by Andy West
The role of children in the culture of climate catastrophism
1.Serious scenarios for children: reality or culture?
1.1 Frightening our children: When do we find it acceptable to institutionally frighten children? While our first thought is perhaps that this should never happen, in practice there are at least two scenarios where it’s considered morally acceptable. The first is where dangerous hard realities beyond adult control, require that children must be taught a respect of such realities. This may often involve a certain amount of fear among other techniques, in hope that this will help children autonomously keep themselves safe. An example is gas-mask training in WW21, because adults can’t be everywhere at once to assist all children with their masks in time. The second scenario is where it’s morally acceptable by virtue of supporting a culture that has defined the moral landscape (or an up-and-coming culture that is attempting so to do). In this second case, instilling culturally approved fears is considered normative, to achieve desired social behavior, grant access to group benefits, and provide supposed cultural rewards. An example is scaring children about sin or Hell or the Crucifixion2, in order to reinforce Christian social behavior and introduce the partnering carrot of going to Heaven (instead of Hell) for conformance.
1.2 Children Protesting: When do children band together to try and make a communal voice of protest heard by society? As above, there are at least two scenarios where this happens. The first is a reaction to an existing and widespread serious wronging of children (and possibly adults too) of some kind. The second is in reaction to strong culturally instilled fears, which have incorrectly been interpreted as a real and present threat or harm (section 5). In both cases some action is sought from adults, in order to remove or mitigate the problem. Some adults are typically involved in the organization of a children’s movement, having aligned interests; anything from genuinely safe-guarding their children (or children’s interests) to virtue signaling. Example scenarios follow later.
1.3 Children in charge: When do society’s leaders advocate and implement (or attempt to) main policy expressed by a child? Once again, there are at least two scenarios where this happens. The first is where a widespread wronging such as in the paragraph immediately above, promoted to social leadership by a representative child victim, is deemed to cry out for redress. Whether children are seriously disadvantaged or suffering psychologically or physically or all of these, and indeed whether or not causation involves cultural elements, this is essentially a hard reality issue of present harm. The second scenario is where leaders are emotively disabled from resisting / contradicting the child’s policy, even if impacts are likely net very negative, because this expresses some culturally approved fear that the former are already primed for. Or at least for an up-and-coming culture, resisting is still a major challenge for leadership. Cultural bias blinds folks to downsides, and our ingrained instincts to avoid stigma are likely sharpened in those who want to retain leadership; a lack of support risks serious cultural stigma, including shame for failing to acknowledge moral censure by a ‘wronged’ (i.e. according to the accepted cultural narrative) child. Example scenarios follow later.
1.4 Which is which? A secular, reasoning and reasonable society should aspire to avoid the cultural scenarios from all these cases, which lead to needless fears, trauma, false hopes and inappropriate social actions. A reasonable religious society should aspire to limit context to core values, and prevent alarmist / extremist leverage of our emotive concern for children, plus damage to children who are pushed beyond benign religious participation. Yet for any given protest, or policy expressed to leadership, or instilling of fear, how can we know which scenario is which? And so indeed whether the constant fear about climate change instilled into our children (section 5, last para), the consequent children’s climate strikes, and the dramatic aspirations expressed by Greta Thunberg, fall into the reality bracket or the cultural bracket? Is Greta’s pitch to the UN as reality based as Malala Yousafzai’s pitch, yet needing from them immensely more support for worldwide change? Is the nature of the school climate strikes ultimately as material and justifiable as the 1963 children’s crusade, yet where the scope of the problem being protested by children is hugely more extensive? Large swathes of society enthusiastically support the school strikes and Greta; they’d surely say ‘yes’ to the latter two questions. But how do detailed comparisons actually pan out?
2.Comparative cases of children in charge: Malala, Greta, and Nongqawuse
The article Child Soldiers in the Culture Wars3 notes: ‘The value proposition represented by politically active children is obvious. Sensitive subject matter that withers under dispassionate scrutiny thrives when that kind of analysis is taboo.’ Added to which, the emotive influence of the meme that children by virtue of innocence possess special insight / veracity, significantly enhances the persuasiveness of all these girls. (Despite this meme is false4, irrelevant of personal aspects such as Greta’s Asperger’s syndrome). These factors create an emotive smokescreen that can amplify the irrational in our perceptions. Determining per section 1 whether reality or culture dominates the pitches made to authority by these three girls regarding major, complex social issues, some questions to be asked are:
- a) Is the child morally sponsored by a culture?
- b) If yes to a), is the child’s pitch rooted in / driven by the culture’s main narrative?
