Gaslighting the climate-striking students

Julia Steinberger
6 min readFeb 17, 2019

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“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” a quote commonly misattributed to Gandhi, nevertheless encapsulates his understanding and that of many other social justice leaders. Given the recent attacks against hundreds of thousands of climate-striking students, though, it is clear that it misses a stage: right after they ignore you, they gaslight you.

Photograph from Andrew Simms https://twitter.com/AndrewSimms_uk/status/1096691003472384000

Gaslighting means to manipulate someone’s perception of reality so that they doubt their own sanity. Right now, we are seeing world leaders, government ministers, editors of major media, all lining up to try to gaslight us, their citizens, the public. They want us to disbelieve our own eyes and ears, our own minds, reasoning and emotions — because the alternative is simply impossible for them to bear. They cannot bear the fact, the reality, that a new generation is rising up and raising its voice, showing its power through striking and non-violent civil disobedience, demanding a habitable planet, and thus casting a bright spotlight on the older generation’s abject failure to curb the power of fossil-fueled industries and halt climate breakdown.

Exhibit 1: Attacking Greta the Great

Since Greta Thunberg started the student strike for climate movement, it was perhaps only to be expected that various rumor-mongers, unable to attack the crystal-clarity of the message, would attack the messenger instead. It was heartbreaking to read Greta’s response: a 16-year-old with the weight of the world on her shoulders, being distracted from her mission, having to spend any time at all responding to such baseless attacks.

The goal of Greta’s attackers was clear: to discredit the climate-strike movement by manufacturing doubt in the integrity of its foremost leader. Unfortunately for them, Greta’s integrity is so large, it can be seen from space. It shine out in her TED talk. We can trust our eyes and ears and reason and emotions: based on her own intellect and reasoning, Greta is demanding of all of us that we stand up and act with all our might, in all ways possible, to stop climate breakdown.

Exhibit 2: Belgium — “With Environment Ministers like these …”

Belgium has been the country with the largest school strikes, certainly per capita, with tens of thousands striking and marching in places big and small. As a result, it is perhaps logical that they were also viciously and prominently attacked.

A couple of weeks ago, Belgian Environment Minister for Flanders, Joke Schauvliege, told an audience of farmers “I know who is behind this movement, both of the Sunday demonstrations and the truants. I have also been told that from state security. I can guarantee that I do not see ghosts alone and that climate demonstrations are more than spontaneous actions of solidarity with our climate.”

These statements were so outrageous, they prompted an official disclaimer from Belgian state security, and Joke Schauvliege had to resign. Again, the goal of this attack could not be clearer: to discredit the climate-striking students, the clarion messengers of a call to immediate and uncompromising action on climate change, and thus to give the rest of us permission to ignore their message. “They are just children,” the ex-minister is trying to make us believe, “they can’s speak for themselves. Someone else is telling them what to do, someone else is pulling their strings.” Remember this line of attack, inoculate yourselves against it, because you will be seeing it again and again as this movement rises up.

The funny thing, of course, is that this gaslighting is a classic case of projection. The only people who can feel threatened by the students demands are those who are and have been abjectly failing to act sufficiently on climate change and ecological crises. Those people (the ex-minister included, I am sure) are the ones who are the puppets of larger forces, forces they have not been able to face and overcome: economic pressures, lobbying from fossil-fuel, automotive and aviation industries, big agrobusiness (livestock & dairy) — these are the real puppeteers.

Exhibit 3: a Prime Minister suddenly worried about “wasting time”

Another text-book case of projection was in full evidence this past Friday, the first massive day of the climate school strikes in the UK. Prime Minister Theresa May, through a spokesperson, accused the student-strikers of disruption, increasing teaching workloads and wasting time which would be better spent “becoming the top scientists, engineers and advocates that we need to help tackle this problem.”

Of course, this criticism was dealt a fatal blow by Greta Thunberg at the very start of her strike, when she explained that she saw no point in learning to become a scientist, when she can see clearly that the evidence of the world’s top scientists has been ignored for decades. What is needed is not more science, but more action on the science we already have, and the students understand this all too well: by the time they leave university, the present window of opportunity to halve emissions by 2030 to remain within 1.5C degrees of warming will have already disappeared. Greta Thunberg responded masterfully to Theresa May, exposing what is at stake.

I said Theresa May’s statement was a text-book case of projection, because [pardon a rant on British politics for a second] her entire administration has been characterized by shifting blame onto others for her own actions (favored scapegoats are: the poor, blamed for their own misery under her goverment’s austerity; deported Windrush immigrants, blamed for her own administration destroying their paperwork; the EU, for the actions of her own government on Brexit; and on and on…). It has also been characterized by aimlessly waiting down the clock, trying failed policies over and over, and disrupting the lives and wasting the time of tens of millions of UK citizens and residents. Not that I have opinions about this or am at all resentful. [/end rant]

Exhibit 4: the Chancellor and “outside influence”

The interpretation of this most recent exhibit has been the topic of debate, online and in the press, with some stating that German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke in support, and others, in disparagement, of the student strikers. What is not in dispute is what she said this Friday, at the Munich Security Conference, with crowds of students protesting right outside, during a speech on “Hybrid Warfare”: “In Germany now, children are protesting for climate protection. That is a really important issue. But you can’t imagine that all German children, after years, and without any outside influence, suddenly hit on the idea that they have to take part in this process.”

In essence, this is no different from the statement that landed Belgian Minister Joke Schauvliege in so much trouble she had to resign only two weeks ago. Chancellor Merkel was more cautious: she didn’t claim “state security” had told her about “outside influence,” but the core claim, that the students couldn’t possibly have come up with the concept and motivation of the climate school strike all by themselves, is identical. And again, the goal is identical, to discredit the students, by presenting them as puppets in the hands of larger forces.

Projection, much, Angela? Angela Merkel has been convincingly accused of being the world’s leading eco-vandal by George Monbiot, because of her compliance and complicity with the anti-climate lobbying of German industry. Again, the puppet in the hands of fossil-fueled puppeteers is accusing the climate-striking students of being the plaything of “outside influence.” It would be funny if it weren’t so disastrously tragic.

Back to a hopeful reality

The reality is, of course, that the students are responding to external events: they are responding to the destruction of their future life chances by current and past generations. They are reading and learning about the science of climate change, the recent IPCC report on the immense dangers of overshooting 1.5 degrees of warming, about threats to biodiversity and life on earth, about the destruction of species and ecosystems. They are casting fresh eyes on an immense problem, that previous generations (including mine) have only allowed to get worse, and they are standing up against it. They are not waiting for anyone to waste their precious time, their precious lives. They are not in the sway of any influence except the calling of a better future. If I were on the side of the old, complicit, fossil-fueled guard, I would be terrified of them too.

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Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American-UK ecological economist at the University of Lausanne. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.