At age thirteen, back in 1988, I asked my mother “Do you think I should join Friends of The Earth mum? I can pay £5 every month that goes towards them saving the environment. Will it work if I join? Because we need to save the environment.”
This came at a time when, living in Spain, I regularly complained to her that we should move back to England because in England, they had unleaded petrol, and Spain were still only providing leaded petrol. This was a big deal to me when I was 13 as well as being a useful strategy in my head that might persuade my mother to move back to England so I could visit book shops to browse the latest graphic novel by Alan Moore and listen to Ultravox on the radio.
Never one to answer a question she didn’t have the answer to, my mother said “Why don’t you write them a letter and ask?”. This was a stock reply for a lot of my questions when I lived in Spain, and as a result, I had many pen pals in England including druids, makers of Aeolian harps and the publishers of the only Cornish dictionary in circulation at the time. So, I wrote a letter to Jonathan Porritt. The letter was a defining moment in my life. Or rather the absence of it’s reply was. I asked a simple question, which as I recall went something like this:
‘Dear Jonathan, I’d like to join Friends of The Earth, but only if it is actually going to make a difference to saving the environment. Do you think the work you are doing is actually going to make a difference? If it really will make a difference, I would like to join. But if it’s not going to make a difference and you are part of the same system that is destroying the planet, then there is no reason for you to reply to my letter.’
I never received a reply. This of course may have been for any number of acceptable reasons. But in my thirteen-year old head, it felt like I’d scratched the fashionable veneer of the green movement and found something I didn’t trust. I felt duped, and from that moment on, I began to draw cynical and satirical pictures inspired by Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman that depicted the futility of the green movement. This was the splinter between the brave innocence and hope of my childhood and the hardened rock n roll angst of adolescence. Ultimately the angst won out and I turned into an agitator and eventually an activist, hell bent on challenging authority and the establishment in most of my work ever since. Until this year.
It may have taken 30 years, but the brave innocence and hope of the inner child in that letter was answered as soon as Greta Thunberg walked on to the world stage, and I, like many others of my generation are now remembering something innate in all of us that longs to be answered, that yearns to be given some assurance of nurture in our very existence along the path of our life. Something that we expect our elders and leaders to provide.
And like most of us, I also suffer from the great “What can I do to help?”. There’s an old system in place that means anything we do inside it won’t actually make a difference, and although I am not a pure anarchist, I do believe the dismantling of the system is both necessary and inevitable. One only has to read the dailies to see how the oldest political parties in the United Kingdom are struggling to be relevant to anyone anymore.
But that’s a very large system for any of us, as individuals, to make a significant impact on.
Large community movements like Extinction Rebellion are vital, but the power of an individual working alone with themselves and on themselves is key. So for what it’s worth, here’s my tuppence piece, which is about what we can do to improve the way we receive information across the net when we are alone.
Social media is a system we all engage with as individuals. It looks community based, but we rarely find ourselves sitting together when we engage with it. Facebook, in its ever-evolving search to make things easier for us with A.I has made a fatal error in allowing us to empathise with each other by inventing the ‘reaction’. Whether it’s a happy smile, a face with a single tear or a huffing and puffing angry face, these reactions, as soon as we tap the screen to make them, is the microwave meal equivalent of what our reaction really could be. The vitamins and valuable nutrients in our emotions have all been nuked by the time we tap the button and devour the ultimate meal of convenience, just to move on to whatever dessert has been lined up for us by a personally designed algorithm in the news feed. We’re in the Neanderthal phase of A.I, where appearance is still king over substance.
In Buddhism, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘subtle enemy’. It’s like posting a photo of a homeless person to show your compassion instead of actually giving him or her a bed in your own home for the night and practicing compassion. We feel better, but we’ve not made anything better. We’ve escaped the horror of the reality that surrounds us, that we can view in between our Netflix and chill sessions, which we invariably consume all through the same window as the reality horror show.
Our communication technology is great though, because, unlike me when I was 13, Greta Thunberg doesn’t need to write a letter for an answer, she can visit most of our lives through multiple platforms and bring her beliefs and wisdom of science to the attention of millions of people. It’s a positive advancement and evolution that I’m lucky to have witnessed in my lifetime. But the irony is, whilst many of us are genuinely moved, stirred and triggered by the message and the person delivering the message, our own reply to her, when it’s a ‘reaction’ on the net, is something we have unwittingly convinced ourselves to be a contribution to her cause.
It is not a contribution to her cause. It is a contribution towards our own denial.
Her recent speech at the UN 2019 Climate Action summit in New York has accrued millions of little yellow faces with tears in their eyes across social media, sitting in the corner of her video doing absolutely nothing other than letting you know someone watched it and took a nanosecond to comment what they perceived to be their ‘reaction’.
My own authentic reaction to Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech is something I could only find by putting down my smart device, closing my eyes and stepping into her shoes for 5 minutes and imagining what it feels like to have your whole life in front of you, watching people who are already halfway through their own lives, like me and you, and knowing that you might not get the chance to live as long, may not have children and may not know peace.
And then imagine that a small group of powerful people who are older than you, are deliberately stopping you from having the chance to live out your life because of something deemed to be important, like… the ‘economy’. And they do this because it won’t affect them. It will only affect you. Where the 1% (the wealthy) are concerned, this is also a cold war between the young and the old. The old are locked into an eternal delusion of economic growth at the expense of the younger generation. From a certain point of view, it could be viewed as a crime against humanity, built on an outdated system from which nobody but the 1% and what is left of their lives can benefit from.
Infanticide is not something any of us would sign up for if our leaders were canvassing door to door for such a thing, but, it’s what we are condoning if our only reaction is to cosy up into our entertainment devices by tapping a ‘like’ or a ‘sad face’ when we see news that we are able to speciously react to. The wonder of our humanity is not based on our re-actions, but our actions. Because actions will not die. I’m as confused as anyone else as to what actions we need to take, but I’m probably not alone in thinking that relegating our engagement with Greta’s work to our social media ‘thumbs ups’ could be better served by stopping to think and giving it some more time in our day to day lives. Those few minutes that we can spend using the power to imagine what it feels like to be part of Greta Thunberg’s generation, may take up more of our time, but in the long term, it might produce a quicker and more effective real-time reaction than tapping the reaction button.
Imagine what new initiatives might spring up if a million people exchanged each of their nanosecond ‘likes’ for a five minute trip into their own hearts and minds to really think about this through her eyes. And the eyes of all the young people who are afraid for their future. If we acknowledge the possibility that our children are all currently in an existential and spiritual crisis of such unfathomable proportions that we never had to endure, should we not all seek to better educate ourselves as to how to treat them?
Taking the time to absorb and embody our authentic reaction to what is happening right now might empower us as individuals to truly explore how deeply this young woman’s fears are really resonating with our own inner child. None of us like to forget our childhood dreams as we grow older. We remember, regret, forget, deny and often crave that purest part of ourselves we grew out of. Greta Thunberg’s mission is a golden chance and unique opportunity for all of us to awaken our childhood dreams, by realising hers.
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Tim Arnold is a musician, film maker and activist – @timarnold