- c) Does the pitch represent an issue of current or future wrong[s]? Future is more likely cultural.
- d) Does the child dictate a specific solution (and timescale)? Even with great complexity, culture may.
- e) If yes to d), and whatever is a)/b), does the solution seem irrational5? Strongly cultural solutions are.
- f) How big (behavioral and infra-structure change) is the ask? Cultural asks can be astronomical.
(Level of respect is also interesting, fervent belief ultimately respects no authority above its own). The answers tell us whether emotive enhancement is merely an extra push to an already sound reality pitch, or a critical means to guarantee the invocation of cultural fears6.
The answer to a) is ‘yes’ for all three cases. In her UN pitch advocating education for children (especially girls) and protesting the extremism / bias and poverty that closes this down, Malala, the girl shot in the head by the Taliban, makes very clear that she is a religious adherent. She starts out with thanks to God and later cites inspiration from Mohammed and Jesus Christ (among others). However, regarding b) it’s also clear her case isn’t mainly driven by religious narrative. Indeed, her own victimhood was a result of an (extremist) interpretation of religious narrative, as Malala herself puts it, a ‘misusing of the name of Islam’. Her promotion of the supreme value of knowledge, plus plea for peace, prosperity, universal free education and the protection of rights, is consistent with her religiously framed principles. Yet these aims are nevertheless largely secular, and certainly not owed to culturally (religiously) instilled fears. Question c) is ‘current’ for Malala’s pitch (for details see footnote 7). Regarding d), albeit calling for a rejection of prejudice and for developed nations to pull their weight, Malala doesn’t dictate a specific solution, nor a date by which major progress must be achieved. So e) is n/a. But with an implied goal of assisting current sufferers, the ask is still big. Likely a major acceleration of longstanding efforts plus new initiatives are both needed; however regarding f), this isn’t astronomical8. Malala shows respect to leadership9.
The culture sponsoring Greta’s pitch to authorities is characterized here. The core narrative of this culture, propagated for decades by numerous authority sources from a raft of the highest in the world downwards, is a high certainty of imminent (decades) global climate catastrophe. Greta’s words10 leave no doubt that her pitch is driven by this narrative, so b) is a ‘yes’. Notwithstanding some secondary claims of current harms11, Greta’s pitch mainly concerns future and overwhelmingly greater damage, albeit she emphasizes imminence (to ‘irreversible’). So, c) is ‘future’. Where the main event is clearly occurring already, this cannot be a cultural fear; for a projected future occurrence, it could be (although even in the former case, causality could potentially still be attributed to a fairy tale). Regarding d), Greta does dictate a solution and also a timescale12. Answering e) involves subjective views. However, although Greta takes climate catastrophe, the ‘sacrifice of civilization and the biosphere’, for granted in her short UN speech, her longer UK13 and French13a pitches cite the IPCC as confirming this catastrophe. But the IPCC science13b doesn’t support a high certainty of imminent (decades) global climate catastrophe. [Note: this confirms the assumption from observed social characteristics per the above link, i.e. the policed central narrative of catastrophism is emotively emergent, aka wrong]. Applying this benchmark, Greta’s solution is geared to address emotive invention and not reality. This is indeed irrational; e) is a ‘yes’. On f), Greta is pitching to world authorities, and her ask for the world is astronomical. To fix imminent global apocalypse requires humanity’s largest behavioral / infrastructure adaptation since the industrial revolution, maybe since the invention of farming, on essentially a crash timescale14. Whatever policies mainstream science might call for, it doesn’t justify this radicality. Greta shows no respect to leadership14a plus claims they (generically) lied15; emotive conviction to the catastrophic no doubt makes this seem irrefutable.
In 1856 the Xhosa nation in South Africa, whose lifestyle and economy were largely based on keeping cattle, was under pressure. From a century of serious colonial encroachment, from a fatal lung disease (brought out of Europe) afflicting many of their cattle, and from internal political rivalries as the nation struggled to deal with their difficult situation. In April 1856 a young girl, Nongqawuse, the niece and adopted daughter of a councilor of the overall king, Sarhili, brought a prophecy of salvation to the Xhosa leadership (Sarhili and tribal chiefs). The prophecy was communicated to Nongqawuse, who is variously described as 14 to 16 at the time, by ‘the spirits of two ancestors’. To achieve salvation, she said, all of the Xhosa’s cattle must be killed, grain destroyed and cultivation cease. Plus, new houses / enclosures must be built; essentially nothing ‘contaminated’ must remain. Upon full compliance, new unsullied cattle would be resurrected from the dead, (new) granaries replenished and the European settlers swept away. In time, albeit not across the entire nation as some chiefs resisted, the prophecy gained majority adoption. So, several hundred thousand cattle were killed (of which the meat couldn’t be eaten) and much food was destroyed. The nation soon descended into famine and chaos. The Xhosa homeland population dropped by three quarters (~78,000), from a combination of starvation (~40,000) and withdrawal for colonial wage labor or slavery16. Xhosa independence, already weak, was lost.
