Thunberg’s Problem. A Problem Without Any solution?


For the last two or three months, I have been following the news on the school strike movement of teenagers, the purpose of which is to urge the grown-ups, particularly the politicians, to immediately do what is necessary to solve the problem of global warming, which is resulting in what has been summarized in the term “climate crisis”. As Greta Thunberg formulated it, they want the politicians to “panic”.
For her initiative, courage and leadership role in the movement, the 16 years old Thunberg has been variously criticized and maligned by several grown-ups including politicians.1 She was thus compelled to publish an article in self-defense. I request my readers to read it in the original.2
I was almost moved to tears while reading it. I remembered the time I was 15–18 years old. It was in the 1950s, when the state of the Indian society and of the Third World in general was utterly miserable. It was so not only in the material sense, i.e. in the sense of abject poverty, feudal and imperialistic exploitation and oppression, but also in regard to the level of education and political awareness of the people at large. And then, for the few politically aware people like us, there was the threat of a third world war with deployment of nuclear weapons. But we were in those days not as despairing as Thunberg and her age-mates sound these days, although a third world war followed by a nuclear winter with its consequences threatened to devastate the whole world with one big bang. As against that, the climate crisis and its already palpable negative effects are expected to worsen only incrementally.
We were less despairing because in those days I and all my politicized age-mates believed we knew the solution: a socialist world society. And we were somewhat confident that the mighty Soviet Union and the global peace movement would be able to prevent a third world war. Today’s youth do not have a comparable confidence in regard to averting the climate catastrophes. When a journalist asked Greta, what, in her opinion, should be done for the purpose, she replied: why do you ask me? I am only a kid. Ask the grown-ups!3

Why This Difference?

I can explain this difference. In our youth, we had ideals, we believed in progress, we believed that in course of history, human society would become ever better, ever more prosperous, ever more egalitarian, i.e. socialistic, and ever more peaceful. We could believe in all that because we could see the rapid scientific and technological development taking place in front of our eyes. And we were aligned with our elder comrades. We all believed, as Erich Honecker, the former leader of the socialst GDR, used to say: “Den Sozialismus in seinem Lauf hält weder Ochs noch Esel auf.”   (Neither an ox nor an ass can hold back the progress toward socialism.)
Today, Thunberg and young people of that ilk do not have any ideal, nor this kind of confidence. Whereas we were fighting for an ideal human society, they are only fighting for bare survival of human society as they know it. And they, generally, hardly see any hope of succeeding, i.e. unless some miracle happens. On the contrary, at present, they are seeing that even rich Western societies (USA, France, Sweden e.g.) and emerging Third World societies (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, India e.g.) are in deep trouble. Young people of the poorest 3rd World countries (those of Africa and Central America e.g.) are turning their backs on their native countries and gate-crashing into the rich countries (USA, Europe, Australia, even the South African Republic). On the one hand, of course, more and more technological development is taking place, more and more wonderful goods and pleasure-things are flooding the markets. But, on the other hand, e.g. waterbodies are getting choked with plastic waste, air of big cities is becoming unbreathable. Although more and more goods and services are being produced, more and more people are being rendered unemployed, are being made to live without any perspective on a better life.

The Current Situation

In this situation, against the background of the ongoing global warming and climate crisis, and against the background of numerous negative scientific reports on the state of the world,4 UN climate scientists gave the warning that unless humanity does the necessary things by 2030 (i.e. 11 years from now) it would be too late. After this warning, all political leaders of the world should have got into a panic. But they are carrying on business as usual, paying only lip service to the goals they had set in Paris in 2015. Instead, it is today’s youth that are getting into a panic. That is understandable. The greater part of their life is still lying in front of them. It is their life, their future, that is being destroyed by the elders. They are not experts in the matter, but they do understand the danger.
However, it would be better if they would understand the problem in some depth. Global warming of today is only the effect of some processes that have been taking place since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Of course, it is not just a symptom, it is itself causing damages in the biosphere. But neither the warming nor the climate crisis and their effects can be successfully tackled unless their real causes are recognized, namely our industrial mode of production and consumption, in other words, our current industrial civilization, which is absolutely dependent on burning fossil fuels.

