Greta Thunberg and the retreat of intellectualism in the UK

The general line on Greta Thunberg in the progressive-liberal press is that she is ‘speaking truth to power’. She is presented as a heroine for the moment. She is the one who is telling governments the truth about the climate crisis. She is a brave leader – whom we should all admire and respect. Greta has mastered all the ‘science’ about climate change and is righteously and needfully telling our leaders the truths they don’t want to hear.

The reality is that Ms Thunberg does not have a very solid grasp of climate science. Her public statements, especially “listen to the science” suggest that she hasn’t understood how climate science works. Climate science works by modelling. What algorithms are used (the shape of the functions) as well as the selection of what factors to use as inputs are matters not of absolute science (as in the laws of force and momentum for example) but of interpretative science. Even once the models are agreed scientists then run them with various inputs, themselves projections, in order to produce a range of possible outcomes.  The science of climate change does not provide the certainty that Ms Thunberg appears to think it does.

But there are other limitations to Ms Thunberg’s message. Ms Thunberg’s message appears to be a generalised call that ‘the governments of the world must act now’. This is fine. But this kind of unnuanced call is appropriate in a school essay on climate change. It is not, or at least should not be treated as if it were, a credible political position on the problem of climate change. This is not to take anything away from Ms Thunberg; after all she is in fact a schoolgirl. She is producing the kind of sincere but unsophisticated analysis we would expect to see in a school essay written by a motivated and concerned student. The interesting aspect of this situation (the lauding of Ms Thunberg in the media) is not Ms Thunberg’s view on climate change but how this unsophisticated student’s perspective is presented by the media as a credible challenge to world leaders and governments.

The complexities which Ms Thunberg’s analysis and naive (entirely appropriate for someone of her age) call for action miss include the question of parity between the developing world and the developed world. The argument here is that it is not reasonable or viable to ask the developing world to reduce CO2 emissions given that the rich North has been emitting CO2 for longer. An even reduction in CO2 emissions would entrench the privileged position of the rich countries of the North. Other complex arguments include the argument that the world can in fact recover from an increase in the overall temperature; especially given that the burning of fossil fuels will be substantially reduced over the next 100 years as the resources run out, and that development is more important than the losses which will result from climate damage. At any event clearly it is reasonable to consider the economic costs of reducing CO2 emissions; reducing CO2 emissions is not 100% cost-free itself.

There is nothing wrong with championing a schoolgirl who wants to speak out about an important issue of the day but the media is not simply doing that. They are presenting this naive analysis as a serious intellectual contribution; which it isn’t.

How to understand this? In general I think this is best understood as just one aspect in a deliberate dumbing down and de-intellectualisation of public discourse that is a key part of the culture in the UK (and perhaps in the rest of the West as well) at the moment. By promoting Ms Thunberg’s narrative as if it were serious the media lowers the overall level of debate.

There are countless examples of the deliberate dumbing down of the level of intellectual discourse in the UK.

Visitors to many museums can now read labels and explanations that are clearly framed as if the reader had the mentality of a five-year old and no prior knowledge at all of the subject. If challenged curators will explain that they are making the material ‘accessible’. Meanwhile, for challenging them, you will be accused of being ‘elitist’ or ‘privileged’. If you are a white male of a certain age they will offer that as a final proof of their point. But the reality is that people who visit museums can easily read up on the subject beforehand, or afterwards. While they are in the museum 90% of visitors can check any terms they don’t understand by looking them up on the Internet on their mobile phone. It is the ability (which everyone apart from those with very very low levels of mental functioning has) to think for oneself which is being targeted. The reality is that if you spoon feed people many will adapt and in fact become like babies; but there is no need to do this. If you required them to do a little intellectual work the vast majority would do it. This dumbing down is an active and deliberate process aimed at undermining the practice of thinking in the population.

The classic cultural mechanism for undermining and diminishing peoples’ ability to think about things is, of course, psychotherapy (and counselling). Therapy tells people to react to situations by asking themselves how do I feel about this. Thinking about situations is portrayed as a weak or repressed response; it is something which people need to be cured of. There is of course, nothing wrong with paying attention to one’s feelings. But therapy prioritises them above thinking. However; where do we find principles, morality, and, ultimately, human decency? These are found on the side of thinking. Therapy is the principal, but not the only, cultural force which is actively trying to undermine peoples’ ability to think.

What is the driver for the active push to reduce the amount of thinking which people do? This is really a complex question and outside of the scope of this article which is simply paying attention to the problem. However; we can ask; who benefits if the population becomes ga-ga – that is unable to think? Because targeting thinking also targets principles we can see that whatever else this force is trying to do it is trying to undermine (in fact remove altogether) morality. It appears, tentatively, to be a force to promote a principle-free modality of existence. This force is removing the restraints on unprincipled consumption and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. This force is facilitating the unleashing and normalisation of hedonism.

No society can operate entirely without some form of rules of social restraint. As morality dies a new form is indeed arising. The new rule of social restraint which belongs to this new culture is that you may not do anything which ’causes alarm or distress’ to other people (even unintentionally), you must not ‘trigger’ them. Many social questions and disputes that previously would have been discussed in terms of social justice, principles of right and wrong, are now discussed in terms of their impact on the ‘mental health’ of the wronged. Instead of a morality which is based on some kind of principles established by reason we have a morality which frames itself purely in terms of the effect on the emotions of the ‘victim’ of the crime. This is because you are violating the right of people to live in a blissful state of egoic absorption. This is the rule of social restraint for the new age of hedonism.

In short; intellectualism, and therefore principles, is in retreat as a new religion of unashamed consumption and legitimized hedonism comes to the fore.  Thunberg is just being used by this force as part of its wider campaign to de-intellectualize society.



Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer