishments or to take away from the enormous impact she has had on the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg has made the single largest contribution to action on the climate crisis and her achievements and dedication are ones for anyone concentered with climate change to be deeply thankful for. She has risen to the greatest global crisis humanity has ever faced and has acted with tremendous courage and conviction. If the story of the climate crisis is a victorious one, she will be one of the heroes who turned the tide and saved untold billions.
Having said that, her more recent language and discussions around leadership make me nervous. Greta Thunberg has taken to railing against ‘so-called leaders’, which is her favourite term for the politicians, businesspeople, and financial titans who govern the world. While Greta Thunberg is entirely right to criticize politicians and businesses for their inaction (at best) and outright lying (at worst) on climate change, I worry she’s setting the stage to delegitimize global institutions and governments without a plan to replace them.
The problem I have with the term ‘so-called leaders’ is two-fold. The first issue is that lumping politicians, businesspeople, and financial titans into a single mass creates a gigantic and unwieldy collection of people with wildly different interests, aims, and mechanisms to keep them in power. Political leaders have different priorities than CEOs, although perhaps not different enough. Hell, global leaders can have wildly different interests and goals from each other, and over-simplifying the most powerful people in the world into a single, homogonous hive-mind can create this illusion of an evil global cabal that simply isn’t the case. The truth is more complicated. While this homogenized mass can be criticized, fairly, for not doing enough on climate, the reasons why that is are as complex and varied as every individual Greta Thunberg is lumping into her choice term. Suggesting an overarching motive for everyone is misleading and runs the risk of stirring misguided and misunderstood anger at leaders who may actually be sympathetic to the climate crisis, or who may need a push from their stakeholders to take action.
The second and much larger problem of calling political leaders ‘so called leaders’ is that it makes these elected officials and their institutions out as illegitimate enterprises. And to be fair, plenty of world and regional leaders are illegitimate, having risen to power in coups, having subverted democracy, and mutated institutions so that they can have an authoritarian rule with a democratic facade. But there are ‘so called leaders’ who have been elected in free and fair elections by their citizens, who will govern within their institutions rules until they are voted out of office. And what worries me about re-branding world leaders together as ‘so-called leaders’ is that it suggests the systems we’ve invented to govern our planet are a sham. That strikes me as incredibly dangerous for all sorts of reasons. Thunberg’s points, that world leaders are ‘mainly represented by white, privileged, middle-aged, straight cis men‘ who are ‘terribly ill suited for the job’ is a fascinating one. But whatever the skin colour of approval ratings of world leaders, does questioning their legitimacy improve matters? I don’t think so. Because, the question I would love to ask Greta Thunberg, what is the endgame of suggesting our leaders and institutions are illegitimate? Who wins when our leaders are recognized as ‘so called leaders’?
I think history can offer us a few hints. Mikhail Gorbachev was the subject of a New York Times Podcast recently, which made the fascinating argument that Gorbachev created the conditions for the collapse of the Soviet Union by encouraging criticism, free speech, and separation from the Soviet Union, but that he didn’t envision or create an institution to replace it. Instead, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to chaos as new republics struggled to overrule Soviet laws, ethnic tensions flaring into conflict, and the degrading of civil liberties. The collapse happened before a new order and institutions could be envisioned. My fear with Greta Thunberg is that she’s doing something similar. She is sowing the idea of our world leader’s being illegitimate and suggested we distrust them. She is cheapening our institutions by making them out to be patriarchal shams we shouldn’t trust or believe in. She is putting the kettle on the boil and if she pushes hard enough, she could hasten the collapse of the order we currently have.
And you know what, maybe that could be a good thing. I’m willing to consider the point that this push to destabilize how we understand global governance could lead to something greater. Maybe if the UN, governments, and the financial institutions that govern the world collapse, something better could rise out of it. But I’m not getting the sense that Greta Thunberg has a post-revolution plan for a more just world. And I’m not terribly optimistic that the breakdown of global order would lead to a fairer and better world in the long-term. Governing is hard. And a recent historical example, the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to the global pariah that is present-day Russia. Cryptocurrency, a supposed revolution of the finance world, was largely a scam. Streaming networks are struggling to turn a profit, with their parent companies realizing it’s better to release movies in cinemas after all. Revolutions, while satisfying on a primal level, don’t promise a better world. Just a different one.
One last anecdote (I promise). I once got quite upset with a podcast host, Jordan Heat-Rawlings of the Big Story Podcast, because he whined and bitched every episode he could about the frequency of Canadian elections. The man could yowl like a cat with kidney stones over casting a ballot and what an inconvenience that voting was to him. I sent him a furious email, in which I said, “Please don’t whine nearly as much about the frequency of our elections when we’re in the midst of one. Whining about our democracy and making it sound like a personal inconvenience to you rather than a chance to choose our leadership, that cheapens our democracy. Too few people around the world get a say in who their leader is, and bitching like you’ve got to get a tool pulled when we’re in the midst of voting doesn’t help. The more you gripe about it, the more you can sour people, and that gives ammunition to people who would like to subvert democracy altogether.”
I offer a similar criticism to Greta Thunberg. Our systems, be they political, financial, or otherwise, are fragile. Sowing doubts and hinting that our leaders have no right to govern won’t improve them. It weakens them, makes their subjects sneer at them, and cheapens them. It might lead to replacing them. But do you really want to recreate our governments and institutions at the same time we need to be solving the climate crisis? I’m not entirely confident we can solve the climate crisis some days, and I don’t think we can do it amidst the collapse of our world order. So let’s just call the ‘so called leaders’ ‘leaders’ and focus on criticizing them instead of delegitimizing them.