But What is the Solution?

As we know, the school- striking teenagers are only demanding that the politicians finally do something decisively about the problem. They are not claiming that they know the solution, although one can also hear some of them glibly mouthing the same solutions as their radical elder brothers do: “shut down all coal mines immediately”, “let all fossil fuels remain in the ground”, “all energy supply must come from renewable sources” etc. As we also know, all ruling politicians are turning a deaf ear to such demands. Can the problem be solved at all? If yes, then somebody must come forward and say loudly how.
Below Thunberg’s said article, I read a few usual comments. But one of them is bold. It reads: “The greatest minds in the Western world are working on this. They have produced no solution because there is none.”
In her article, as if in anticipation of this comment, Thunberg, the 16 years old, had written like a very wise person,

Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to stop it. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.
Because either we limit the warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.”

Very wise words, but they still do not offer a concrete proposal of a solution. She is reported to have said on another occasion: all the technologies needed for the solution are already there. They need only to be used. Her elder radical brothers and sisters have been saying this since long, adding the point that only capitalism and capitalists, aided by subservient politicians, are preventing their deployment to the necessary extent. Many politicians and engineers dispute the assertion.

The Right Answer to the Conundrum

At this point, I think I must intervene, because I think I have the answer to this conundrum. Read the last two sentences of the above quote carefully. Thunberg writes, “Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t”. But who said we must go on with this civilization? With this present civilization of the Western world? If we drop this idea, then I think survival of the human species (not of the current Western civilization) is possible – with a different, yet to be fully described, kind of civilization
The current civilization of the Western world is doomed – there is no doubt about that – because it is utterly dependent on burning huge quantities of fossil fuels. And that, as we know, is the main cause of the climate crisis. This civilization is doomed for another, parallel, reason: because of the certainty that sooner or later the fossil fuel supply, which is exhaustible, will become prohibitively costly – both in money terms and in terms of energy cost.5 We are caught, so to speak, in a pincer grip crisis. There are also some lesser causes of the crisis – capitalism, globalization, greed, human nature, anthropocentrism etc. etc. etc. The point I want to make here is that any kind of industrial society, even the morally most perfect industrial socialist society would ultimately come to an end, because of the two parallel causes stated above. But they might also collapse for other reasons long before all the fossil fuels of the earth have been extracted and burnt. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, father of ecological economics, who spoke of fossil fuels – the secret of all material progress of the last 200 years – as “the limited dowry of mankind’s existence on earth”, already wrote in 1970:

“Even with a constant population and a constant flow per capita of mined resources, mankind’s dowry will ultimately be exhausted if the career of the human species is not brought to an end earlier by other factors.” 6

This is not the place to go into details of this argumentation.7 It is however possible to indicate, in short, the existing doubts about the “solution” that many teenagers in the movement, also all grown-ups in it, so confidently suggest: energy transition, i.e. supplying, as soon as possible, all the energy that this civilization needs from renewable sources. I maintain that that is not possible. Because the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) of all “renewable energy” technologies is too low or even negative. Moreover, all the equipment that are needed to produce “renewable energy” – solar panels, wind turbines, reinforced concrete towers and rotors, dams on rivers etc. –cannot be made without the use of fossil fuels, not yet, and will probably never be.

Are the Technologies for the Solution Already There?

