Humanity is plagued by existential threats. Threats, it seems we cannot overcome. Whether it is an asteroid that could hit the Earth at any time, wiping out all life, supergerms for which there are no cure, space lightning that can incinerate a whole galaxy in an instant, or the ever advancing changes to our climate, we have much to be concerend about. So much so, that it can get us down. If you allow yourself to go down the rabbit hole and look one of these threats in the eyes, you might never be able to close your eyes again.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words“, Greta Thunberg said at the UN Climate Summit in New York in September. And she is right. She should be in school, not having to deal with one of the biggest threats to human society. Why does a teenager have to start up a movement to fight climate change? Isn’t that what politicians are for? What about business leaders?
Of course this is a naïve question. Everyone in our society is part of a grown system and every individual action has consequences. Politicians and business leaders that would make decisions that are too radical would face dire consequences. Let us have a look at a simple example: Cars make up for 12% of the EU’s carbon emissions and 71% of its transport related emissions. Knowing this, President Macron one day decides to unilaterally ban all cars in France. Apart from riots from regular people (have you heard of the yellow vests?), the first thing that happens is that all car manufacturers in the country either implode (in the case of France, the state even owns a stake in them), or more likely, move to another country. This causes a wave of layoffs, which overburdens the state with unemployment obilgations, while also shrinking the economy. Taxes must be raised to absurd levels and before we know it, we realise that public and alternative private modes of transportation are insufficient to cope with the amount of people that suddenly don’t have access to cars anymore.This leads to a huge economic crisis in the country, which in turn takes the rest of the EU with it and has far reaching consequences on our trading partners worldwide.
So obviously, if cars are a problem, changes must be made on multiple fronts and not just by one radical individual. Just like Greta is not standing on the streets alone holding up her signs, climate change requires collective action. But collective action needs a plan. Look at the energy sector. Last week, we wrote about Germany’s approach to energy and how it is insufficient for Europe. There is no Energy Union in the European Union and yet the entire electrical grid in Europe is interconnected, EU member state or not.
The truth is that renewable energy sources, such as wind energy, are quite unpredictable. Wind turbines only create energy when there is wind. Sometimes there is no wind, at other times there is too much wind. So we sometimes end up creating too little energy, which needs to be compensated by other means and at other times, we have a surplus of energy being generated. This energy needs to go somewhere immediately. We don’t have any storage capacity for renewable energy, such as giant batteries. So instead, we disperse the energy throughout Europe. But while Germany has turned off all its nuclear reactors, it is still using nuclear energy provided to it from neighbouring countries, primarily France. Austria receives nuclear energy from Czechia and other surrounding countries. So what good does it do if one country goes nuclear-free if they still are dependent on nuclear energy from other countries? It is nothing more than shifting the blame to another country and pretending like one is doing a lot for the climate. But if there is no EU-wide coordinated energy union with a plan, we are not only playing cat and mouse in the energy sector, we are also endangering our infrastructure. Our energy grids are not resilient. We build more and more wind farms, but don’t have any way of regulating their energy outputs. It would not take a lot for the grid to be overloaded and collapse. If this were to happen, we would have blackouts in large parts of Europe and many of our switches and generators are old and the nearest spare parts are hundreds of kilometres away. Blackouts that would last for days, could have even worse consequences for the big cities, in which many processes like gas pipelines and plumbing are automated and could lead to catastrophic side effetcs, such as large scale explosions in homes and on streets. Are you getting anxious yet? Well, you shouldn’t. This is a problem for you to be aware of, but not for you to solve.
The green movement started on the left side of the political spectrum, but has now reached wide-spread consensus (at least in Europe) among all political actors. However, the narrative is still being driven predominantly by the Left. Which seems a litte odd. After all, it is usually the Left that urges for collective and state action, rather than individual efforts, which are deemed as a ‘neoliberal’ dogma. Yet the very same people are now shaming individuals for their personal carbon footprint. ‘Why are you eating so much meat?’ ‘You are still driving a car?’ ‘Put on a sweater! You don’t want to waste so much gas on heating!’ With statements like this, you would be forgiven if you thought we are at war and running out of butter.
Of course, this is not to say, that individual consumption doesn’t matter. It does and we should be mindful of how much food and energy we waste. But at the same time, we should not kid ourselves. Just because Susan from Accounting stopped eating meat, climate change is not going to stop and she should certainly not feel entitled to rub in our faces just how great and green she is for having changed her lifestyle. Particularly, because everything we do is affecting the environment. Susan, for example, happens to leave her computer and monitor on when she is away from her desk, including when she goes home for the night. So, she may have changed one of her behavioural patterns, but there are still several other things she does that are wasteful.
The point is, it is not about Susan and what she does or doesn’t do, or whether you take a flight or a train to go home for Christmas this year, it is about us organising ourselves and figuring out a way to waste less energy and natural resources collectively. Because right now, an individual will struggle to not leave a giant carbon footprint on the Earth, no matter what we try. The issues we are facing are systemic. Unfortunately, once we realise this, we can very easily become depressed.
In fact, many young people, in particular, are depressed. Because they want to live a good life and have a positive impact on society, but once they figure out that everything they do has no or almost no impact and they do not have the power to make the systemic changes necessary to make things better on their own, they become depressed (or in Greta’s case, angry). Why? Because we keep telling them that it is up to them to change things. It isn’t. Not alone. To quote Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude: ‘And any time you feel the pain, hey, Jude, refrain. Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders. Well don’t you know that its a fool who plays it cool, by making his world a little colder.’
Feeling bad about yourself and the state of the world is not going to change things for te better. It’s just going to ruin your life. Instead of obsessing about every little thing you and the people around you do, live your life and if you want to help change things, volunteer with an NGO, work on environmental projects, or campaigns. Go to the streets and join the protests from time to time, that is enough. You don’t have to take on the whole world by yourself. Find other people who believe in the same things you do and work on concrete things you can do collectively. But most importantly, don’t despair. Depression is a real mental illness and if you find yourself in a depressed state, you will be unable to do anything at all. And isn’t it better if we all work on changing things together, rather than collectively locking ourselves in our own dark bedrooms and sobbing about how bad things are?