Greta is just a messenger. Don’t shoot the messenger. It does not matter what you or I think about her. What matters is that we stop wasting time. We need to act now. 
L’avenir, tu n’as point à le prévoir mais à le permettre. 
Lots of words have been said and written about Greta Thunberg, her activity has been exalted, analyzed, criticized, she has been insulted and threatened. It is extraordinary how this sixteen year old girl starting from a single protest has involved a global movement of tens of millions of people around the world. She has been invited to the most important worldwide forums, from the European Community to the United Nations, and she has been considered as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize . Her parable is an interesting case study in the communication and media realms, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on human responsibilities, on the present and the future of our species. It deserves some further considerations.
1. The “message” of Greta
Greta Thunberg’s message is simple, clear, direct, sometimes even angry, like in her speech at the United Nations, it can be understood by everyone. As to its content, turning to the politic and economic powers, citing scientific data, Greta insists above all on the “zero emissions” goal , which is fundamental. However, since some years several scientific studies have been demonstrating that “zero emissions” is not enough to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”  and even to limit “the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”  – limits set by the Paris Agreement in 2015 and recently reaffirmed by the Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main International organization for the assessment of climate change . It is necessary to produce negative CO2 emissions, that is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is more complicated .
Although for the first time humanity is facing a planetary crisis that has heavily contributed to create , this is not really a new situation: humanity has always been using scientific disciplines and technologies to remedy situations where it has been more or less voluntarily or unavoidably involved in. The most evident examples are on the action of natural selection through the medical sciences and, more recently, through genetics.
CO2 can be subtracted from the atmosphere in many ways, including in a natural way through forestry , that is reforestation and afforestation, basically by planting trees in an appropriate way  and protecting forests : some nations worldwide have adopted this program . And in agriculture through the use of such things as biochar, the reduction of fertilizers’ use, conservative agriculture, and so on.
There are also other proposals for geoengineering the atmosphere in order to lower the temperature by reflecting a part of the sunlight , with long-term consequences that are difficult to predict. Although the engineering of nature is deeply intertwined with the history of humanity, sometimes it could constitute a worse remedy. Moreover, we do not know if it would be enough to avoid a profound modification of the Earth ecosystems and the consequent effects on human societies. Among the experts there is a widespread pessimism and, in addition to the actions against Climate Change it gets stronger the idea of adapting to it , with all the issues – environmental, social, economic, political… – that this entails.
2. “Listen to science”
Greta’s and her followers’ claims are admittedly based on science. Science is the reliable starting point, to be trusted, and this should be noted, in the era of fake news, chemtrails, vaccine refusal, flat Earth theory, evolution denial… Greta cites scientific data but science is not her job and she is often reproached for not being a scientist, as if only a certain “caste” had the right to speak on these topics and to be heard. Indeed this “caste” has tried to communicate the issues of our planet’s anthropogenic climate transformations: since the 1970s many more or less divulgative essays, researches, studies, articles, books have been published. However the results, from the point of view of communication, influence on politics and social impact, have been quite modest outside the circle of insiders .
It is precisely because Greta is not a scientist that she has involved millions of people around the world, influencing institutions, media, politicians – who are primarily interested in numbers. Then, as some argue, Greta can also represent the false awareness of a world that does not really want to change, or the heroine of an emerging phase of an ecology-centered economy. But among the millions of her followers someone could be really capable of changing things.
3. “Greta is manipulated”
Another common claim is that Greta is “manipulated” by some hidden hand, or organization – Soros is among the most popular names. Conspiracy often serves to cover up something unknown, that people do not understand or that do not want to understand, that goes beyond normal and Greta undoubtedly is an extraordinary figure, in many ways. It is certainly likely that someone is helping her in managing the organization and logistics of her activities. However, claiming that she is manipulated would imply behind the scene the action of a stellar staff of communication strategists, capable of creating a global consensus of millions of people from scratch, outclassing the shrewdest advertisers and politicians, the media, contrasting the action of the economic, industrial and military lobbies… Anyway, here too it should be considered the result: thanks to Greta tens of millions of people around the world, many probably for the first time, wonder about the climate, discuss about it publicly, organize events, are numerically relevant to influence politics and economy.
Many thoughtful pars destruens have appeared in recent months, on considering just the finger. But it is clear that without Greta the topic of Climate Change would not have turn so popular. And perhaps the warnings would have been ignored, like it has happened for decades, despite all what has been published in the scientific and divulgative fields .
4. “We are destroying the planet”
I do not know if Greta says it explicitly but a rather popular phrase among the people who follow her, in the social networks, in the banners and the signs during the demonstrations, sounds like this: “We are destroying the planet”. But we are not destroying it at all. No matter what we do or do not, even in the worst anthropogenic destructive scenario Earth would continue to exist. And, although we are able to profoundly change the conditions that allow us to live and we consider ourselves so significant as to give our name to an era, the Anthropocene , we are by no means indispensable: as some have imagined , Earth could exist also without humans, as it has happened for most of its time. It would continue its evolution for a few billion more years, until the explosion of the Sun. Over the course of a few centuries or millennia – a minimal period compared to our planet’s history – human biology, the signs caused by some thousand years of activity of a species, a large part of its material culture, objects, devices and artefacts would be quickly reabsorbed by the planet. Earth would not be destroyed by human activities at all, it would change by settling on a different balance, as indeed has already happened in the 4.5 billion years of its history. It would change the world as we know it.
