The whole of the Western world’s attention has been focused on a sixteen year old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg. She suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of mild autism; one in every thousand worldwide. In common with other autistic people, those with Asperger’s have difficulty reading other people and are frequently perceived as socially awkward and prefer repetitive behaviour and routines, which can be difficult to change. However, they may, like Greta, see positives in having, as she puts it, a ‘differently wired brain’. They often have intense and highly-focused interests, and find that pursuing them becomes fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness. This said, she’s an absolutely stellar candidate to spearhead a movement like Extinction Rebellion the protest movement that brought half of London to a standstill last weekend and the loss of billions to local commerce since its inception in November 2018. Whoever thought the name up is worthy of a job in Madison Avenue. The apocalyptic, precipitous first word is beautifully matched with the second – a magnet for disaffected youth, who want to tear down existing structures but aren’t quite sure yet, being a little bit undereducated, what to replace them with. She has been compared, unrealistically, to Malala Yousafzai, the campaigner for female education who was recruited by BBC Urdu at her mother’s instigation, to write an anonymous blog as an eleven year old living in fear in the Swat valley. Subsequently, she was shot in the head by the Taliban, won the Nobel Peace Prize and a place at Oxford. Their only superficial point of similarity is that they have both suffered as a result-in one case, of a genetic and environmental disability -the other from physical trauma.
Greta has been fêted around the world in the eight months since she started skipping school each Friday to protest in Stockholm. I asked myself ‘what if I had done that?’ I once skipped school and got caught. I had to mow my housemaster’s lawn every week for six weeks and I didn’t get to start an anti-lawnmower protest movement or a petition to ‘leave the poor grass alone’. She met the Pope last week and has addressed the European parliament and the World Economic Forum in Davos. She met a fistful of British MPs who were mightily impressed, the significant absentee being the PM who was in a Cabinet meeting. Apparently, she travels by train whenever she can, to reduce her own (quite modest) carbon footprint. Mr Jeremy Corbyn fawned avuncularly over her, such was his glee at finding someone of sixteen who might be capable of voting for him – he wants to give it to all of them, it seems. Had I been given the vote at sixteen and I took the trouble to exercise my franchise, I think I might well have voted for the lady with nice breasts or the man in the top hat belonging to the Monster Raving Loony party.
The serious point to make here is that both girls’ popularity has been developed and fuelled by the Great Satan of our times, the barnacle of Social Media which has attached itself to the ship of a third or more of the planet. It warrants capital letters because it is as much of a demigod as Diana of the Ephesians. Out of a tiny acorn, a mighty oak can grow with bewildering speed and wizardry, in spite of the fact that it relies upon a simple but effective logical fallacy, the more people get behind an idea, the more righteous the idea becomes; a blizzard of affirmative likes, emojis and“aaahs”. The Nazis used it to considerable effect; the difference being that propaganda is a wilful child in the hands of people who have no idea of its power, whereas the Nazis knew exactly what they were doing.
In 2016, The UK held a referendum on whether to leave the EU, as everybody in the world who hasn’t been living under a rock, knows. The Vote Leave campaign won, not by reasoned debate, not by gentle explanation, not even by spurious and quite misleading financial incentives but by a social media campaign, deliberately orchestrated by someone paid to do it, the political strategist Dominic Cummings, brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie “The Uncivil War”. The result tipped Leave into the winners’ enclosure and the rest, all muddle, recrimination and plot is still with us.
Yes. Of course we all need to be aware of as many facts as we have at our disposal to deal with climate change – if it is possible. Of course, we applaud activists who campaign for education for all; it is after all, a basic human right to have access to educational material. What is manifestly not right is the cynical manipulation of quite worthy issues in cyberspace to snowball them into vast, unstoppable behemoths of social and political unrest. Big Brother is watching you and pushing the snowball down the hill.