The full story is highly complex, see footnote 17 for much more, yet this doesn’t invalidate applicability of the same set of questions. For a), ‘yes’, spiritual beliefs including ancestor worship and blended with elements of Christianity. For b) ‘yes’, in that the pitch came directly from ‘ancestors’, who appeared to Nongqawuse by a river. For c), ‘current’. For d), ‘yes’, Nongqawuse dictated a dramatic solution and a hard date. For e), ‘yes’. Notwithstanding complexity and some disputed secondary aspects17, historians view the Xhosa cattle killings as the millenarian response of a stressed society18. Nongqawuse’s irrational solution could only ever have made things far worse, to the point of mass fatalities. For f), sacrificing the personal resources plus economic basis of the entire nation, can only be viewed as astronomical.
These simple checks are not without value judgements21. Nevertheless, the above table indicates that Malala’s pitch is reality based, and Greta’s is cultural. Notwithstanding the wrongs to Nongqawuse’s society were current, her pitch is cultural too (highly irrational solution). There are striking parallels between the cases of the latter two girls, who are both essentially prophets of salvation demanding full and strict compliance to a narrow cultural (and astronomical) ‘solution’, which they say is the only way to escape dire calamity. In Nongqawuse’s case, the solution is a cultural invention; in Greta’s the emergency is a cultural invention, the corresponding imminent global catastrophe being unsupported by mainstream (and skeptical) climate science. In both cases their leaderships were strongly primed by the relevant cultural narrative22, which when reiterated in distilled form from the mouths of innocent girls, formed a critical means to invoke the cultural fears and hopes that override objectivity, plus unite a wide spectrum of public belief22a. The power of guilt in such pitches is noted by Greta herself22b. In comparison, Malala’s pitch characterizes her as an ambassador for the wronged, presenting serious pleas but not astronomical demands. And yes, spurred by (positive) emotion and some cultural context, but not pitching acutely urgent existential stories carrying an overwhelming weight of emotive (false) persuasion.
From the platform of socially protected mouthpieces of cultural expression, the young girls Greta and Nongqawuse urge swift elimination of what’s been the relevant society’s main means of sustenance and success for generations. While the sacrifice doesn’t necessarily have equivalent impact for very different societies, there’s an equivalent emotive conviction to irrational heritage rejection. In dictating absolutes, both girls effectively command this rather than plead24, albeit in performance of long emergent cultural narrative23. While Greta talks of her own idiosyncrasies being an advantage for her self-perceived role, the personal (including her courage, passion, dedication) isn’t a unique key. Without Greta there’d be a Hreta or Ireta or… to Yreta or Zreta and so on. And not necessarily young and female20. Strong cultural movements create conditions which will surface, from an immense diversity of humanity and numerous adherents, those who’ll most closely identify with the culture and most effectively wield its narrative as commands.
While much of the mainstream media has lauded or at least not explicitly criticized Greta, a millenarian19 angle has not gone unnoticed at more fringe outlets, which also cover the dangers (exampling Greta) of adults over-reacting to messianic children, the major issue stemming from the taboo nature of challenging a school-girl, which results in gross over-simplification, plus the irrational response of adults (UN leaders included) to an uninformed delivery from an (inappropriately) scared child demanding that we all panic. The millenarian sense of a critical change-point for everything can encompass a ‘renewal’ in which the old must be rejected, is somehow contaminated. This angle comes across strongly in the Xhosa case, and potentially explains why many ardent adherents of climate catastrophism reject emission free nuclear25, or natural gas as a ‘bridging’ solution, or indeed anything that smells even vaguely of pre-renewable energy infra-structure25a. The nuclear issue may eventually cause a heretical split within climate catastrophism25b.
