The world finds itself in a very different place when a 16-year-old can trigger some of ostensibly the most powerful men in the world and while some are moved, others snarl like playground bullies. How else do you explain Greta Thunberg and her unbelievable address to the United Nations General Assembly?
Thunberg isn’t just a child, as her detractors jeer, with her autism she’s neurodiverse, even further away from the systems of patronising patriarchy and patronage that have underpinned our politics for far too long. It goes a long way to explaining both the malaise in which much of the world finds itself and the way the world is reacting; the ordinary people taking to the streets as they take the Extinction Rebellion into their hearts or, in South Africa, the unprecedented and peaceful extra-parliamentary removal of a sitting president in February 2018.
The system has failed; whether it is as Yuval Noah Harari notes in his seminal Homo Sapiens, the failure of the great meta narratives of liberal democracy, fascism or socialism or the patriarchal masculinity that underpinned it all. In its place, we see the rise of the young and of women, leading us, speaking truth to power 588 years after another teenager did the same. We can only hope that Thunberg won’t face the same fate as Joan of Arc.
In Africa, it is instilled upon us to respect our elders and to venerate age, but what happens when our elders are no longer worthy of respect? What happens when, as Thunberg says:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Extinction Rebellion activists hand out cards to the police who come to arrest them, saying “why do we break your laws? We break them because we are required to because the planet has been damaged and because in terms of this crisis our laws are enabling this, so we must break these laws to fix the problem.”
Here in Africa we know all too well of leaders who have betrayed the youth. In South Africa we are only beginning to come to terms with the ravages of a decade of kleptocracy that has stolen the livelihoods of a generation to come. The current elites refuse to listen to this wisdom, literally out of the mouths of babes; they refuse to see the writing on the wall. Instead, their only retort is to double down the rhetoric, taking their lead from the most divisive US president in living memory, Donald Trump.
You can see it most clearly in the current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s adherence to this approach; undermining government, ignoring truth, hijacking narratives, being rude deliberately. He is channelling his constituents. They are cross and they are lost, they believe that foreigners have taken their jobs, that it’s all because of globalisation. Critical thinking has sunk in the face of fear.
It’s the weaponisation of populism and the concomitant demonization of common sense. We saw the same tactics in South Africa at the zenith of state capture and now with the fierce existential fight back campaigns of those seeking to avoid being held to account. Brexit uses the same tactics of deflection and deceit – until if repeated enough, they become the new truth; the relentless othering of foreigners who allegedly take away jobs, of an administration in Brussels that works to the detriment and expense of Britons, who if given a chance could build an island state like Singapore.
The greatest casualty in all of this has been nuance and indeed rational debate. Nationalism – to mangle Samuel Johnson – is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but globalisation hasn’t been that great either. There are a lot of people who do feel hard done by, who haven’t benefited, who have lost out and therefore have a real appetite for the Trumpian bluster that we witnessed immediately after Thunberg.
In business schools, we use a tool called polarity theory. Polarities can’t be solved, they can’t be stopped, they must coexist. Take breathing for example. Breathing in is good, but you can’t keep breathing in forever. At some stage you have to exhale, because the oxygen is depleted and needs to be expelled. Likewise breathing out is vital because if you don’t, you’ll pass out. But if you breathe out too deeply, you have to replenish the air. The Remain and the Leave camps are like breathing in and out, but they have no middle ground – which is nonsense, because now Johnson is vowing to leave without a deal, which is tantamount to letting his country’s breath out for them. But without a deal, they’re going to struggle to breathe in.
Nationalism will work, probably, in the short term but without global balance then its dark, fascist, side will manifest and we will have to battle that. But we also need to face up to the reality that globalisation has not meant prosperity for everything. The truth that everyone is missing among the fevered brickbats and showboating that passes for British – and indeed US – politics is that the model is broken. We need a new model for the world, a new story as Harari calls it for us all to coalesce around. The old elites aren’t giving it to us, they’re too stuck in their legacy positions, instead it’s up to the new leaders; maybe its true that neurodiversity can help in its way – children like Thunberg who aren’t triggered by fake facts and swayed by the dog whistling of group think, whose clarity comes from the fact that they are different, that they are see past the fog of emotional manipulation and false facts to the stark realities. “I am an activist because of my autism, not in spite of it” she says.
She calls it her gift. The true gift is that the monolith is breaking in front of our eyes, thanks to the courage of people like her and the other brave voices of reason; from Lady Brenda Hale, the president of Britain’s Supreme Court and Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, beacons of sense and direction in what has been an raging tumult of middle aged patriarchal impotence.
We need to find that new story, we need to read the writing on the wall, for as Thunberg told the UNGA, the eyes of the future generation are upon us. They will not forgive us should we choose to fail them – and nor should they.
by Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa