While Thunberg creates hope, Trump stymies it

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Over the summer the Guardian published a conversation between US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. They talked about a lot of things, but the part that really leapt out was an exchange about hope. 'What keeps you going?' Ocasio-Cortez asks Thunberg. 'Given how daunting the issue is, why aren't you so filled with despair that you're staying on your couch every day, and just waiting for the apocalypse?'

Climate activist Greta Thunberg attends a press conference organised by Belgian Youth for Climate with other activists on 21 February 2019 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)She's kidding, but Thunberg admits she'd been to that dark place. 'Before I started school striking, I was like that. I was so depressed and I didn't want to do anything, basically.'

Ocasio-Cortez notes she felt the same until she went to protest against the fracking pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. 'It was just normal people, showing up, just standing on the land to prevent this pipeline from going through. And it made me feel extremely powerful, even though we had nothing, materially — just the act of standing up to some of the most powerful corporations in the world.'

Out of this shared experience, the two of them come to the conclusion that what brings us from despair to hope is quite simply the choice to do something of any kind. 'Hope,' says Ocasio-Cortez, 'is not something that you have. Hope is something that you create, with your actions.' And once you do, it becomes self-generative: 'Once one person has hope, it can be contagious. Other people start acting in a way that has more hope.'

Early last week the Trump Administration was accused of, then released documents confirming, that Donald Trump had asked the new president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on US presidential candidate Joe Biden. Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi immediately announced the House of Representatives would open impeachment proceedings. It seemed that finally the Trump Administration would be forced to reckon with its repeated disregard for the rule of law.

Except, as Saturday Night Live's Kenan Thompson keeps saying in a hilarious sketch detailing how many times Trump has said and done truly horrible things without suffering any consequences, 'Ain't nothin' gonna happen.'

(In a weirdly fitting slip up, co-star Aidy Bryant can't stop laughing as she tries to repeat Dr Martin Luther King's famous comment that 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.')

 

"I prefer to spend my time thinking about the impact even just a little act can make."

 

Where Barack Obama built his presidency around the idea of empowering people, of getting us to believe that 'Yes we can', the Trump presidency — and its many admirers — has been one long exercise in trying to convince the American people to give up.

No we can't stop the overturning of environmental regulations, consumer protections or health insurance; no we can't end the long-term imprisonment of immigrants or the forced separation of their children; no we can't prevent the appointment of a man accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court, even after FBI agents who interviewed one of the women found her accusations credible.

And no matter how cathartic it seems, outrage, whether in the form of news reporting or our own online posting, has only served to deepen the sense of despair. A scroll through social media pretty quickly blurs into a chorus of the damned to make Dante proud. The arc of the moral universe is long, but HA HA HA HA indeed.

The desire to stare into the abyss is magnetic. I barely even notice as Twitter draws me down into its hopeless, cynical depths most mornings. Sometimes I even go happily. But I find there's little life to be found there, or in the news reports which seem more and more eager to insist we're all doomed.

Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. (As one of my Jesuit spiritual directors loved to say, 'None of us is getting out of here alive.') I prefer to spend my time thinking about the impact even just a little act can make, like a 15-year-old Swedish kid protesting by herself outside her parliament. 'I felt so alone, because everyone went straight past, no one even looked at me,' Thunberg told Ocasio-Cortez. 'But I was hopeful.'

 

 

Jim McDermottJim McDermott is an American Jesuit and screenwriter.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg attends a press conference organised by Belgian Youth for Climate with other activists on 21 February 2019 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

 

 

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Existing comments

It is funny how things work out politically. The mess over Brexit and the dangerous way Boris Johnson has attempted to prorogue parliament may well hasten the breakup of the United Kingdom. If Scotland goes independent you can bet that will be the end of Britain's Trident missiles based at HMNB Clyde, near enough to Glasgow for the place to go up in any 'limited' nuclear war. The Scottish Nationalists will not have nuclear weapons in Scottish territory. Ireland will, at last, be united. A more manageable world? Possibly, but there are problems with the Saudis 'our friends'; North Korea; China and other 'hot' areas. Interesting Ms Thunberg; Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi are women, just like the majority of protesters at Greenham Common et sim. Perhaps there is something deep about women that they, like the Virgin Mary, are committed to life rather than saying 'No' to it.
Edward Fido | 01 October 2019


" . . . to do something of any kind" may be a circuit-breaker for an apathy born of despair, but it is hardly a sustainable basis of hope in desirable change that must be scientifically and ethically driven, as distinct from ideologically and emotively. Dismissal and exclusion of qualified scientific voices that claim the science and methodologies are "decided" deny hope the objective ground that it requires, and only serves to exacerbate scepticism.
John RD | 02 October 2019


