Gordon Campbell on Greta Thunberg, and Friday climate change actions

thunberg-imageWhile there’s been an understandable focus by the media upon Greta Thunberg as her generation’s galvanising voice on climate change, one remarkable thing about the movement she has inspired is that it is so de-centralised. In just over a year, one teenager going on strike from school in Sweden has evolved into a global form of action. In last Friday’s climate protests, there were 2,500 events scheduled in 163 countries on all seven continents.

New Zealand will be adding its support to this latest round of school protests, on Friday of this week.

Collective action is taking many forms. Yesterday, Thunberg was only one of 16 names on a UN initiative aimed at having climate change treated as a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ironically, the USA has never ratified the Convention, so it cannot be added to the list of five countries – Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey – that are singled out in the complaint, even though the point being made has obvious relevance for every country. For the record and in the same spirit of de-centralisation, the UN complaint was filed by: Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villasenor, Chiara Sacchi, Catarina Lorenzo, Iris Duquesne, Raina Ivanova, Ridhima Pandey, David Ackley III, Ranton Anjain, Litokne Kabua, Deborah Adegbile, Carlos Manuel, Ayakha Melithafa, Ellen-Anne, Raslen Jbeili, and Carl Smith.

This week, in an interesting profile/interview with Thunberg, the Atlantic magazine gamely tried to identify why Thunberg’s unique form of celebrity is seen to be so challenging – for adults, anyway. Conclusion: she’s a teenager:

…. Thunberg is an especially flummoxing figure. She looks younger than her years, yet her speeches take a shaming, authoritative tone that is, at the very least, unusual for a child. “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood,” she told world leaders at the United Nations today. She has also said that money and eternal economic growth are “fairy tales.” So she has inspired both public adoration and malign theorizing (mostly centered around the power of her parents).

Thunberg’s radical message that (a)unfettered economic growth is a “fairy tale” and (b) that business as usual cannot continue to be rationalised in the flimsy hope that some future scientific fix will ward off disaster…. has not led her to endorse direct action against polluting industries. Adroitly, as the Atlantic points out, Thunberg has avoided putting her advocacy behind a specific political programme:

She is strikingly nonradical, at least in tactics. Unlike other young climate activists—such as members of the Sunrise Movement in the United States, which is led by college students and early 20-somethings—she rejects specific policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, instructing politicians instead to “listen to the science.” She has even declined to endorse a specific platform in the European Union, where her “Fridays for Future” movement has taken hold. When I asked how other teenagers should fight climate change, she said, “They can do everything. There are so many ways to make a difference.” Then she gave, as examples, joining an activist movement and “also to, if you can, vote.”

Thunberg’s most radical tactic – and an unusual one for this part of the world – has been the school strike. Yesterday on RNZ, acting PM Winston Peters gave the usual harrumphing-adult response to the school strike planned for Friday.

No, he didn’t support it. Children, in his view, should be in school learning their lessons as fast as they can. Why? Because that, Peters explained, is “one of the critical components in lifting massively this country’s productivity.”

Yep, stay in school and do your bit to create faster, higher growth! Clearly, Peters doesn’t get it, no matter how hard he tries to greenwash accelerated economic growth with the word “sustainable”… Arguably, more and more growth by almost any means is unsustainable at this point in the planetary crisis. While renewables are practical and necessary options, Thunberg’s point is that they’re not a panacea for the pain the planet is in, and nor should they be treated as an excuse for business-as-usual to continue.

Still, Peters did accidentally put its finger on a key point – that at the heart of the response to the school strikes is a difference over what an education is for. Increasingly, the view of education as a means of turning this generation into efficient drones (all the better to service the growth machine) is being widely rejected as a soul-destroying prospect for individuals, no matter what material rewards get thrown their way as inducements. Even more to the point, it is also being rejected as a collective vision for society, and for the planet:

Americans think of school as something that chiefly benefits students, not society; comparing it to a job, where a labour stoppage is a recognized form of protest, is outside our ken. But if you come to see school as part of an intergenerational exchange of welfare—students go to school now, so that in 30 years they can get jobs and pay Social Security taxes—then it aligns well with Thunberg’s overall point, which is that older generations have betrayed young people today by failing to address climate change. This almost economic argument has the virtue of being accurate.

What Thunberg has brilliantly shown is that there doesn’t need be any conflict between the individual actions taken in your own life, and the collective action required to bring about systemic change. (On Alexandria Villasenor’s site this week, there has been a useful Twitter thread on finding a compatible balance between individual and collective action.) Yes, people can and should ensure that what they personally eat, wear and purchase does the least possible damage to the planet; while at the same time, they also act together in unison to combat the power of those corporate and government leaders who value economic growth and material rewards above all else.

