I did myself a favour, as pleaded on Facebook by a colleague, and read Greta Thunberg’s chapbook, “No one is too small to make a difference.” The book is a collection of addresses that this Swedish teenager has made at the UN, World Economic Forum, and British Parliament amid others. She started small with a school strike project to protest against the carbon emissions and mass extinctions that are killing the world, and eventually found a bigger platform to voice out her concerns before a global audience.
Time magazine touted Greta as person of the year in 2019 and placed her among the echelon of young leaders who are making a difference. The gale force with which she has taken the world by storm made one right-wing Austrian newspaper Die Presse obliquely compare her to Marx and observe, “A specter is striding through Europe, it’s name is the ‘Greta effect’.”
A section of the conservative press even mocked her illness. Greta is suffering from a type of autism known as Asperger syndrome, named after the Austrian paediatrician, Hans Asperger. Such patients have difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, including difficulties reading body language. They are known for being direct and seeing the world in black and white. Going through the lectures, it is apparent that Greta is annoyed by the way the generation that is running the show (our one) is not doing anything at all. For Greta, most of us pay lip-service that global warming is happening. Hardly any country in the world is actually doing anything to bring down the temperature by 2 degree Celsius as was agreed in the Paris convention, for instance. Greta’s no-nonsense attitude and her now famous exchange of glares in her meeting with POTUS have made her the face of a new breed of leaders.
She can stand before the European Economic and Social Committee and call them “irresponsible spoiled brats” for not doing their homework right on the climate issue. She is constantly reminding everyone of the IPCC report that we are only 12 years away from when the effects of carbon emission will be irreversible. Greta, of course, is not a lone ranger. There are three other young leaders who are bringing the climate issue to the fore: In Castlemaine, Australia, Milou Albrecht, 15, is leading a pressure group to force German corporation Siemens to withdraw from an Australian coal mining project. In New York City, Xiye Bastida, 17, claimed a climate strike at her school last March. Jayden Foytlin and her friends in Louisiana sued the federal government for violating their rights to a liveable planet. Scout Pronto Breslin, 16, founded a group called Hudson Valley Wild to resist chemical encroachment. These young girls are remarkable for their courage and imagination as well as moral clarity. Their dream is to model the world that they want to see. Looking at these girls, one wonders, is the paradigm of leadership shifting? Why are so many girls championing causes that are far from gender specific? Does the eco-anxiety stem from the fact that women and children are probably going to be the first casualty of climate change?
Time magazine points out that the “global under-30 population has been rising since 2012 and today accounts for more than half of the more than 7.5 billion people on the planet. What will the world look like when this new generation leads?”
In contrast, Bangladesh, according to the updated electoral roll, has 110 million voters. Going by the old census, we just have about 50 million people who are under 18. This is the demographic dividend that have been aligned with our development discourse by the economists. We could be benefitting from the highest number of young people being involved in the workforce. But our youth force needs to be plugged in with the global reality not only of now but also of the future. There are sporadic attempts to sanitise the movements under the hyped-up rubrics of SDGs or MDGs. Jaago Foundation, 10-minute-schools are doing wonderfully well to galvanise the youth movement in Bangladesh. Often, we see some sponsored copy-cat activism. Just imagine the way the Flash Mob that was popularised by Step Up movie series has been hijacked by TV commercials. Now you cannot distinguish a flash mob from an item song. Somehow, convictions are being compromised. Because of the three-track education system and partisan politics, our children are not sure of their cultural and political reality. Without a proper understanding of the issue, any campaign is bound to fall flat.
As grown-ups we too are not sure to what extent we should allow the young voices to pitch. State regulation thus becomes a case in point. Say, we glorify young Mujib for his boldness, his fellow feelings, or his leadership. Then again, we are too cautious about giving free space to our young ones that may one day carve a great leader.
During the “safe road” movement, school children told us at point blank that they do not want any BS. They wanted drivers to have proper license and training, they wanted road rules to be followed, and they wanted to ensure road safety for all. The young ones coordinated through social media and the streets belonged to them. In the beginning, it felt like “as you like it” charade in a school programme that features role reversals. Everyone felt that the children were taking to the streets for the common good of all. And the notion extends beyond the current generation. However, the selfish oldies soon sensed that things were getting out of their hands; the civil disobedience was a bit too much for their old guts to stomach. They decided to “discipline” the little ones who wanted to bring “discipline” to the system.
We, the senior citizens, proved to the little ones that we aren’t ready to practice what we preach. It looks good on TV to shower individual figures such as Malala or Greta with accolades, but we are very good at drawing the lines that we think will “protect” our kids. After all, that’s the sanitised and controlled culture that we have grown up in where the seniors and juniors always maintain a vertical trajectory. We cannot think of the young ones as our peers or stakeholders of the common good.
In order for us to have a Greta of our own, we need to create a culture where young thoughts and minds are given the required space to grow and flourish. We need to inculcate a sense of mutual respect. Our next generation needs some “adult allies” who can hone the youthful ideas and channel their energies to do greater things for humanity. Greta’s parents are great examples. If we cannot move beyond partisan politics and economics that privilege one group over the other, we will never be able to secure a better future for the future generations. Indeed, we owe our future generations a beautiful world.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.