Reflections on Greta Thunberg and Climate Change

I’ve been an environmentalist for as I can remember. I was 9 years old scolding my parents for not turning off all the lights in the house to save electricity.

When I was 12, I used to walk the railroad tracks near my house; picking up scrap metal that fell from the trains, and taking it to the recycling center.

As I’ve aged, my activism has changed. I’ve stopped driving a car; choosing to walk or ride my bike places in order to lower my carbon footprint. And I abstain from meat and animal products in order to reduce the impact my food choices make on the world. So, it’s been with great interest that I’ve watched the rise of environmental activist, Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg rose to prominence in 2018 when she started skipping school to hold one-person protests outside the Swedish parliament; advocating for immediate action on climate change. In the year following her initial protest she’s been the subject of a Vice documentary, sparked multi-city climate change protests all over the world, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

The girl is on fire! And she deserves every bit of the attention. She refuses to ride in airplanes due to their carbon footprint, she only wears second-hand clothes, and she’s vegan.

In a world of, “Do as I say, not as I do” style-activism. It’s refreshing to see someone walk the walk for a change.

However, Thunberg said some things recently that gave me pause. The full transcript of the talk can be found here. However, the part that punched me in the stomach goes as follows:

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

These words were impactful because they helped me understand a Zen koan. In the koan, a group of temple monks are arguing over who owns a cat that lives on the temple grounds. Fed up with the distraction, their teacher picks up the cat, and says, “If any of you can offer a true word, I’ll let the cat go.” The monks were silent. So, in his wisdom, the teacher cut the cat in half.

I was horrified when I first read that story, but I get it now. If we care about the cat that our teacher is about to murder, we get off your butts and take the animal away from him. If we don’t, if we just sit there in silence, the cat isn’t that important to us.

Maybe we think it should be important, so we argue as if it is, or maybe we want to be part of a group, and the “we own the cat” crowd is as good as any. But if we aren’t willing to take action when it’s all on the line, we don’t deserve a cat.

When Thunberg references the “empty words” of the United Nations, she’s holding up the proverbial cat. Like the Zen master in the koan, she’s calling our bluff, stating that if we really love this planet, we need to do something to save it. The time for talk is over.

This article from Forbe’s magazine provides a list of actions all of us can take to fight climate change. I’m not saying that anyone should do some or all of the items on the list. Each of us has our own life, and we have to make our own decisions.

But like the Zen students in the story, we are quickly approaching the do or die moment. And if we refuse to act, if we can’t offer a true word in the face of climate change, we don’t deserve this planet.

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