Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist from Stockholm who triggered the Fridays For Future school strike movement, hailed the first minister’s decision to declare a climate emergency in Scotland to the tune of 23,000 likes on Twitter. Greta’s call to world leaders to finally start panicking about the erosion of fertile topsoil, illegal deforestation and mass extinction caused “by a way of life that we, in a fortunate part of the world, see as our right to simply carry on”, has led to her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it’s not a prize Greta wants – it’s action.
Like the teenage leaders of the March for Our Lives protests for US gun reform, Greta Thunberg represents the informed voice of a generation who do not need a budget, a press team or a campaign headquarters to start a movement: just a data connection and the conviction that it cannot be that hard to mobilise enough voices to fix an urgent and dangerous problem.
Meg Wishart, a fifth-year at Broxburn Academy and winner of the English Speaking Union’s National Public Speaking Competition, is another example of how young people can be more capable than most adults when it comes to making an argument with eloquence, clarity and profundity. Her winning speech on climate change, and the role of consumer demand in solving it, could have been written for a Minister for Environment; except I hope that one day Meg is that minister.
Undistracted by partisan loyalties, bureaucratic blockers or legislative lobbying, the young have an inconvenient aptitude for seeing the truth of a situation and arguing their point in the most instinctive and effective way possible: by identifying our universal needs and shared beliefs. We all need air to breathe. We all need water to drink. Who can argue with that?
The difficulty our leaders face is in creating a suitably stirring and democratic narrative to inspire the mind-bending transition away from 19th century models of industry, trade and consumption required to tackle global warming in the mere decade we have to limit its effects. We may be moved by the Megs and Gretas out there, but we’re equally numbed by the magnitude of the task ahead. What’s required is nothing short of a moonshot for planet earth or, rather, a series of moonshots to tackle the enormity and complexity of the environmental and humanitarian challenges we currently face.
When US President John F Kennedy announced, in 1961, his plan to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth within the decade, he did so knowing the technology did not yet exist and without knowing how the Apollo missions would forever change our understanding of what it means to be human. As described by sociologist William Bainbridge, Nasa’s Apollo program was a grand attempt to “transcend the ordinary limits of human existence through accomplishment of the miraculous”.
Adam Purvis, founder of the Virtuous Economy Forum, and Indy Johar, founder of Dark Matter Labs, are on a mission to prepare Scotland’s social and economic systems to transcend the ordinary and have already brought their ideas to key members of the Scottish Government and its agencies.
Johar, who gave a keynote address to the first cohort of entrepreneurs graduating from the Scottish Government’s Unlocking Ambition challenge, believes that humanity is on the brink of a series of shocks that will ultimately lead to a great restructuring of our global economic systems. His team is currently working with Canada’s McConnell Foundation on a great transition project and, together with Purvis, Johar believes that Scotland is ideally placed in population size, creative capacity and political audacity to achieve the miraculous, but that the window of opportunity is also closing. To use young Greta’s words, it’s time more world leaders started tackling climate change as if their house were on fire.
- Laura Westring is founder of Vocalcoach, leads communications at Amiqus and is a former European Commission speechwriter