Greta Thunberg, in Rome, Italy, earlier this year. DANIELE COSSU PHOTO


Special to The VOICE

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg’s celebrated journey across the Atlantic by yacht is scheduled to end today as our latter-day Joan of Arc sails into New York Harbour. Huge numbers of people who promise never to fly again have prepared a welcome flotilla of all manner of wind- and muscle-powered boats to accompany her to shore.

Almost a century after Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic to herald a new age of commercial air travel, Greta Thunberg has come in the opposite direction to persuade us to ground it for good.

Two weeks on the Atlantic, without privacy, a stove or a toilet, and in quarters so cramped you pretty well have to sleep standing up, is unquestionably an endurance test, and this young woman deserves all the accolades she gets. I’m certain there are adoring fans out there who believe she could have walked from Plymouth to New York.

Good for her for doing something. The UN she is scheduled to address has already warned us of catastrophic consequences to the planet if we don’t follow suit in a hurry.

But what are we prepared to do about it?

Will the US President ever accept that climate change is real and not a conspiracy cooked up by left-leaning activists trying to destroy an economy that can easily tank on its own? Will China somehow reduce the air pollution that blocks the sun from even getting to its solar panels? Will India ever be able to do something about the 2 billion metric tonnes of CO2 that it sends into the atmosphere?

And let’s not get smug about our own total emissions, amounting to only 2% of the total—in fact, we lead the world in metric tonnes per person.

So, what are we really prepared to sacrifice in order to make a difference?

We eagerly shame anyone still ignorant enough to deny climate change, but isn’t paying only lip service to the need for a radical change in our lifestyles just another kind of denial? And in a way, doesn’t Greta Thunberg, reluctant celebrity that she is, inadvertently enable our climate change complacency by providing us with a chance to feel good about what she’s doing on our behalf while doing very little ourselves?

How many of us will spend the tens of thousands required to retrofit our homes with geothermal energy, or relocate to a city that provides good public transportation, or buy an electric car, or give up meat, electronics, all things plastic, and traveling anywhere in the world by plane?

I think of the celebrities who, unlike Greta, recently traveled by luxury yacht and private jet to attend Google Camp at the Verdura Resort in Sciacca, Italy. There the likes of Katy Perry, Leonardo Di Caprio, Prince Harry, and Barrack Obama discussed in private their plans for what the rest of us can do, while dining on thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners and watching Coldplay perform.

For all their obvious differences, do they not have in common with the more modest Greta that they are seen to carry a torch for change, so we feel we don’t really have to? So we can go about our stressful business of working for a living, making ends meet, raising families, investing for retirement and acquiring all that “stuff” to feed the economy?

We happily endorse going green so long as we don’t have to give up our lifestyles, get downsized, relocate to a tent in the woods and become vegans.

I believe, with Giles Fraser (“You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Be Green’) that we need an attitude makeover. He writes, “As the Amazon burns on the altar of continual economic growth, there is an ancient wisdom to the idea that we need to respect the limit of human expansion. Can we ignore the marketing forces in our society that prompt us always to want more and more? Can we develop a positive appreciation of having enough?”

A recent CBC poll found that a majority of people consider their own financial concerns more important than climate change, and, while acknowledging the environmental threat, say they “can’t afford” to do very much about it. In my less sanguine moments I confess to being part of that majority, and to feeling guilty about it of course.

Sure, it’s our dog, but how noble of Greta to walk it for us.

Many of us accept responsibility for what we could have done better while delegating someone else to get it right for us. We’re good at doing this, and let’s be honest, so are our political leaders. They apologize for terrible things they’re personally not responsible for—the turning away of a shipload of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi terrorism, the building of residential schools and the damning report by the Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (how quickly that one evaporated), our nation’s sad history of racism, homophobia and misogyny—and we nod our heads and check our messages.

Our leaders happily apologize for the sins of our fathers, but stop well short of apologizing for their own, often assuring us that whatever they did or failed to do was done or not done with the good of the country in mind. No apology needed here, and really, nothing to see, and with an election approaching, this issue too has become a political football.

With us too, there’s a fine line between acknowledging responsibility and shouldering the blame, let alone doing something to change things.

We like the comfort of knowing there’s someone else out there who’ll take on the problem while we go on our merry way. God help the climate-deniers, we declare, for they will leave us no earth to inherit. But thank God for our climate-warriors, whether they travel the world in a private jet or a cramped sailboat, as long as we aren’t expected to do much more than cheer them on, turn down our thermostats, and car pool.

So, given the time constraints, do we have any alternative to driving at 60 miles an hour, as we’ve been doing for a 100 years, and throwing the vehicle into reverse? Or must we wait for a catastrophe to convince us that reversing is the only way forward?

I think we do have an alternative. If a 16-year-old with Asbergers Syndrome can sail the Atlantic in a tiny craft, not just to make it to the other side, but to make a difference, we can at least listen to her. Does she not present to us, out there in the middle of the ocean, at the mercy of the elements, an unforgettable image of our own fragility?

Greta Thunberg admits she doesn’t yet know how she’ll get home. I think she’s earned the right to fly this one time. If some of us fly less, or even not at all, then she’ll at least have prodded us into making a start.

Can we not do the rest together?

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