Greta Thunberg and the school-strike movement

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

By Greta Thunberg

Published by Penguin, 2019, £2.99

Reviewed by Tessa Warrington

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference is a short collection of speeches and the first book by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg rose to prominence in 2018 as the youthful face of the international Fridays for the Future school-strike movement against climate change. What started as an individual protest, with Thunberg handing out flyers in front of the Swedish parliament, chimed with the angry mood of young people the world over.

A video of Thunberg’s speech to the 2018 UN climate change conference went viral on social media, catching the attention of the international press. The protest sparked a movement of mass school walkouts in Sweden, spreading to Germany, Belgium, Britain and beyond with millions of students participating. The book is engaging and accessible, full of sharp rhetoric castigating world leaders for allowing “the sufferings of the many [to] pay for the luxuries of the few”.

For an individual, particularly one so young, to fight with such tenacity in the face of overwhelming adversity should be lauded. Thunberg attributes her implacability to having Asperger’s syndrome which, she says, enables her to see the issue of climate change as black and white. To the vast majority of people it is also self-evident that, with an estimated eleven years before the worst effects of climate change become irreversible, a solution is needed now; most urgently, the cessation of burning fossil fuels. However, what seems to be a grey area for Thunberg is not what needs to be done, but how to do it.

A plan to tackle global warming must start with an understanding of what has caused the irresponsible plundering of the world’s natural resources in the first place. Socialists understand that capitalism – a system based on the drive for profits and competition between rival companies and nation states – puts the rights of private property above the collective welfare and interests of the exploited majority. Thunberg states that “climate change… was something humans had created”. In reality, the reliance on the fossil fuels causing runaway global warming was built into the system with the unrestrained growth of the industrial revolution, with the economy in ‘private hands’, the companies owned by individual bosses or groups of capitalists.

Of course, this does not preclude a section of capitalists from also being concerned about climate change, including the tops of ‘green’ companies like Tesla. One of Thunberg’s first supporters was Swedish entrepreneur and climate activist, Ingmar Rentzhog, who gave her the initial publicity that led to her fame/notoriety. Nonetheless, it would be a huge mistake to conclude that a solution exists under capitalism. Without private interests in the use of fossil fuels there would be no reason to continue using them.

Contrary to the opinion that capitalism has an infinite capacity to develop new technology to replace outmoded forms, it actually poses the biggest barrier to the transition to green energy. The vast wealth of the oil barons and those with a stake in the fossil-fuel market has been used for decades to lobby politicians, block environmental bills, fund propaganda wars and bury the warnings of scientific research into the effects of climate change. The profiteers at the top of Big Energy stand to lose huge amounts of revenue if the product they own can no longer be sold.

Similarly, for multinationals and conglomerates to shift all machinery and vehicles currently running on non-renewables to renewable energy would come at massive financial cost to them. Yet we live in an age where the private wealth of one individual, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – the first dollar-trillionaire in history – could cover the entire $900 billion investment needed to halt global warming, as estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and still have $100 billion left over!

Capitalism is incapable of going beyond the short term, the quick buck. The wealth and resources of the world are subject to the interests of private individuals in competition with each other in the unplanned, unaccountable anarchy of the market. The struggle to save the environment, therefore, cannot be separated from the need to transform society, replacing capitalism with a democratic, socialist planned economy. Invariably, this raises the question: how can this be done?

The bosses acquire their wealth by not paying workers the full value of their labour. Under capitalism, workers are forced to sell their labour in exchange for a wage to cover the necessities of life. As Karl Marx said, however, capitalism creates its own gravediggers. The shared experience of exploitation leads the working class to fight back and, ultimately, to draw socialist conclusions about the need to change society. The relationship of workers to the means of production, to workplaces, means that they have the power through organisation and strike action to shut down production, shut off the bosses’ profits and, eventually, to control production on their own, democratic terms.

In a society run on such a basis there would exist no conflicting interests to developing new green technologies, moving rapidly to completely cut out the greenhouse gas emissions fuelling global warming. The Socialist Party, therefore, puts a working-class, socialist programme at the heart of our environmental campaign work.

To combat climate change we need to build a workers’ movement that raises demands on the environment alongside the most immediate and pressing issues facing workers – wages, job security, housing, healthcare, services and so on. Particularly in the energy sector, it is necessary to have a programme that allays the fears of the workers in that sector, fighting to transition to green jobs on the same or improved wages, so as not to create a false division between climate campaigners and energy workers. After all, who has more power to shut down the fossil-fuel giants than that industry’s workforce?