What humanity is actually strongly contributing to destroy is not planet Earth but that set of situations and events – climatic, environmental, biological… – that for a few tens of thousands of years has allowed our species to evolve, thrive, spread and become numerically pervasive, impacting significantly on the global environment. We are destroying that balance which for millennia has supported the evolution of our species, a balance that instead must be preserved and must be good for all other species, that must be imposed on the planet. In fact, all resources and climate agreements aim to preserve that set of situations and events – climatic, environmental, biological… – that has made us who we are . Therefore, a seemingly ecological message actually hides a deeply anthropocentric statement.
Just to be clear: it is quite natural and legitimate to be worried about the prospect of a downsizing or even the threat of extinction and consequently act to avoid them, especially since humans have the ability to create models, make predictions about the future, deploy projects and actions to influence it. Nevertheless, the survival of our species should be considered in a broader perspective and with a deeper reflection than the sentence “we are destroying the planet”. A perspective capable of reconsidering the living and non-living complexity to which every species, including ours, it belongs and does not oppose, which it comes from and it is part of. A perspective capable of relating humanity to the “non-human” without placing itself, as it has been for centuries, on top of the pyramid of the living beings.
Because of biological, cognitive, cultural reasons, we “come first”. However, as humans we are able to open the eyes to the “non-human” alterity, to deepen the relationships with it, to understand its needs, to learn to live with it in a fair way. As humans we are able to measure our footprint on the planet and evaluate its consequences. This awareness constitutes today our greatest responsibility, and also implies guilt and suffering. In a self-sustaining circular path, sciences and technologies make us aware of the world and of our impact on it, generating guilt and grief. In order to avoid them we invent and use scientific disciplines and increasingly advanced technologies, that in turn generate further awareness, and new guilt and grief… And so on.
5. The Climate Change system
Above all, the main cause of the Climate Change is the economic-political superstructure and its logics of exploitation and profit, selfishness, greed. According to some of the most renowned contemporary Homo faber, capable of transforming the planet’s resources into wealth, we live in the best possible era . Industry, finance and politics do not think of reducing profits: on the contrary, they want to increase them, solving the problems with technologies. And in order to preserve lifestyles and not to question business – and thinking even about increasing it – there are projects to get rid of waste by shooting it into space or towards the Sun, or sending it to the Moon .
Greta criticizes the tycoons, the big companies, the States on the basis of their choices regarding the climate. But it is clear that Climate Change cannot be separated from secular economic, social and political decisions operated in the human societies: “zero emissions” do not depend only on a hypothetical goodwill of the single individuals to spontaneously, globally and univocally adopt forms of energy, food, transport, communication, different materials, activities and lifestyles, possibly preserving cultural differences and economic privileges. The problem is upstream. Just to give an example: in food and drinks distribution the problem is not to recycle the plastic but to avoid using it in the packaging. Differentiating and recycling are reasonably easy activities, which can even be interesting from an economic point of view, making waste yet another business opportunity – being the pursuit of profit one of the main responsible for the situation in which we live! Eliminating plastic, on the other hand, is much more difficult because it involves many issues concerning economy, production, distribution, conservation, regulation, hygiene… And politics, as the debates that are taking place in Italy while writing this text are demonstrating.
In order to really change things, it would be necessary to overturn economic choices, profit ideologies, exploitation policies, eliminate selfishness, greed, overcome the most obtuse anthropocentrism. Cultural differences should be reconsidered, many ideologies that today have reemerged should be questioned. Until to adopt a realistic and not embellished idea of Nature, to develop a marketing-free environmentalism, to review the meaning of the human and its relationship with the non-human, to consider the environment as a complex system of dynamic relationships among diversities. Towards a further level of awareness of the existing, of the environment, of the living. Towards a sort of new “agreement with nature” .
It is something more profound than what Greta says, but if her message was more complicated it would not have come so far. Anyway Greta and her followers are helping to open up a new world, and it is interesting that this hope is born in Europe.
6. “There is no more time”
Another frequently used sentence is: “There is no more time”. In fact, there is little time left: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) within the next 12 years it is essential to work hard not to exceed the increase of 1.5 °C, which scientists consider the limit to avoid the threat of the tipping points for human and non-human systems . In 2013, for the first time since the Pliocene, that is, from 3 to 5 million years ago, the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million  and since 2015 it has been consistently above this value. In the Pliocene, humans did not existed, Earth was about 3–4 °C warmer than today (the poles up to 10 °C more) and the sea level was 5 to 40 meters higher . We are quickly going back to the climatic conditions of that world, therefore if we want to preserve the situation that has supported us for millennia we must act resolutely, globally and univocally, towards common and shared goals which involve politics, economy, up to the behavior of single individuals. A reflection on time is needed, on the gap between the typically human ability of imagining the future and the urgency to contrast Climate Change.
