Opinion: Greta Thunberg, Misrepresentation, and Ásatrú Climate Change Ethics

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie’s 1972 science fiction glam rock concept album, opens with a revelation and a warning.

Pushing thru the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept when he told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying

We got five years, stuck on my eyes
We got five years, what a surprise
We got five years, my brain hurts a lot
We got five years, that’s all we’ve got

The length of five years is perfect for Bowie’s cynical, post-Burroughs (William S., not Edgar Rice) outsider take on American life. It’s short enough to create a mass freak-out but long enough that no one among the masses is motivated enough to actually do anything about it.

Apocalypse (1903) by Albert Goodwin [Public Domain]

So much of what used to be called “speculative fiction” eventually becomes science fact, and British science fiction – like 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd – seems particularly skilled at skewering the inevitable outcomes of American national folly. As in the Ziggy Stardust song from more than a half-century ago, we’re simultaneously surrounded by evidence of catastrophic climate change and absolutely unwilling to make the necessary changes to mitigate it.

This week, the online American right-wing yet again went after the young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. This time, it was over a Bowiesque warning that we’ve only got five years left.

“They’re not stupid people”

Five years ago – on June 21, 2018 – Thunberg tweeted a link to an article with a quotation of its opening line: “A top climate scientist is warning that climate change will wipe out all of humanity unless we stop using fossil fuels over the next five years.”

The article, “Top Climate Scientist: Humans Will Go Extinct if We Don’t Fix Climate Change by 2023,” had been posted on February 19, 2018, on the website Grit Post. The site’s “About Us” page foregrounds commitment to accuracy.

Grit Post is real news for the working class. We focus on covering political, economic, and policy-related stories that affect American workers and their communities, and abide by the highest standards of truth and integrity in our reporting. Corrections or updates to any of stories are prominently listed along with the date and time the correction was made.

Very strange, then, that the article completely misrepresents what the scientist actually stated.

As Associated Press has detailed, the Grit Post article is based on a Forbes piece posted on January 15, 2018, with the title “We Have Five Years To Save Ourselves From Climate Change, Harvard Scientist Says.”

The Forbes headline is also misleading. In the body of the article, short quotes are given from a University of Chicago appearance by Harvard atmospheric chemistry professor James Anderson. They don’t say what the headlines says they do.

Discussing historically high levels of carbon in the atmosphere and the related temperature rise at the earth’s poles, Anderson argues that massive industrial transformation, reduction of carbon pollution, and even reflecting sunlight from the poles must happen within the next five years. Unless it does, he is quoted as saying, “The chance that there will be any permanent ice left in the Arctic after 2022 is essentially zero.”

The words human, humanity, save, extinct, and extinction do not appear in the article.

Parallel to the Grit Post claim about “the highest standards of truth and integrity in our reporting,” the Forbes article ends with a strong statement about ethical reportage.

In Chicago Thursday, [Anderson] prosecuted a moral argument that implicates university administrators who refuse to divest from fossil fuels, journalists who fail to fact-check false statements made by political candidates, and executives of fossil fuel companies who continue to pursue activities that are exacerbating climate change—especially those who mislead the public about those effects.

“I don’t understand how these people sit down to dinner with their kids,” Anderson said, “because they’re not stupid people.”

How strange, then, that Anderson’s speech was falsely presented in a string of misrepresentations.

“That’s not what she’s saying”

Fast forward five years, and Twitter’s hyperactive right wing accepted the distorted message at face value in order to distort it further.

On March 11 of this year, The Post Millennial – a Canadian website featuring right-wing agitators such as Andy Ngo and Jack Posobiec – posted an article titled “Greta Thunberg deletes 2018 tweet saying world will end in 2023 after world does not end.”

The article cited Posobiec’s tweet that included a screenshot of Thunberg’s tweet and asked why she deleted it. Like the discrepancy between the Forbes headline and article content, The Post Millennial piece also includes a tweet pointing out that “You might be misreading her post. She’s not saying humanity would be wiped out in five years. You can disagree with her and see that’s not what she’s saying.”

Not only does the article end with a pose of dedication to absolute truth – including snarky remarks about Al Gore “taking license with the facts around mankind extinction prediction” – but the website’s “Ethical Journalism Policy And Mission Statement” insists that the highest possible journalistic standards are followed.

The Post Millennial’s operations are based on the ongoing development of utilizing verified research and unambiguous reporting to establish a credible record of reliability and trust with our readers.