On Friday, the school strikes and marches deserve all the intergenerational support they can get. It seems the least that that we adults can do, as compensation.

Footnote One: Part of Thunberg’s charm is her lack of ease. She is always in the moment, and – unlike the media-trained politicos – she answers the question that’s been asked. On Trevor Noah’s US talk show, she was asked about the differences she’s noted between the climate change debate in Sweden, and in the US. In the US, she replied, the talk is still about whether climate change exists. In Sweden, she said, it is a fact. In her homeland, the false equivalence between the climate change science and denialism is no longer evident in the media’s handling of the issue. Good.

Footnote Two: Hopefully, the coverage given to Jonathan Franzen’s recent call to climate change defeatism in the New Yorker magazine will prove to be the last mutation of denialism, before its (overdue) extinction. Essentially, Franzen claimed in his article that because the battle against global warming has already been lost, undue resources should not be devoted to its prevention, but only into its mitigation. In the blink of an eye, the comfortable, privileged likes of Franzen seem to have made the journey from climate change denialism to defeatism, while making dodgy use of the science en route. The Vox site has a good discussion/rebuttal of Franzen available here.

Wealth vs Health

In a quite different case of individual wellbeing vs corporate profit-taking… over the past fortnight, health regulators around the world have reacted in markedly different ways to the discovery that a suspected carcinogenic impurity has been detected in versions of the popular over-the-counter antacid commonly called Zantac (aka ranitidine) that is widely used for treating heartburn and acid reflux. Last Wednesday, the Swiss drug maker Novartis said it was stopping the worldwide distribution of its generic versions of the antacid while health regulators continue to mull over the potential implications of finding the impurity N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) in ranitidine-based drugs.

Yesterday in New Zealand, Medsafe released an advisory notice that still okays the short term use of Zantac/ranitidine:

There is no known immediate health risk associated with this medicine. There is a very small possible risk that NDMA may cause cancer if taken long term.

For the benefit of health professionals and pharmacists, Medsafe added:

There is a very small possible risk that NDMA may cause cancer if taken long term.

How long is too long, and how often is too often? Such matters remains unclear at this point:

It is not possible to provide an accurate estimate of the magnitude of carcinogenic risk associated with NDMA impurity based on currently available safety data. If you have a patient who is worried about taking ranitidine, change them to an alternative treatment. The risks for patients taking low dose occasional ranitidine remain very low. [But] At the present time GlaxoSmithKline (NZ) Ltd has put a halt on all further supply of Zantac Injection 50mg/2mL until further information on the safety of this product is available.

The advice cited above – for GPs and pharmacists to put any worried patients onto an alternative drug – is problematic, given that most of the alternatives seem to have their own problems. Zantac/rantitidine belongs to a class of so-called H2 receptor antagonists that block the release of stomach acid. Hitherto H2 blockers have been regarded as the better option, compared to the alternative class of so called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) also widely used to treat frequent heartburn, acid reflux etc. The PPIs include omeprazole, which is one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in New Zealand, available over the counter under the brand names Losec or Prilosec. Here’s what recent research into PPIs by the University of San Diego has found:

In the study, published February 19, 2019 by Scientific Reports, the team found that patients who took PPIs were more likely to experience kidney disease than people who took histamine-2 receptor antagonists, another form of antacid that treats the same conditions and includes the brands Pepcid and Zantac.

And here’s an earlier report on 2017 research into PPIs by health authorities in St Loui.

Ironically, Medsafe’s most recent commentary on PPIs has to do only with the risks of abruptly coming off the drug. Yet Medsafe was pointing to cases linking kidney problems to PPIs as long ago as 2011.

So… the outlook seems a bit grim for those with chronic stomach problems. They have the choice between either a heightened risk of kidney disease with PPIs like omeprazole, or a heightened risk of cancer with H2 blockers like Zantac. In the absence of further research, the extent of the risks on both of those options is said to be low. Pending further notice.

After The ‘Shakes

Early on, Alabama Shakes seemed destined to be pigeon-holed as a Southern roots blues rock band that’s rendered made special by the extraordinary, powerful voice of its lead singer, Brittany Howard. After a several attempts to break the band out of that retro trap, Howard has begun a solo career, as well as still contributing to a couple of rock and alt country side projects.

Howard’s debut solo album Jaime is dedicated to her late sister, and the highlight is “Stay High” – a track that’s mainly about her Dad, but is also about being positive rather than being trapped by anger, which makes it a relevant message for these times. Here’s Howard telling the charming story behind the song’s video, which stars the actor and former star athlete Terry Crews:

And here’s that video itself for “Stay High,” a song that gives Howard enough langourous room to stretch out. Overall, its the best thing she’s done since the breakout “Hold On” hit she had in 2013 with Alabama Shakes.