I can’t tell if I’m writing to a social phenomenon, a mediatic product, to the face of a new generation, the leader of a movement or to a girl who just sat in front of a parliament one day. And to tell you the truth, I don’t care. I don’t build my opinions on what people say. I only have opinions on what I witness, study and experience. But whatever “Greta Thunberg” is, it is now something that counts and to which we can address our concerns. This is not a letter of reproach or criticism, it is not about who you are or who you are not or what you pretend to be. Actually It is not about you. It is meant to nourish reflection and action.
A week ago you were in Montreal facing half a million people marching For Climate, in a city of 1,78 million people and country (although we should say province) of 8,40 million. In Paris, city of 10 million people in a country of 60 million, between 15 000 and 38 000 people marched. I have spent one half my life in Paris and the other half in Montreal, I know both cities and both people and I’m not surprised by this difference. Even when looking at the numbers of people marching in Berlin or Brussels proportionally speaking, the country that claims itself to be a leader and symbol of fight for ecology would benefit from self-questioning. Last year, they were 100 000 in Paris to celebrate the French victory at the Soccer World Cup. Here is the reality, Greta : to most of our contemporaries, putting a ball in a net is more important than saving the planet.
It “felt good”, didn’t it ?
Still, it must have felt good as you said in Montreal. But is resistance really about feeling good ? Is it a product that we have to make attractive for people to join in ? Or is it about understanding the adversary’s weak points and putting our comfort aside to be efficient ? Of course if both could be done, great ! But I don’t remember any revolution being about people feeling good. Surely having the feeling that we are standing together is wonderful and necessary, but it is no more than the condition of the fight, not its purpose. What about the pleasure we could feel of having done something that is useful, even if it has cost us our security peace and comfort ?
Our society has created individuals everlastingly running after their own pleasure, even in their revolts. How awkward. I wonder how many among this half million who marched last Friday with you stirred their coffees this week at break time with disposable sticks and coffee produced in massive monoculture plantations. I wonder how many had a banana from USA or blueberries from Mexico, as we in Europe have tomatoes or peaches from this land of desolation Almeria in Spain, how many went to buy some sprays to clean the house. How many use paper napkins and will be getting their Christmas presents wrapped up in beautiful coloured paper. How many plan their holidays in some country where they would consume restaurants monuments and hotels and then leave. And even those who watch carefully each of their steps couldn’t stop using a smartphone, fill in the car’s tank, use Google and Facebook, pay taxes to cities that keep lights on everywhere at night, send emails, buy electronic devices that contain metals extracted by little kids in African mines. For this is the inexorable truth : we are the children of this monster we are trying to fight which we call neoliberalism, massive consumption, endless growth. Even the thousands of messages we send to organize any protest for the planet create massive pollution in some data center in no-man’s lands.
Not only do we have to face the powerful few who are destroying natural habitats to exploit more resources, create and transport more manufactured goods in the pursue of their own greediness, but we also have to face our own reflection in the mirror, and acknowledge that at every minute of our lives, we are helping them, feeding them, making them stronger, in the pursue of our pleasure and comfort. Some believe that giving up this comfort would mean living in pain and restriction, or what people of the city call living a simple life, when it is the other way round : it is not about reducing our fun and pleasures, it is about learning other ways of having fun and pleasure, which are not based on temporary pleasures calling for more needs, but of full rejoicing feeding the body spirit and soul.
Those who are already on this path may say it is unfair to blame ourselves, that the first ones to blame are the presidents of big companies and governments who help them. The thing is, in times of war we don’t have time to sort who has more responsibility and leave the rest to later. Each individual should be able to bear responsibility for all humanity. When I get my recycling bag out once a month, and see the neighbour’s garbage full of recyclable items and useless packaging, I cannot just go home and say to myself Well, it’s not my business, everyone is free, each person walks his own pace. Am I not responsible to go and talk to my neighbour ? For I couldn’t tell my kids But I did my share, you know ! Small steps are not enough, we all know that by now. But as long as individuals feed companies they criticize, believing they have no choice, no change will be possible. What we call the system is not a secret monster imposing its rule on defenseless individuals. It is the pact that individuals make with a series of beliefs and their translation in the real world, run by a few.
I look upon you like a little sister. Not that I have the pretention to teach you anything. Age has little to do with wisdom, and I have been meeting teenagers your age in the past years, offering them to write open letters, and often wrote that they should fully participate in public debate. I am only a bit more than a decade ahead of you, and yet, I have the feeling we come from different worlds, that we both missed the one we hoped, and are struggling to survive in this crazy one. I was lucky to live a childhood without internet, when phones just called and when watching a movie, listening to music, checking the weather, record something or pay a bill, would be completely different experiences. Then internet and screens arrived in our homes when I was a teenager. And all was changed. This may look like it has nothing to do with our fight to preserve the living, but this diversity of physical experiences made us sensitive to what is concrete and what we can touch and feel. I don’t know if you ever considered the ones who are around 30 now, but they are in a very ambiguous position in society. Too old to be completely part of the contemporary world and too young to have a place in the previous one. I know many thirty-year-olds who let go the path that had been drawn for them, and go to be shepherd, build sustainable houses, grow medicinal plants. Of all the ones I met, they don’t take part in marches for climate or online groups to save the planet. I guess when you grow up in a world where you get information, communicate, create a movement, organize a march with the same tool, where the popularity of an event is measured by the number of Likes, then virtual responses and symbolic marches may appear like a proof of true engagement.