3.Comparative cases of children protesting: the 1963 crusade and the school climate strikes
Regarding mass protests of children, the same section 2 questions clarify the cultural or reality nature of the events. The 1963 children’s crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, took place within a wider campaign to desegregate the city and bring wider attention to racial discrimination. Although a non-violent protest (in which techniques the children were schooled), the use of children was considered controversial by many, including some adults within the desegregation campaign itself. In the end, campaigners were gambling that the protected social status of children, the shaming of authorities and emotive reactions in potential wider audiences, would gain them significant advantage. But at risk to their children; and if perceived as cynical, at risk of backfiring too. President Kennedy disapproved, though added that just grievances must be resolved. Churches were physical bases and protesters were supported by their faith, so there was a cultural sponsor. Yet as with Malala’s pitch, the crusade’s aims were secular. Children were themselves wronged (a critical factor) and currently, albeit likewise for their parents and all the community of color. These children weren’t pawns; directly and indirectly they’d suffered injustice and their resistance was genuine. They called for negotiation, but ultimately a specific solution, the end of segregation (the issue scope is pretty narrow). As seen today and wrt principles in the wider US and the world at the time, this was certainly not irrational. And definitely not astronomical, albeit requiring behavioral change from an empowered minority.
Would a robot from Mars find the same answers? We can’t know; it’s impossible to free ourselves from bias. Yet the climate strike children are largely privileged plus not suffering current wrongs; their fear is a myth not strangled by adults. They faced no risk of heavy reaction, which doesn’t alone invalidate their cause but they appear to be pushing on an already opened cultural door. There’s been much approval from adults and influencers globally, and essentially no formal opposition from authority. Pushing on an open door seems like a paradox for a protest. It is, because cultural fears aren’t real, but via subconscious mechanisms certainly can’t be admitted as such. This doesn’t mean the children are pawns, except in the sense that they and adult adherents too are subconsciously pawns of the cultural narrative; as Greta herself notes many are (genuinely, see 5 below) anxious plus sad, angry or scared. But it does mean they’re essentially emotive proselytizers of a cultural narrative30b, i.e. climate catastrophism, and this culture will drive them as a wedge into power. In comparison, the 1963 children faced a very heavy-handed response: water-canon, dogs and jail. They definitely pushed against a closed door, which we know retrospectively (and really, even at the time) was bolted by local sub-culture. They certainly weren’t proselytizers acting out the bid of their own strong culture to capture authority commitment in support of belief; they weren’t demanding conformance to emotive existential narrative. Despite deploying their social advantages as children, they represented equity and reason that was countering a long-entrenched sub-culture of racism. History has smiled on their gamble back in 1963, but such cannot be foreseen.
4.Children and cultural absorption
We’ve exhibited cultural behavior since before we were homo-sapiens-sapiens26. Due to long gene-culture co-evolution our brains are geared for cultural behavior, including support for an in-group / out-group recognition and reinforcement system. The latter can bypass our reasoning for the sake of group unity, via strong cultural belief and alignment. Religions are the most familiar class of strong cultures, and due our above inheritance cognitive scientist Justin Barret makes a case in ‘Born Believers’ that children have a default ‘affinity’ or instinct for the concept of god / gods. A religion-shaped hole if you will, just waiting to be filled by a matching social ‘shape’ within the child’s environment27. The theory doesn’t remove a significant role for religious indoctrination (though Barret makes clear his view this isn’t an exclusive / primary enabler of belief take-up), which reinforces default affinity plus delivers details of the particular religious system acquired.
The author speculates that significant effort and re-framing can ‘force-fit’ alternate concepts into this ‘hole’, e.g. the theory of Natural Selection as a world-view foundation. But apart from major potential downsides28, this is a very poor fit. No reasonable framing can imbue this theory with existential hopes and fears, cogent emotive cocktails and of course deeply felt identity, which are all standard features of cultures that for most of our history were figure-headed by god / gods / spirits. However, secular cultures are in essence religions with different details, working via the same mechanisms and exhibiting the same range of behaviors, including emotive convictions that bypass reason. Hence during child development climate catastrophism, with its anthropomorphized climate apocalypse29, carbon sin and tenuous hope of salvation based upon articles of faith such as renewables30, will slip very easily into such a ‘hole’ when children are exposed to this culture. And whatever the affinity / indoctrination mix, climate catastrophe claims carrying this major emotive pay-load are part of school and home life in many societies now. Via repetitive teacher30a / par–ent / peer / media promotion, indoctrination (not typically the aggressive sort) will occur. And the claims evolve, e.g. to XR’s: ‘Such claims are having the desired effect of terrifying children into supporting the aims of Extinction Rebellion: Thunberg is one of those children.’ [free].
