The UN and Greta Thunberg: A New Style or the Return of Archaism to World Politics?

The 74th session of the UN General Assembly began  recently. The agenda of the first week of the session is devoted to environmental issues. Within its framework, two important summits are being held: a climate summit and a summit on sustainable development goals. UN Secretary General António Guterres in his interview directly said that the “Agenda 2030”, announced in 2015, which focuses on achieving the 17 goals of sustainable development, is being implemented with delays. Already now, there is a visible danger in not achieving the declared results by 2030. Therefore, this UN programme can be steered in another declaration; there have been many precedents where objectives were met very conditionally.

Obviously, with respect to the issues of climate change and sustainable development, a key problem is that environmental constraints may contradict the right of third-world countries to pursue development. The logic here is understandable: when the current developed countries of the so-called “golden billion” (the billion people said to be living in the developed world) carried out their industrial modernisation, they, as a rule, did not pay any attention to environmental protection. It was they who were instrumental in creating the anthropogenic conditions for global warming. It is their “ecological footprint” that still has a key impact on the environment. However, at the same time, developed countries now insist that developing countries also carry out costly environmental protection measures, and thereby undermine their already-limited economic competitiveness at the global level. Thus, the “golden billion” denies the rest of the world the right to development and reinforces its backwardness. Many of the leaders of developing countries have spoken at the UN about these contradictions. For example, these motives could be heard in the speeches of the presidents of Rwanda, the Seychelles and other countries.

The US refusal to follow the provisions of the Paris Agreement further reinforces these imbalances. As a result, the developing countries that have begun to actively pursue new environmental standards and goals increasingly openly complain that they have become hostages, or even victims, of what they agreed to follow at the outset of the implementation of global environmental policy, and they only lose without gaining anything in return. Often in this context, the contradictions between ecology and development in third world countries are openly characterised using the term “environmental neo-colonialism.” One of the recent reports of the Valdai Discussion Club details this topic.

In any event, the problem of adopting a harmonious and satisfactory approach to climate change and sustainable development is rather complex and requires thoughtful and serious analysis by both experts and politicians from all over the world. However, the current UN climate summit, instead of addressing complicated issues, decided to follow the path of prescribing simple solutions (or rather, making simple appeals rather than agreeing on decisions).

I think everyone will already agree that the most notable PR event at these summits was the performance of the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg. Obviously, she eclipsed even Trump in resounding with delegates.

On the one hand, if the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly is remembered for Greta’s speech, this is already good (both for the global promotion of green movements and for the image of the UN). Who remembers now what, in particular, happened at the 73rd session of the General Assembly? And at the 72nd session? Thus, thanks to Greta’s impulsiveness, the annual diplomatic routine, which has turned into a practically dogmatic ritual of no interest to anyone, has obtained a second wind and a new face. This, of course, should only be welcomed.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of Greta and her global rise (or global promotion?) cannot but call into question the relationship between simple appeals and complex decisions in world politics. It is clear that when a girl says to the whole world: “But the king is naked!”, this revives in memory the old, still medieval archetypes of simple children’s wisdom that adults do not see. But at the same time, a shift in emphasis to simple appeals always carries the risk of anti-intellectualism. A broader and extremely difficult question is also connected with this: will anti-intellectualism become a trend of the 21st century in general (and does today’s world need intellectuality)? From the political science textbook we know that simple appeals and simple decisions are characterised by the clear term “populism”. And in this regard, the global promotion of environmental populism, thanks to the image of Greta, is becoming a very real prospect in world politics. It is clear that the green parties will attract additional votes on this wave, and Greta herself (quite rightfully, by the way) could receive the Nobel Prize, but will global environmental populism become a blessing for the world? Will it aggravate the already extremely delicate situation with the abovementioned gap between the developed and developing countries? Whether or not it will strengthen environmental neo-colonialism – this is a question for which there is no simple answer à la Greta.

It is clear that with all the well-known psychological diagnoses of Greta Thunberg, it is extremely difficult to objectively discuss her activities and her motives. Here, the limits of the new political correctness are completely and absolutely appropriate. But to evaluate the global consequences of her actions seems not only acceptable, but also necessary. And here Greta’s words are very important, that her inner voice was awakened, which urged her to fight for the environment. Thus, according to all the canons of religious studies, Greta can and should be characterised as a prophet. There is nothing wrong with that in itself. Joan of Arc also spoke with the same inner voice, and she, too, was a prophet. Perhaps our world now needs a new prophet (although here we are directly approaching the dangerous side of the denial of traditional religions and their dogma). It is possible, that environmental populism in the context of environmental spirituality may become the new religion of the 21st century (for more details, see the abovementioned report of the Valdai Club). And it is clear that such spirituality will be in full demand.

But let’s not forget that Joan of Arc lived in the 15th century. And the transposition of this medieval type of prophecy into our modernist or postmodern age can mean only one thing. In sociology, there is a term for this: archaism. Therefore, does the global phenomenon of Greta mean that modern postmodernism cannot do without not only anti-intellectualism, but also without a large-scale, comprehensive return to the archaism?

However, one can descend from these heights of new spirituality to the mundane level of political strategies. And one will see that the neoliberal forces of the “old elite” or mainstream are increasingly losing out to non-systemic right and left politicians. In this regard, highlighting environmentalists and greens can be a very convenient way to keep the globalist mainstream at the helm and divert the attention of world public opinion from real non-systemic parties on the right and on the left. After all, Trump was right in his own way when he spoke about the struggle between globalists and patriots. And according to this logic, Greta Thunberg (unknowingly, we hope) became only an external PR attraction of this new globalist project.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.