Greta Thunberg, mental health, and population: A response to Julia Hartley-Brewer

Please note: This is written in a personal capacity.

If you swim with sharks then at some point you're going to get bitten, but one of the many wonderful things about the internet is it allows you to bite back.

And so, to today's appearance on Julia Hartley-Brewer's show on talkRADIO, which you can catch at about 08:30 here:

Let me be very clear. I have a fair amount of experience of mental health issues, personally (I have OCD and an anxiety disorder), through my own family, and through our work on supporting vulnerable householders, and this understanding and empathy means I take great offence at the use of anyone's mental health conditions to deliberately stigmatise them and undermine their contributions to society. Sadly, this was exactly the tack taken by Ms Hartley-Brewer over Greta Thunberg's plan to sail to the next climate change summit in New York, and whilst she may not quite have plumbed the depths reached by Andrew Bolt's column in the Herald Sun, her argument, language and tone was depressingly similar

Had I realised that Mrs Hartley-Brewer's opinions have previously resulted in the Royal College of General Practitioners withdrawing an invitation for her to speak at an 'NHS Question Time' panel debate in 2019, after over 700 GPs signed a petition complaining that her views were not conducive to the work they were doing to promote inclusivity within the profession and amongst patients, or had I been aware of her thoughts on the Omagh bombing, I might've thought better of agreeing to appear. However, the call came at very short notice so I didn't get time to do my homework and, to date, all my experiences on talkRADIO have been very positive and professional. 

For example, James Whale and I may disagree a bit over climate change but I have a huge amount of respect for the campaigning he's done on dyslexia and literacy, and I think we probably agree more than he'd admit because we're both fully paid-up members of the awkward squad. James is delightfully provocative but, as you can hear for yourselves in the links posted elsewhere on these pages, this comes from a keen interest in the evidence. He may be a wind-up merchant, but you have to respect the brains and empathy behind the persona.

Yet Ms Hartley-Brewer's only interest in Greta's mental health and family was not, as it could've been, to attempt to understand someone from a very different background and with a very different way of thinking, but to use what relatively little about her private life that is in the public domain to attempt to dismiss her contributions trying to solve the biggest crisis that has ever faced humanity. This is an example of 'othering', which is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified individual or group poses a threat to the favoured group. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon are just three of the modern-day masters of othering, and we can all name at least one historical figure whose popularity was built on it. 

People like Greta are indeed threats to this favoured group because, unlike them, their arguments come from hard scientific evidence, understanding, empathy, and a powerful desire to leave a better world in a better shape than the one it was in when they were born. Which brings us to the other thorny topic of the morning, my mentioning of population. For the record, I listed flying, driving and having too many children as the great 'evils' of climate change (I should've also listed over-consumption of resources, but then flying is one of the most egregious examples of this). This was a big mistake only in that I then had to struggle to get the subject back to the impact of the aviation industry (which if counted as a country would be one of the world's top ten emitters of greenhouse gases). Ms Hartley-Brewer's response, jumping on my use of the word 'evil', is a classic example of how desperate those who wish to somehow preserve the status quo can resort to othering when confronted with someone who dares to call the evidence out for what it is. 

For the record, I have wavered over the population debate since discovering deep ecology as an idealistic undergraduate, when people like Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Herman Daly, and Garrett Hardin were my intellectual heroes (and still are). I don't support coercive measures to reduce our population (and let's not forget it was the Tories that capped child benefit), and I would distance myself completely from those supporters of population control who use this to justify support for curbing immigration and limiting freedom of movement. However, I strongly support the views of experts such as Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute (hat tip to Abi for the link), who argue that the impacts of population growth must be mitigated through consuming less, wasting less, and educating and empowering women. The latter is the one and only consistently proven method of reducing birth rates, and one which must be right at the heart of our efforts to tackle climate change and bring about a more equitable and sustainable global society. 

Deciding what we want our future planet and society to look like will involve some hard choices, and deciding what level of population we should allow ourselves to sustain, and where we should house that population, means also deciding the quality of life we wish to be able sustain for ourselves and future generations. It's a zero-sum game. Most importantly, this means tackling the extreme over-consumption of the super-rich - not just the 1%, but the 10%, and more - but with just 12 years to save the planet all options must now be on the table. Managing our population is one of them and, as I mentioned in the interview, this is not a simple as reducing the global birth rate because some parts of the world (such as Scotland) are facing ageing and declining populations that mean, at least for now, that they need to grow. Perhaps, given an ideal world and enough time, universal education and unlimited freedom of movement would allow human populations to naturally settle into more sustainable communities, but we're very far from that world and we don't have anything like the time left. 

That leaves us with some very hard choices, and if you need an idea of how hard those choices may be, pick up a copy of the Ehrlich's famous book The Population Bomb, and remember that the measures they discuss were not their recommendations (although they openly support educating and empowering women), they are simply options. If they shock then they merely highlight the gulf of understanding between those who understand the hard evidence and those who simply cannot accept it because the implications are too threatening. (Their work led to the development of the Kaya Identity, one of the most important equations in climate science). As someone with an understanding of the science I am, personally, far from convinced that the planet can reasonably sustain north of 10 billion people all living what we currently think of as a comfortable standard of living by the standards of the most 'developed' nations. I don't know what my own preferred limit would be because there are so many variables and so much uncertainty involved, but excuse me if I fail to be optimistic about the likelihood of overturning the growth of consumer capitalism or achieving a near-complete elimination of the fossil fuel industry in little over a decade either.

I'm not having children for a number of reasons, not all of which relate to what we understand about the implications of climate change. I also don't drive and do various other things to try to limit my carbon footprint but, as I admitted on the show, none of us are perfect - I have two dogs and, having not flown in years aside from one trip for work, I'm jetting off for holidays twice this year. I'm not Greta, and very few of us could get a place on a yacht sailing across the Atlantic even if we wanted to, but the very fact that we have a 16 year old girl doing it in the name of climate change, let alone becoming a figurehead of a global movement, is hugely significant. It’s the sort of change even a younger and more idealistic me would've dismissed as being too radical too ever happen. And that only goes to show why those who fear the sorts of radical changes we will need to tackle climate change have every reason to fear those who speak truth to power.

Sadly, Mrs Hartley-Brewer seems to be so fearful of those of us that recognise the urgency and implications of climate change that she is unable to enter into any reasonable discussion of the evidence and possible courses of action, and so people like Greta become personal demons who must be othered out of public consciousness pour encourager les autres.

So maybe we shouldn't engage with them, but they have a right to freedom of speech and whilst they have public platforms they will find guests to talk to, so we must also hold them to account. Therefore, I am strongly of the view that in the interview today Mrs Hartley-Brewer, whilst claiming to care about the welfare of an autistic child, used her autism and other personal details about her to other her (and I am unclear as to what exactly the 'dangers' were that she referred to as regards being on the yacht so I will leave readers to make up their own minds about that part of the conversation). I am also strongly of the view that she did this deliberately to undermine Greta, and all of us who recognise the severity of the climate crisis and, in our own imperfect ways, are taking some personal responsibility for the planet and future generations.

It's time to make a stand.