No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference

Image of No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference
Release Date: 
November 26, 2019
Penguin Books
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“It’s a ‘strange world.’ It’s one where politicians and corporations find it too expensive to save the planet.”

Greta Thunberg was just named Person of the Year by Time magazine. That’s an impressive feat for a 16-year old from Sweden who started her climate change activist career with a school strike that no one else supported, not even her parents. 

Thunberg is a force, partially by virtue of her self-disclosed Asperger Syndrome (which she describes as her “superpower”), as well as strength of conviction coupled with raw intelligence. Her direct, unrelenting climate activism has the extra bonus of driving a certain American political demographic bananas.

No One Is Too Small is composed of 16 short speeches. While there is clear overlap between them, each carries a unique core trope. The most powerful of these include Black/White, Unpopular Messages, House on Fire, Cathedral Thinking, and Strange World.

These tropes are penetrating in their directness and simplicity. But what truly animates them is their ability to spark counterfactual thought, and therein lies their potency. Counterfactual forms of thought occur when we are confronted with strikingly negative, immediate, non-ordinary events in which we can see and understand our role in cause and effect. This leads us to think about our behavior (individually and/or collectively), and how alternative choices and actions on our part might have led to different outcomes. Counterfactual thinking is the “What if . . .”

We stand by as global temperatures soar, catastrophic weather events swirl around, oceans become more acidic, low lying islands in the South Pacific go under water, glaciers melt to nothingness, polar ice caps fall into the sea. It’s all happening in real time before our very eyes. “What if humans hadn't worked to emit so much greenhouse gas?” “What if I hadn't made such a massive carbon footprint eating all those hamburgers?" 

Folks who are climate change skeptics would say that climate events are natural processes (not negative) and part of the usual ebb and flow (ordinary). They might also claim that they are not humanly influenced and certainly not personally influenced (no role). That climate change unfolds too incrementally and slowly is also a challenge (cause and effect are not immediately side-by-side but are far more diffuse and distant). When counterfactuals are not triggered, it’s easy to fall into fatalism—"It's just the way things are and there's nothing we can do about it."

This brings us back to Thunberg’s tropes as a trigger for counterfactual thought.

Black/White underscores that there is no middle ground on climate change. It is upon us; it is picking up velocity; it is rapidly reaching a tipping point of irreversible damage; action cannot wait, and it cannot be halfway.

Unpopular Messages confronts the fact that people are in denial about climate change and are unable to hear the message of impending calamity, let alone act on it. Thunberg is clear that her message is not just unpopular but challenges the industrial capitalist ideology of infinite growth and resources. One might well ask if it is easier to imagine the end of the United States than the end of capitalism.

House of Fire likens climate change to the immediacy of our house going down in flames. Certainly we would act and not sit by. Of course, Australia and Brazil are, literally, on fire. California keeps experiencing devastating fires. Elsewhere, sea-level rise washes away homes, inundates land in king tides, and threatens not just tiny, low-lying islands but massive coastal cities. Miami and New Orleans are lost; there is no plan for retreat; who leaves/who stays?

Cathedral Thinking speaks to the need to create a strong foundation for any massive structure, including the Earth. Thunberg alludes to that foundation as a cybernetic system—a hierarchical pattern of organization evident in living systems. She notes, “Either we avoid setting off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control—or we don’t.”

In the 1950s anthropologist and early cyberneticist Gregory Bateson was also setting off the alarm bell. He told us that humans behave in very destructive ways toward ecological systems because they do not see the complex interactions within them and with them and humans. You cannot separate people/culture from nature, though we certainly try to do so in Western thought. When we make those distinctions of separation, we limit our ability to see interrelationships and their dynamics. Western binary thinking is all around us—mind/body, culture/nature, society/ecology, biology/emotion. All are falsifications.

Bateson argued for a new “ecology of mind.” That is, a fundamental transformation of our mental models about how the world works and our place within it. For him, mind is not housed in the brain. Rather it’s everything from the trees to the river otters to the ocean. Humans and nature are interpenetrated.

So for Bateson, the idea that humans are pitted against nature is dangerously false—whoever beats nature destroys itself. Wisdom, in contrast, is understanding our synergistic connection to the world around us, and our ability to see it.

Bateson would undoubtedly appreciated it when Thunberg says, “Once you have done your homework you realize that we need new politics, we need new economics where everything is based on a rapidly declining and extremely limited remaining carbon budget. But that is not enough. We need a whole new way of thinking.”

We might conclude, as does Thunberg, that it’s a “strange world.” It’s one where politicians and corporations find it too expensive to save the planet. It’s a strange world where it’s clear our political and economic systems lack the will to save us from ourselves. It’s a strange world when we have the data and solutions to reverse climate change but fail to take action. It’s a strange world when youth have to sacrifice their educations and futures to speak and perform truth to power. Since adults seem paralyzed or complacent, she ends by characterizing the youth climate change movement: “We are the change and change is coming.”