In the wake of the 2007/08 crash, workers and young people have had their futures stripped away, not only in terms of the climate but through austerity and brutal attacks on living standards. The new generation is angry and desperate for an alternative, not weighed down by the defeats of the past. This has been amply demonstrated in the huge take-up and international character of the school strikes. However, Greta Thunberg seems to see the explosion of the climate movement as a response to her individual actions, rather than that she gave expression to a pre-existing mood of disillusionment and desire to take action among young people.

As a result, Thunberg’s emphasis is on individual action as the means to stop global warming – encapsulated by the book’s title – despite the mass character of the school strikes which represent a tremendous step forward in consciousness around the idea of collective struggle. Thunberg focuses criticism on those who “go on flying around the world, eating meat and dairy” – and she crossed the Atlantic in August on a wind, solar and water-powered, zero-carbon sailboat.

She misses the point, however, that most working-class people cannot afford to boycott every environmentally unfriendly product and fails to lay the blame at the door of capitalist production. She also says that politicians are not acting because it would be “too unpopular among the voters. And they are right, of course, since most people are not even aware of why those changes are required”.

But it is not the case that policies such as the ‘green new deal’ are unpopular with workers, quite the opposite! The problem is that under capitalism the state would invariably fund green policies by cutting other essential public services, rather than forcing the super-rich to pay. We don’t accept that any cuts must be made in order to fund green initiatives. The wealth should be taken off the 1% for a socialist green new deal.

To be fair on Thunberg, she is clear on apportioning blame to the rich, raising the need for climate equity/justice by supporting neo-colonial countries to develop their infrastructure, although at the expense of ‘rich countries’ rather than capitalists. She says: “We need to cooperate and work together and to share the resources of the planet in a fair way”. And she goes on to say: “If solutions within this system are so impossible to find then maybe we should change the system itself”. It is clear, however, that the system change she envisages is a tweaking of capitalism to create a pocket of exemption from ‘normal rules’ for climate-related industries.

Thunberg does not view the capitalist system as incompatible with a solution to the environmental crisis. She has variously called for the carbon budget to “become centre of our new currency”, and for establishment politicians to “put your differences aside”. This is why the Socialist Party’s intervention into the school strikes advanced the slogan, ‘socialist change not climate change’, counter-posing what kind of system is needed.

It is notable that of the ten speeches in the book none were delivered to trade union or workers’ meetings, and only three to climate rallies. The rest were addressed to institutions of the rich and powerful. It is clear that Thunberg does not yet see the working class as the agent for change and so has not oriented towards or developed a class-based programme that addresses workers’ needs and concerns.

Instead, she actively separates the climate from other political issues, saying “we don’t have any other manifestos or demands”. This is completely understandable as, throughout the conscious lives of Thunberg and her peers, there has generally been an absence of bold, fighting leadership from the tops of trade unions or social-democratic parties. The role and potential power of the working class is not immediately apparent to radicalised layers of youth today.

The Earth strike called for 20 September is the first attempt to involve workers in the climate movement and is a hugely positive step. Nevertheless, without reaching out to workers’ organisations with a programme linking the struggle to halt global warming to the fight for wider class demands, such as mass council house building and a £12/hour living wage, it is unlikely that the action will develop the character of a ‘general strike’. Socialists should be quick to explain that this would not indicate a lack of will to struggle on the part of the working class but, rather, the lack of leadership from trade union leaders to organise and build in a serious way.

The first speech in Thunberg’s book contains the line: “This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with politics”. It is a sentiment that has been echoed by other school strikers utterly disillusioned with establishment politicians, but it conflates the bickering of capitalist parliamentary parties with politics in general, and discounts class-based politics. While the anti-party mood shows a healthy distrust of the political elite, socialists must fight the notion that a lack of organisation is the solution, something Thunberg is very vocal about. Organisation around a programme is essential for the movement to achieve its goals, alongside democratic decision-making and electing accountable leadership.

Greta Thunberg bravely asserts that she has “not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again… [but] you cannot ignore the scientists, or the science, or the millions of schoolchildren who are school-striking”. She is right to advocate going over the heads of the international ruling class who have demonstrated time and again their abject inability to resolve the climate crisis, even to stick to their own accords and agreements.

The reality is, though, that unless the bosses feel pressure from below threatening profits and their system, they can and will ignore the advice of scientists and the protests of school students. In 2003, millions of people came onto the streets to protest the planned imperialist invasion of Iraq. It inflicted bad publicity and tarnished prime minister Tony Blair’s legacy but it didn’t stop the war. It is only the power of the organised working class that can bring about the kind of fundamental socialist change necessary.