The organization holds no interests in bolstering our base at the expense of our journalistic integrity. Our priority is firstly, and always firstly, informing our viewers on relevant events, immediate or cultural, and is not beholden to the private interests or agendas of private owners or investors.

Truth, even when inconvenient, is at the forefront of our daily operations.

Despite the article acknowledging the possibility that Posobiec’s fans were misreading Thunberg’s tweet, Twitter was flooded with right-wing provocateurs like Charlie Kirk and a huge number of their followers tweeting the phrase “Greta Thunberg deletes 2018 tweet saying world will end in 2023 after world does not end” and sharing the post from The Post Millennial.

Even in an era when so many seem to read no farther than an article’s headline, it’s amazing to see this yearslong thread of misrepresentations built completely on misleading headers, from the 2018 Grit Post article through the 2023 army of tweeters.

At first, I thought maybe the latest hubbub was an issue of reading comprehension. The quote tweeted by Thunberg – “A top climate scientist is warning that climate change will wipe out all of humanity unless we stop using fossil fuels over the next five years” – could be read wrongly as “the next five years” modifying when humanity will be wiped out instead of being read correctly as the time frame for stopping fossil fuel usage.

That’s really giving too much credit to the right-wing Twitterati. Anyone who follows trending topics on Twitter knows that Ngo, Posobiec, Kirk, their allies, and their followers regularly and willfully misrepresent news items to forward their political, social, and cultural agendas.

Whatever financial motivation the leaders of the gang have for doing what they do, there does seem to be great value placed on scoring Twitter points against those they see as their enemies and great enthusiasm for getting the dopamine rush of trending, getting likes, being retweeted, and – maybe most importantly – tweaking the liberals who will inevitably reply with censorious tweets in reaction.

Good on The Associated Press for not only calling out the misrepresentations of the right in 2023 but for also detailing the misrepresentations of the source articles in 2018. It’s nonsensical to denounce the distortions of those against climate change science when media reports on the science themselves distort the message.

“Duty now for the future”

Buried beneath this entire hubbub are the actual warnings of the “top climate scientist.” First, there is limited time left to make the drastic changes necessary to minimize the calamitous effects of ongoing climate change. Second, there are academics, journalists, politicians, and businessmen who actively make things worse for those alive today and those who will come after us. Both of these warnings should be heard as calls to action.

As a kid, I loved the Devo album New Traditionalists and obsessed over the 1981 vinyl album’s bizarre packaging, which included an inner sleeve order form for band merchandise. A t-shirt offered was emblazoned with the phrase “duty now for the future.” That line always stuck with me, broken free from the weirdly retro space age imagery. It suggested that we have a responsibility to future generations, to those who will inherit the planet that we leave to them.

As an adult, I love the Old Norse poems and myths of Odin, of the god who takes the form of an old wizard and wanders the worlds to gather wisdom. His ultimate goal is to prevent the coming cataclysm of Ragnarök, the doom of the gods, or – when it becomes clear that nothing can stop the onrushing end – to mitigate its harm and ensure that future generations will have a green and growing earth of their own, cleansed of the failings of their elders and the harm caused by the hateful. Duty now for the future.

As a musician, my practice of Ásatrú informed my writing of an instrumental suite that was recorded live and released as the 2007 album Blue Rhizome by The New Quartet. I wrote liner notes that explained the meditations behind the music.

The composition of this piece was inspired by a crisis of faith. Not religious faith, but faith in humanity. 150 years from now, it is guaranteed that everyone now alive will be in the ground or consumed by flames. There will be no exceptions. All our efforts, dreams, and hopes will end as all biographies must.

In these few years that we have of consciousness and life, we divide ourselves into tribes. Our choice of friends, lovers, and colleagues is based on comfort with what we see as members of our own group. Ethnicity, race, religion, culture, and nationality are used as an excuse to shut out love, new experiences, challenges to our habits, and expansion of our experiences. The Other is judged and the Like is embraced, whether consciously or not.

Some listeners interpreted the bit about how “everyone now alive will be in the ground or consumed by flames” as a reference to an apocalypse, but I simply meant that no one alive today will be alive in a mere 150 years. Our earthly existence is so brief, not even an eyeblink in eternity. What can we do during our short time here, I asked through the music, to “Destroy All Monsters” (the central track of the album), “whether the Monster is racism, sexism, or the Snake That Encircles the World”?