A very sober read Jim on this Friday morning. Greta Thunberg is being attacked from all sides by vested interests, determined to bring her down. What ready angers me is the depths they are going to achieve their aim. Ordinary people must rise to the occasion and support Greta in her crusade to save the world from climate disaster. I was so impressed by the turnout at the Climate Rallies , people obviously care for the future, particularly the young. We "oldies" must support them as they will inherit our legacy. I live in hope that "people power" will finally bring these selfish , greedy interests to their senses.
Gavin O'Brien | 03 October 2019


An observation in the margin: unless I am mistaken, Greta Thunberg has grown up in Sweden, and Swedish is her native language. If this is so, it is remarkable that her use of English --as far as I have heard--seems faultless and is, moreover, powerful and persuasive. Does this suggest something about foreign-language teaching in schools?
Thomas Mautner | 03 October 2019


Greta Thunberg and other climate activists give me a little hope that climate action may be enough to avert the total collapse of the world's civilisations and ecosystems. However Trump and other major party political leaders, including those in Australia, are a sad reality check. We're now heading for: a 3 degree world temperature rise: rising ocean levels that will eventually destroy all the world's coastal cities: fire thunderstorms that will be even more devastating than Black Saturday that took such a huge toll of Australian human and animal life, as well as property; even more extreme droughts; more towns running out of water; the death of all the world's coral reefs; even more extreme tropical storms; starvation on a massive scale; many millions of climate refugees; a continuation of the mass extinction of species, and a drastically reduced world human population. We all need to listen to the IPCC climate scientists, as Greta Thunburg, Sir David Attenborough and other prophetic people are doing. Sadly, the short sighted false prophets who promote new coal mines, deforestation etc and are compromised by large donations from the self interested fossil fuel industry, currently reign supreme. Be very careful who you vote for, and do all you can to reduce your own carbon footprints.
Grant Allen | 04 October 2019


Bollocks to say that Trump tries to get the American people to give up. Just the opposite. He gives great hope to the American people and others against the dilettantes bludging off the hard working struggling aspirants.
ANDREW LUKAS | 05 October 2019


Jim, at least Trump is standing up to the Chinese who want to rule the world including Australia. They print 400 trillion yuan money and use their worthless paper to buy our means of production and infrastructure. China is estimated to be responsible responsible for 28 percent of world carbon emissions. As for throwing stones at a Supreme Court judge who is innocent till proven guilty, forget it. Holy mother church (eg McCarrick and Nicola Carrida for example), has a gross sexual assault track record against innocent children worldwide and needs to clean up and clean out its own sordid linen. Trump is pro life and has also warned China about Taiwan. Without the US their will be no Taiwan. Just another casualty under the heel of the Xi JingPig jackboot. And while we talk about climate change and applaud Ms Thurnberg, the Chinese move into Australia's pristine Antarctic territory and build 7 military style bases there and start mining activities in the moutains. Chinas internal record on wildlife stinks. The US is stellar by comparison. We hope that Australian politicians want to emulate Adern who is planting 1 billion trees in NZ but the silence in Canberra is deafening.
francis Armstrong | 05 October 2019


Why anyone reads Twitter at all is beyond my comprehension.
Jennifer Raper | 05 October 2019


Victorian Matriculation English Syllabus 1970. Theme for that year, Authority and the Individual, named after one of the recommended texts, a Bertrand Russell collection of essays. Another text is Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring". A consevation movement is stirring. "Communist front! Manipulation of children!" shrieks the dishonestly named "National Civic Council", postwar relic of Melbourne's Catholic Action apologists for Mussolini, Franco, Ante Pavelic, the bombing of Guernica and the ongoing American holocaust that killed 3.8million Vietnamese. Compared to B.A.Santamaria, the unspeakable Trump is St Francis of Assisi.
James Marchment | 06 October 2019


James Marchment you cant possibly blame B A Santamaria for the Vietnam war or the Catholic political right. Kennedy refused Pius 12 plea to send in the troops to protect a 27% Catholic Vietnamese minority. It was LBJ who wanted the war. If you can find it, watch McNamaras DVD called "the fog of war " which is very instructive about US misapprehensions about the spread of Communism and the real intentions of Maos disciple, Ho Chi Minh. Santamaria and Knopfelmacher were vocal opponents of Communism indeed but the former was a staunch Catholic. He was also a founding member of the DLP. There is no ongoing holocaust in Vietnam. But you are correct that the American saturation bombings were an absolute disgrace in the number of civilians killed. Remember at the start of the war South Vietnam was staunchly catholic and the Diem brothers in control. They were assasinated 15 days after Kennedy and once LBJ rallied support in Congress, the troops rolled in including Australia. One night at a waterside workers meeting in Melbourne Santamaria declared "I am a catholic and believe in Jesus Christ", he was bashed and left unconscious in the gutter.
francis Armstrong | 09 October 2019


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