The 16-year-old girl came to warn that there are citizens in the world who are never heard: the unborn.
Greta Thunberg. She spent two days and nights crossing the Atlantic. Aboard an 18 meter yacht, with no toilet and with minimal sleeping facilities and food, she and her father travelled to New York. She came to tell the representatives of the nations on this earth about a future. To be precise, a ruined future.
Since time immemorial, since Jeremiah in the stories of the prophets, there have always been people who warn of pending disaster, even though they are ignored. In 15th century Italy, the artist Michelangelo depicted Jeremiah sitting weeping. In the 19th century, Javanese were familiar with poetry that referred anxiously to the coming of the Jaman Kalabendu ,‘the time of disaster’—a poem I once heard a street musician sing as I was eating nasi liwet at a street stall.
Greta is like that. What makes her different is that she herself is part of the ruined life to come.
In just half a century, Greta will be 66. Probably, like millions of other people yet to be born—unheard citizens of this earth—she will witness New York, Venice and Jakarta sink into the sea like an apocalyptic film. In half a century, because of the destruction of the environment, the earth will be many degrees hotter, the icecaps will melt, the sea will rise, and coastal cities will be submerged. In half a century, the political and business leaders who are not preventing the coming of the Kalabendu will not be around to witness it.
Religions affirmed the prophet Jeremiah. Not Greta. She is supported by something else: Unite Behind Science is its slogan. This young Swedish girl is using the prestige of 21st century science to point out something catastrophic confronting mankind.
How different this is from times past. The sciences of 17th-century Europe, mathematics, geography, physics and astronomy, brought good news. People welcomed the coming of the ‘Enlightenment’. In the 18th century, in post revolutionary France, Condorcet and Turgot looked to the future with conviction that all would be right. Scientific discovery and political freedom would support and bring prosperity. Progress, this was the direction of history.
In this century, Greta is heir to ambiguous experience. ‘Progress’—increasingly sophisticated techology, free information, freedom to think and speak out—all these have improved life, including Greta’s. But ‘Enlightenment’ brings with it its own disaster. ‘Progress’ turns out to move along with capitalism which institutionalizes social inequality, like a leech on bodies and souls. Machines have extended human ability to dominate nature and other humans. Technology made Hitler’s and Stalin’s powers of repression more efficient. Scientific discovery facilitated the atom bomb that reduced cities to poisonous ruins.
Mankind is no longer intimate with nature. Humans are alienated from things around them. Such was the famous bleak voice of Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment written in the 1940s at the outbreak of World War II. “Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can make them. In this way, their potentiality is turned to his own ends.”
Tropical forests, virgin soils, free rivers and seas, all are arranged to be calculated and exploited for human wellbeing—increasingly ruthlessly. ‘Progress’ has become like a swift current moving in the direction of happiness—or whatever promised state—to find merely debris and wreckage.
Is this what Greta, environmental activists, and scientists are saying about the future full of plastic, filthy air, scorched earth, dry rivers, and savage seas? That history will bear us towards life at odds with what was once promised, by both capitalism and socialism?
In the 1940s, when Hitler mobilized the army and machines to conquer territory outside Germany—while exterminating the Jews and others—Walter Benjamin wrote his Theses on the Philosophy of History. In his famous Thesis IX he spoke about the ‘angel of history’ whose face he imagined resembling Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus.
This angel, Benjamin wrote, “looks as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Walter Benjamin committed suicide after writing this. He was trying to flee the Nazis.
Is history as dark as this? And is there no other choice when that angel we think is an analogy for socialism that ends up no different to capitalism, is driven by disastrous ‘progress’.
In every era, Jeremiah is heard as extreme, but like Greta he has to shout more clearly than those who are part of the past.
With this proviso: we can never paint the future with the model of the present. The angel of history called angelus novus in Benjamin’s imagination gives the impression that God did not create what is merely unchanging. History is the process of the production of truth. There is always the yet-to-come, which we do not know.