As humans we have the ability to imagine, to plan our life in the future. In fact, we have a foot in the future, a significant part of our thoughts, actions, activities, ideas, is turned to the future. We write down our commitments for the future on agendas. We build monuments – including that particular form of modern monument that is photography – to project memory into the future. We consult the weather forecast, some people pay magicians and astrologers to divine the future. We keep our money in the bank to use it in the future and in turn the bank invests it in the future. We take out insurances to prevent the future, and some are mandatory. We make bets, invest money on the stock exchange, gamble, buy goods on credit or in installments. The activity of companies is planned in the future and it is based on social and economic forecasts, there are firms whose sole purpose is to imagine the future and sell it to other firms, which include it in their business plans. Schools and training activities, some of them are mandatory, prepare people to face the future according to their capabilities and expectations. The etymology of the word “project” comes from Latin and means “to throw beyond”: certainly beyond the difficulties that every project has to overcome in order to become real, but above all “beyond time”. The word “hope”, a typically human construct, embodies the idea of a future that is in tune with our wishes and our expectations.
We could go on and on because almost all human existence, thoughts, projects, daily activities exist in a continuous relationship with the future. They are projected into a time to come that we are incessantly committed to predicting, imagining, trying to control in its probable or possible occurrences.
7. The symbolic dimension
By means of the symbols we collect, discuss and share knowledge, experiences, values. Thanks to the symbolic the human species has limited the pressure of natural evolution, acting in depth on its conditions of existence and today even on its genetic memory, the very long term one. While natural evolution has no purpose, our species instead overflows with projects, goals, it projects itself into the future trying to anticipate it, direct, govern it .
Cultural evolution makes the human species, the last remaining branch of the genus Homo, an anomalous member of planet Earth, the ruler of a single large ecological niche whose resources he is intensively dissipating. On the symbolic is based the extraordinary cooperative capacity of our species, its hyperprosociality , which allows groups of unrelated individuals to cooperate towards a common goal. Which makes our species capable of helping strangers in difficulty but also of being ruthless and deadly with who is considered as an obstacle, or different. On one side, the symbolic dimension is the main responsible for the extraordinary acquisitions of our species, on the other, it is the cause of unbridgeable distances, harsh divisions, wars, massacres. By dissolving them into language, symbols can mediate conflicts between individuals and societies, or, on the contrary, they can inflame or create them, raising walls, opening distances, causing exclusions, fueling contrasts. Interacting with the environments the hypertrophy of the symbolic dimension has generated a huge number of cultural variants: languages, memberships, mythologies, religions, beliefs, values, which constitute the foundation and the identity of communities and societies. They are pseudospecies  that pursue different, often conflicting purposes, with which it is difficult to agree on common goals for long periods. According to some scholars, the price of symbolic hypertrophy, the price of language, would be the end of the human species, its cultural magnificence would be the cause of its extinction .
Therefore being able to compose cultural distances under some form of binding, shared and lasting commitment to the climate appears as an extremely difficult and delicate operation.
8. “Symbolic future” vs “Climate future”
There is also another temporal dimension to consider: humanity is facing a climate crisis  situation that goes beyond the present time and the short-term future – beyond that unique ability that make us able to plan, to imagine ourselves in a time to come, as mentioned above. The time of Climate Change outperforms the symbolic future, it implies a temporal dimension that goes beyond generations, beyond the life of people. It requires constant, coordinated, cooperative and selfless planning and action, projected in a long term future. A commitment that in return for privations does not produce safe advantages in the short term but unfolds in an event horizon where many will not be there: it is a future that appears distant, remote, uninteresting. The Climate crisis requires a cognitive leap, a reflection about the time of the species and culture instead about the time of the individual, a vision extended to a future that we must try to govern knowing that we will not be part of it.
As humans we are able to project ourselves into a future that concerns and includes our lives: we do it continuously. Instead, in addition to a resolute commitment in the present, the challenge of climate change requires us to go beyond the generational time, into an extended and intergenerational time that goes beyond the biological lifetime of many, with great uncertainty, in complexity. It will not be a painless process. It is the time of the youngest people, of those who first followed Greta, because it will be their time. They have little power to subvert the status quo but they have all the numbers on their side. They embody the hope, namely the future, of our species.
[I want to thank, for their comments and advice, Alberto Abruzzese, Marco Brandizzi, Roberta Buiani, Giorgio Cipolletta, Valerio Eletti, Marco Ferrari, Marcello Gallucci, George Gessert, Vincenzo Guarnieri, Franco Masotti, Frank Raes, Elena Giulia Rossi, Franco Torriani and the group Pi(a)neta in Cervia.
Any mistakes and inaccuracies are exclusively attributable to me.]
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17) Ibidem. [back]