Any revolution needs a face. And although contemporary social movements maintain they refuse representatives, to the point of calling any member who would go on the medias by the same name in Paris, wherever you show up, Greta, more people march. But because our democracies have failed to create a fair representation of the people, it doesn’t mean any type of representation should be systematically refused. So this movement now has your face. Let me look at that face. I see nothing like Asperger syndrome. I mean I see it, as much as I see someone has dark skin, blond hair, tattoos or is blind. It doesn’t help me build any opinion on that person’s quality. I won’t say The blind guy or The black guy. I will acknowledge that his experience as black or blind give him a vision of the world which non-black people or sighted people don’t have, but that certainly won’t determine my appreciation of his legitimacy. But people need special people as a symbol. I don’t think you are any more special than a 16-year-old girl who would have lived in ten different countries, than a 16-year-old who would have taken care of her little brothers and sisters because of deficient parents, or a 16-year-old who would have run away from forced marriage. But if it helps, so be it, let’s not waste our energies and let’s try to be efficient.
Listening to you
You know, people will not listen to someone who puts them into question and smashes the fundamentals of their beliefs. Only the wise would, but then there would be no need to smash their beliefs. So I wonder : would those crowds you are facing be willing to listen to you pointing at them not only the beauty of their gathering, but also their contradictions ? Would they applaud if you asked them to take serious action that would threaten their everyday comfort ? If you suddenly pulled off the first layer of the beautiful painting showing good people who want to respect the planet fighting the bad powerful few polluting and destroying it ? Don’t forget Greta, that behind each smiling face you see in a march, there are tens, twenties, hundreds of people who stay home and don’t care. If thousands of teenagers your age march with you, millions of your age do not, go to McDonald’s, say Nutella is too good to stop eating it, buy the latest fashion manufactued in Bengladesh and contribute very consciously to the destruction of the world. For we have invented a human being that knows and yet doesn’t act. This may be the 21st century achievement. We are facing a necessity of individual change that will never be enough, but without which nothing will be possible.
And I also wonder : why do these representatives at UNO and other organizations receive and listen to you ? What can possibly be their interest ? Is it that they are convinced, in which case as you say, they would really put measures to act ? Are they masochistic ? Or do they take it as a mediatic show in which they play the part of the bad guys because they would rather have people marching in the streets every month with nice drawings and slogans, than citizens blocking the economy by refusing to pay their taxes or electricity bills to put economic pressure ? After you leave the room, wouldn’t they exchange cynical smiles and look upon the Marches for Climate like godfathers and elders of a family would watch from the window of their office kids playing war in the playground.
Social movements today put a tremendous amount of energy on symbols. Their first objective seems to have mediatic impact, because they truly believe that making people talk about something would be a useful action. But our world is already full of informations and daily news, popular hashtags and pictures. I’m not saying it’s useless, because medias are power, and you are a great example of it. I’m just saying it is incomplete. This is why I started telling you about the world in which I grew up as a kid, in which we made a clear difference between virtual actions and concrete ones. Today the frontier is blurred. If Yellow Jackets in France disturbed the government, it’s because of the economic consequences of their blockings. If they had just been yellow jackets quietly marching, no public debate would have taken place, whether or not that debate was enough. Your Friday strike was a true civil disobedience act, because a student who misses school is subject to sanctions and interrupts the natural flow of his life. Yet a lot of people call civil disobedience actions that only put them at risk for a few hours. They block a bank and bring brooms and sponges to show they “clean” it from its investments in fossil energies. This makes a few articles in the medias, those who are already convinced applaud, others don’t care. And then what ? They could be arrested on the spot, but when they go back home and feel good, their ordinary lives have not changed. ? Revolutions has always been about finding new and unpredictable ways to act. Antigone buries her brother, going against the law of the kingdom. Gandhi’s action was not only sitting and marching, but boycotting Britain’s products, government service, foreign goods, and refusing to pay taxes. Thoreau’s words to describe civil disobedience could certainly be meditated for some time :“What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn”.
He refused to pay taxes to protest against slavery and spent a night in jail. This is anything but comfortable. : “If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine”.
You often point out how the situation is critical and that we are running out of time. Maybe we are running out of time for symbolic marches that just make us feel well. Maybe these marches should be the social glue that would bring people to create groups of discussion – and by that I mean real physical meetings, not online neverending comments, and take concrete actions – and by that I mean actions that may not be agreeable, but that may bring real pressure against leaders. Your fight, our fight, deserves more than just feeding mediatic enthusiasm. I don’t know if we, children of this system, brought up in individualism, still know how to act collectively and concretely. If the only answer to the threat on life on Earth is to march and feel good, write slogans on cardboard and be satisfied with it, then I’m not sure we are worthy of this fight.
Sarah Roubato published (in French)
Turning 30 in an hour
In an hour they will be thirty years old. A crowd of anonymous people who seek to live in the world or to flee from it, to sketch their dreams or turn away from them. At the heart of the tumult of life, they doubt, question themselves. This book unfolds their inner voices.
Click here to order it
Find the verb of your life
A young woman writes a letter to a teenager and asks him to consider his future life in another way than the one he has been taught, to face a changing world that he will have to renew. Yet this letter resonates further, for all who, at any age, have been tempted to leave the tracks and were told that it was impossible.
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Letters to my generation
This collection of letters addresses recipients who can’t answer and who inhabit the solitude of a young woman concerned with the beauty of the world. How can we preserve it when opposing forces – consumption, political renunciation, the ambivalence of technological progress – increasingly isolate us from each other?
Click here to order.
 Some will say poor people don’t have the choice, but I am sure you know about making choices with whatever means we have. I know so many people who are truly poor, eat local food, go to second hand stores, and have a lot of pleasure eating and buying clothes. But we would rather simplify and just say that only rich people can. The truth is, although it is easier when one has money, everyone can make huge changes, if only they are ready for it.
 Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849.