If we limit ourselves to the current debates on the current situation, even then there really are two valid points in the arguments of the politicians who dare to openly oppose the teenagers’ school strike movement. In a German TV debate, a young, maybe 35 years old, liberal-democratic politician put forward arguments, which I think I can formulate more clearly and succinctly, because I agree with them. (1) Scientists till now have only done research on the crisis and formulated theoretical solutions. The point, however, is to develop the machines, equipment, and technologies to make the suggested solutions humanly and economically possible. And that is the task of engineers and technicians. The said politician maintained that these machines, equipment, and technologies are still not there. (2) All main participants in this debate and in all debates connected with the general ecological crisis take it for granted that all proposed concrete solutions are already, or must be, feasible and profitable within the general framework of capitalism. Nobody is saying that capitalism must be overthrown first. Thunberg and her demonstrating age-mates are no exception.
As a must-be-clause, it is an essential condition. But it cannot be fulfilled by many of the machines, equipment, and technologies proposed by eco-activists, that have of course proved to be feasible, and were in the past also profitable, but are not profitable any more. Here are two examples: (a) In Germany, many railway lines and bus services that formerly connected small towns in the countryside have been closed down or their frequency have been sharply reduced because of competition from cars on autobahns. (b) Many materials – plastic packaging materials are just one example – are not being recycled, simply because that is not profitable.
But it is also true that, even ignoring the profitability criterion (because the state is prepared to subsidize it), engineers could not yet realize some proposed technologies: for example, the carbon capture and sequestering (CCS) technology. Engineers have also failed to bring about the miracle of producing more and more goods with less and less expenditure of resources (decoupling).

Any Solution in Sight?

Frustrated, one may now ask: Is there any solution to the problem at all? Or must we now settle for just enjoying the good time we have left? Indeed, I have read about the existence of a stream of thought in the Western World that maintains that the human species would soon become extinct through its own acts of omission and commission, and hence there is no point in trying to stop the process. Instead, we should try to enjoy life now as much as possible.
Of course, those who are today, say, 50 or more years old and are having a good income or have a lot of wealth, may say so. But they would continuously suffer from a bad conscience, because their own children and grandchildren, or at least their nephews and nieces, will in the near future suffer from all the crises that they are generating and intensifying. So we must not consider the possibility of imminent human extinction, and we must continue our search for a solution that might have a chance to be accepted because there is none other.
If we are prepared to drop the conditions that (a) the searched for solution must be one to ensure that the current civilization of the Western world can go on, and (b) that the solution must remain within the parameters of capitalism, then we can think further and suggest a solution. But even that may not be enough. We must also absolutely realize that the number of us humans – 7.6 billion and growing – is already too high for the health of the biosphere.
This solution, in my opinion, is to strive to transition to a sustainable steady state economy with a much lower level of production and a much lower human population than today’s. I do not at present want to speculate on the question: how much lower? Today, I can only say that the process of contraction must begin immediately. Although the level of material production must be going down, the level of knowledge must not. Knowledge would make up the superiority of the sustainable society of the future to any society of the previous centuries. And what is very important is that the envisioned future societies must be egalitarian ones. Only then will humans and groups of humans be able to live in peace with each other and in peace with the rest of nature. I call this kind of a society an eco-socialist society. There are many others who are thinking in this direction: the advocates of de-growth, of a solidarity economy, of a steady state market economy etc.

Notes and References:

1. Among them even Angela Merkel and the General Secretary of her party the CDU.

  1. I did not hear this as o-tone, but as reported by a TV-journalist.
  2. The most detailed among all is:
    The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

However, in the end, Wallace-Wells only repeats the unfounded technological optimism of the scientists.
5. Energy cost of a thing is the amount of energy needed to produce it. If e.g. two units of energy needs to be spent to extract one unit of fossil fuel energy, then the project must be given up.
6. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1981) The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. P. 296.
7. I have published several essays on this issue in my blogsite I would here like to recommend only two:

“Saving the Planet, American Style — A Critical Review, and Some Thoughts and Ideas”

“The Global Crisis and Role of So-called Renewable Energies in Solving It.”

Saral Sarkar was born in 1936 in West Bengal, India. After graduating from the University of Calcutta, he studied German language and literature for 5 years in India and Germany. From 1966 to 1981, Sarkar taught German at the Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institute), Hyderabad, India. Sarkar is living in Germany since 1982. He is the author of 5 political books(see list in Wikipedia/German) that have appeared in English, German, Chinese, Japanese and (in internet for free downloading) French and Spanish. Sarkar has also published many articles and essays in several journals in India, USA, Germany, UK, Holland, China, Spain. He also writes regularly in two blogs of his own (see Wikipedia/German).

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