By Fr. Bud Grant
“I don’t want your hope; I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act” (Davos, Jan. 25). So spoke Greta Thunberg, 15, an environmental activist from Sweden who started a “school strike” to draw attention to climate change. She calls it her “moral responsibility” and adds, “What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter anymore, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?” She concludes, “I don’t care if I get into trouble at school. I believe that one person can make a difference.”
Greta’s “#FridaysForFuture” initiative has thousands of students from 100 countries school striking on designated Fridays. She spoke at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland, the World Economic Forum in Davos and was named one of the “Most Influential Teens” of 2018 by TIME magazine. After she told British MPs that their response to climate change was “absurd,” Great Britain voted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2050. It is impossible to argue that Greta Thunberg is not making a difference.
There is a wave of teenagers like Greta, as well as Jaclyn Corin, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg (#NeverAgain), Thadiwe Abdullah (#blacklivesmatter), Isabel and Melati Wijsen (Bye Plastic Bags), Jack Cable (White Hat Hackers) and Amika George (#FreePeriods). Many of them are minorities, some — like Greta and David — have been shamefully attacked by ideological “adults.” None fret about not making a difference. Greta’s eight-month ascent from a one-girl striker to a Nobel Peace Prize nominee makes a pretty compelling case for “making a difference.”
All activists strive to make a difference. I hope they do. And I hope they don’t measure themselves only by that most youthfully exuberant of motives. Here’s why. First, too often “making a difference” is quantified economically and translated into self-interest. If we won’t act until/unless it can be demonstrated that it will positively impact our “bottom line,” then we will never do enough. Secondly, the desire to make a difference feeds our identity and fuels our actions so that if (when) it fails, we lose heart. Third, it is insidiously competitive. I suspect (but honestly don’t know) that for every Greta who mounts the global stage there are thousands of others who never reach that peak of recognition (test yourself: how many of the kids above — who are all on TIME’s list — had you heard of?). Perhaps their issue is too idiosyncratic, their tactics prosaic, their impact localized. By the “make a difference” meter, they would all have to be counted as failures. Only one team wins the champion’s league.
Efficacy is not what makes Greta’s generation noble. Rather, their courage, commitment to duty and profound sense of right and wrong ennobles them. It would be a shameful insult to their labors if they were to be evaluated only by their product — as if we can commodify even ethics or monetize the value of virtue.
Longevity in any worthy endeavor requires that we find internal satisfaction — call it tranquility — from knowing that we’ve done our best, regardless of the outcome. Environmentally, this consists of two things: 1) consume less of everything and 2) support leaders who make difficult choices for the common good, even if it runs counter to our personal advantage. Will that be enough? Will it make a difference? I don’t know, that’s above my pay-grade.
Whenever each of us invests our moral character in service of the Common Good it is likely, but not inevitable, that good results. Either way, it is only that investment that makes any of us the best version of ourselves — what Aquinas calls “beatitude.” Anyway, Christ never told us to make a difference, but just to “love one another.” He’s the Savior, not us.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)