Given enough years / exposure, the above morphs climate catastrophism from ‘learned in adulthood’, so overlaying / modifying existing beliefs, to a ‘received’ culture, absorbed, indeed just like religion, during childhood. This creates much more ingrained belief, and far less opportunity for reason to prevail against bias. Not to mention much more associated (and morally legitimized) fear, and simultaneous hope plus a wide range of other emotions. A problematic byproduct is moral approval of children acting in normally intolerable ways, e.g. public chants30b grossly denigrating a leader, or anyone who is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be blocking the cultural ‘solution’ for catastrophe. This genie won’t go easily back into the bottle.
5.Interpretation of cultural fear
Fears inculcated by cultural entities aren’t real. We are not meant to believe them literally. Indeed, our brains appear to have a system for subconsciously knowing they’re not real, albeit we don’t yet know how it works31. As part of a ‘moral’ map, their purpose is in-group reinforcement. But sometimes the system goes wrong, producing real fear. For example, regarding: a) a new rising culture or cultural variant where equilibriums aren’t yet established, especially regarding a secular culture using the authority of science as a cloak. b) children, who lack mental experience of distinguishing between culture and reality. And c) likely for certain conditions (e.g. Asperger’s) where communication subtleties aren’t processed, such that cultural narratives not normally interpreted literally, are nevertheless perceived this way32.
a) results in some fearful adults. a) and b) results in many fearful (neurotypical) children. c) may add to a) and b) resulting in fearful young ASD individuals, like Greta. Even where the system works, cultural fears have some impact, are still scary to an extent. But not typically enough to trigger the same intensity and type of reaction as for reality fears33. Ironically, Greta correctly identifies an apparent hypocrisy in relation to this effect, the true cause of which her literal interpretations may have obscured for her32a.
What constitutes scary information and how exposed to it children should be, is subjective, given adult believers and nonbelievers in strong cultural narrative will hold differing views. However, much more objective is the actual manifestation of scared children (and young adults), and the acknowledgement of psychologists and guardians that this is major. Believers in imminent global climate catastrophe might claim ‘moral failure’, or maybe ‘useful discomfort’, but can’t claim the issue doesn’t exist. (Psychologists are generally believers so their advice is unhelpful at best, e.g. ‘grieve for how f** bad it all is’, possibly exacerbating). And there may be a less noble side to the inculcation of cultural fear in children34. Note: emotive cultural engagement isn’t less when failing to internally process that the fear isn’t real. Possibly the reverse; real fear might amplify cultural behavior still more, albeit for most this would be a behavioral stage. The cultural nature should eventually register, causing adjustment (some may lose belief entirely).
6.A cultural spiral
Decades of propagation of highly emotive (and per mainstream and skeptical science, false) catastrophe narrative by rafts of authorities, from the highest in the world downwards and reaching into all areas of society, has provided moral legitimization to foster catastrophic climate culture upon our children throughout their development. Aided by instinctive affinity for a cultural template and indoctrination within some social settings, this has resulted in large-scale take-up of the culture. In turn, this transforms children into mass vocal proselytizers for culture as transmitted by catastrophic / emergency stories, not actual protesters of reality-based wrongs. Per section 5 above, associated and genuine fear is widespread among children (and some adults) where the cultural nature of the threat hasn’t been internally realized, amplifying still further the pressure on society to act irrationally. These fears, along with the millenarian aspect of the culture36, have surfaced protected social mouthpieces for the culture and its uncompromising narrative for salvation, such as Greta and other children’s strike representatives. Such prophets then feed back to the culturally primed (and themselves long propagating) leadership, the ‘morally irrefusable’ plus ‘popular’ grass-roots verification, required for the culture’s next level of expansion and dominance. Yet ultimately, they’re all serving an entity that does not possess agency let alone sentience; it works purely via emotive selection and the consequent engagement of long evolved behaviors.
Swathes of frightened children and the nature of the children’s climate strikes, absolute demands to world leadership made by a child who instructs them to panic about imminent apocalypse (with little serious challenge37), these phenomena should be a big red flag with ‘culture’ written on it. But those disciplines studying such phenomena appear to believe en-masse the piece of the cultural narrative which states that (absent dramatic action) imminent (decades) global climate catastrophe, is an undeniable output of hard science. This is false; mainstream science doesn’t support it. Society is inappropriately scaring millions of children.
A question raised by the millenarian aspect of catastrophic climate culture and its quest to eliminate plus re-imagine our behavior and energy / infra-structure at ‘emergency’ speed, is: ‘what stress are we under that could cause such a response?’ Plus: ‘how much is real, and how much merely perceived?’ Cultures can potentially create the artificial stresses that keep them in business, and / or utilize prior real / artificial anxieties35. The externally generated stress upon the Xhosa was severe.
Link to [Endnotes ]
Moderation note: as with all guest posts, please keep your comments civil and relevant.