Last Tuesday, Greta Thunberg spoke to the European Parliament in a speech calling on politicians to save the planet in the same way they have rallied to save Notre-Dame Cathedral. The young Swedish teenager who started the high school strike said: “A lot of politicians have told me that panicking doesn’t do any good. I agree, but when your house is on fire and you want to prevent it from collapsing, it’s better to panic a little bit.” Some opinion formers were moved by this plea but inevitably there was also criticism of it as an attempt at manipulation. We think it is a good moment to take a step back to try to understand this phenomenon.
The bad servant and the categorical imperative
Although it is not customary to cite the Holy Scriptures on a site dedicated to science and technology, Greta Thunberg’s injunction requires us to give the subject deep thought. Now, with the Easter season fresh in our minds, we are reminded of the Parable of The Talents (Matthew, Chapter 24, Edition Siloé, 1955, p. 1161). This is the biblical parable in short: “Before going away, a master entrusts his servants with 5, 2 and 1 talents. While the first two servants make a profit with the money entrusted to them by their master and are rewarded by their lord on his return, the third servant did not go to such lengths and only buried the money. The reason he gives for this is fear “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” This provoked the wrath of the master: “‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” This passage of the Bible has inspired many authors and can be seen as a source of inspiration for the philosopher Emmanuel Kant.
As everyone knows, Kantian morality is a structure integrally founded on the categorical imperative, defined as follows: as a “general law” to which the maxim of action must conform; so, one imperative requires that we: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.” One of these imperatives, which we are most interested in here, is that where a man “finds in himself a talent which with the help of some culture might make him a useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities. He asks, however, whether his maxim of neglect of his natural gifts, besides agreeing with his inclination to indulgence, agrees also with what is called duty.” While the man who would allow “his talents to rest” cannot want this to become a universal law, although it may persist: “he cannot possibly will that this should be a universal law of nature, or be implanted in us as such by a natural instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him and have been given him, for all sorts of possible purposes.”
Digital natives and baccalaureate petitions
Returning to the injunction originally cited (which would require all high school classes to go on strike and — by extension — for an entire civilization to put all its science and technology on hold), it is clear that this “attitude” is based on an “absolutist” and uncompromising application of the precautionary principle. It is also important to recognize that young whistleblowers have a talent: that of influencing and using all the communication media that the digital world offers them today to exercise an enormous pressure by working on the emotions of their elders. As exam season approaches, we are inevitably reminded of that media hardy perennial, the high school students who submit online petitions to have their baccalaureate exams cancelled or even, why not, get their baccalaureate without any effort at all. And as we pointed out in an editorial, it is difficult to imagine Einstein filing a petition on change.org to help him demonstrate the special relativity theory, or Marie Curie asking for help to be parachuted in for her to discover polonium.
However, we also imagine that this generation is just as full of talents in chemistry, physics, math and science in general… All these subjects that have been so useful to mankind for centuries in finding solutions and improving our conditions. The message put out by young whistleblowers should not paralyse those who are eager to put in considerable efforts.
Urban dwellers and field work
To continue with our metaphorical devices, we might look at the divide between the town and the country dweller. The former has a totally idealized view of the agricultural world and has great difficulty in imagining that cutting-edge technologies can be at work in our fields, such as the use of smart-agriculture (big data, sensors, drones, NBT…). On this front, some initiatives that bring urban residents closer to agricultural practices are remarkable. There is a great example in Semiblé, led by the town of Neuilly-Plaisance, who brought together children and parents to sow wheat to make local bread. This is how young people can become aware of the effort and know-how used to make bread.
The Parable of Talents and the categorical imperative allow us to consider the attitude of some young ideologists (and those who manipulate them?) towards this problematic: an increasingly fierce ideology would like to bury the talents of an entire generation and with them the talents that mankind has invested for centuries in scientific and technical innovation. Despite the fact, though, that the conditions have never been so favourable. To be convinced you need only compile the data, as Steven Pinker did in Enlightenment now. Should we consider that it is because it is aware of its enormous responsibilities (for example, feeding nine billion people in 2050) that this generation feels under immense pressure? If so, then it is imperative that they make best use of all their talents right now, not just for whistleblowing.
 Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals V. Delbos, Delagrave, p.136-141.