Music critics didn’t pick up on the reference to Thor and his struggle to protect us all from destructive forces. While Odin gathers intelligence and makes plans, Thor faces the threats head-on and smashes them with his mighty hammer. Both approaches are deeply needful as we face the juggernaut of catastrophic climate change.

As a graduate student in divinity school, I several times faced micro- and macro-aggressions from conservative Christian professors and administrators in a nominally secular academic program. In my final semester, a dean who eventually left to become a church leader told me that Wendy Doniger’s course “Ethical and Theological Issues in Hinduism” would not be accepted as fulfilling my theology requirement. I took it anyway, but the only viable option for the requirement besides courses on Christian theology was a one on climate change ethics.

I spent the semester reading what seemed like an endless parade of Christian writers wrestling with issues that weren’t really issues for today’s Pagans and Heathens. There was a bit of Buddhism thrown in, but – as in some other required courses for the degree – I felt that my own faith perspective was outside the circle of privileged voices. When, for instance, I pointed out in class that the Pope’s environmental encyclical that everyone was gushing over (1) wasn’t actually written by the Pope and (2) shoehorned overtly anti-transgender rhetoric into discussion of climate change, I was stared at like a pariah.

Becoming ancestors

I worked out my frustration in a term paper titled “‘And All the Generous Earth’: Ásatrú Ritual and Climate Change Ethics.” I have long believed that we should be working on Ásatrú theologies that spend less time on reconstructing the supposed worldview of a theoretical “arch-Heathen” of ancient times and more time on addressing key issues that we face today from a modern and progressive Ásatrú perspective. In my climate change paper, I brought my experiences reading the old texts in new ways and practicing inclusive rites with Thor’s Oak Kindred to bear on the core issues raised by major writers in the field.

In my conclusion, I summed up my argument and suggested a more inclusive way forward for the discussion of climate change ethics.

Ásatrú lore provides guidelines and exemplars, not rules or commandments. These models can suggest innovative ways of thinking about and relating to climate change. As this article has argued, the ritual of blót, recognition of reciprocity with the earth, appreciation of inherent value in the natural world, conception of transtemporal relationships, and wyrd theory of interconnectedness and consequences of human action all serve to build individual and community understanding of issues that have challenged previous ethics of climate change.

Despite coming from a minority, marginalized, and misunderstood religion, these ways of engaging in a ritual context with issues raised by climate change ethicists can provide possible paths forward for members of other faith traditions. In particular, religious leaders who are seeking additional ways to involve their communities with environmental issues may find some inspiration for their own ministerial work while changing and adapting the specific elements to fit the theology and praxis of their respective religions.

Exactly how the Ásatrú model can be modified to fit other religious traditions is up to the creativity of the adapters. In academic and interfaith settings, Heathens are regularly expected to knowledgeably discuss the core concepts of other, more populous, more powerful faiths. For members of those dominant religions, it may be a fruitful exercise to engage with ideas from a progressive Ásatrú perspective.

Heathens of positive intent face challenges that sometimes seem to multiply like tribbles in a grain silo. There’s resistance from members of other faiths (and no faith) in interfaith, academic, and activist spaces to including members of a religion they associate with Nazis and neo-Nazis (if they have heard of it at all). Actual neo-Nazi Heathens of various stripes have indeed long worked to infiltrate environmentalist movements. Even without the racism issue, we are seen as suspicious, because we don’t fit into the “religion” category with its requisite trappings of brick-and-mortar churches, clergy ordained in dedicated divinity schools, national levels of hierarchy, and so on. That same dean who told me Hindu theology isn’t really theology also told me Ásatrú “has no validity” as a religion.

Now, in the age of social media, there is also the wild proliferation of misinformation as in the Thunberg tweet case discussed above. Not only is any small misstep seized upon and magnified, but what we say is deliberately misinterpreted and purposely twisted by the armies of social media drones in a way that completely buries the original intent. As conspiracy theory thinking sweeps across the social media landscape, the more we argue against the craziness, the more the crazies are convinced we’re covering something up.

There’s one fact that they can’t deny. As I titled one of the interludes on my Blue Rhizome album, “We Will All Become Ash.” Our lives are finite, no matter what political positions we take. We will each of us become ancestors to future generations.

If we practice faiths that place any value whatsoever on relations with ancestors, if we embrace at any level the Heathen mantra that “we are our deeds,” we owe it to future generations to fight the uphill battle and add our voices and our support to those like Greta Thunberg and James Anderson who are out there fighting the good fight and trying to push the powerful to take action, before it truly is too late.

The clock is ticking.

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