It was Boxing Day, 2004, and hundreds of holiday makers were celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ by worshipping the Sun gods on the beaches of Phuket. Amongst them was a little ten year old girl from Oxshott, Surrey, who had been blessed with one of those charmingly genteel names one would expect of a privileged child brought up in the home counties. Her name was Tilly Smith, and Tilly was as bright as a button. For whilst all the other boys and girls were happy to continue frolicking merrily amongst the fast-retreating surf, Tilly had important things on her mind. Tilly had taken on board what she had been taught in her geography lesson only the week before, and so for her the sight of a sea mysteriously retreating far beyond the low tidemark could only mean one thing; a tsunami was on its way. With a maturity and confidence that belied her tender age, Tilly started screaming to everyone on the beach to run to higher ground. And, most remarkably, that’s exactly what everyone did. As a result, Tilly’s beach was amongst the few on that fateful Boxing Day where no-one was to succumb to the terrifying wall of water that engulfed the shorelines of 14 countries. Nearly a quarter of a million people died in the Boxing Day tsunami, but Tilly, the rest of her family, and the hundreds lucky enough to have shared a holiday beach with her, lived to tell the tale of Tilly’s remarkable leadership.
It is all too easy to see the parallels that exist between Tilly’s heroic exploits and the image of Greta Thunberg, marauding the corridors of the United Nations, screaming at the politicians to shake them from their alleged insouciance, supposedly sustained in the face of the impending tsunami that is global warming. In both cases, there is a child prepared to overturn the balance of authority presupposed to exist between adult and juvenile (but only if that is what it takes to avert a perceived catastrophe). In both cases, in the name of a greater good, impertinence displaces deference. In fact, the parallels become even stronger when one considers what happened after Tilly’s heroics came to the attention of a professor of civil engineering at Gumma University in central Japan.
Toshikata Katada had been touring the sites of devastation following the Boxing Day tsunami to see what lessons, if any, could be taken back to his native Japan. As he did so, one fact struck him as being most germane. Despite the thirty minute warning that many had received of an approaching tsunami, thousands had failed to make any effort to evacuate. In some cases, as in the elderly and infirm, this was to be expected. But the passivity in the face of doom went far beyond that. Even the able-bodied seemed to have spent their last half hour on Earth waiting for official instruction that would never arrive.
On the beaches of Phuket it was a child who had acted with fearless authority, but Tilly was an extraordinarily self-assured child. Back in Japan, things were very different. Children were taught to respect adult authority without question, and this was particularly the case when it came to tsunami drill. Indeed, the national schoolbook issued to all ten year olds included the story of Hamaguchi Gohei, the wise elder statesman of a village in the Wakayama Prefecture of Hirogawa, who saved his villagers from a tsunami by setting fire to the precious rice crop. On seeing this wanton act of arson, so the story goes, the villagers fled to the hills, fearing that their leader had gone mad. Only subsequently did they appreciate that this is exactly what the wise old man had intended them to do in order to escape the tsunami that only he had observed approaching.
Putting aside the credibility that this story obviously lacks, it was nevertheless a stern reminder that you must always look to elders for your lead, no matter how bonkers it might appear. Japan’s children were never going to ‘do a Tilly’; and Katada wasn’t happy with this state of affairs. For that reason, Katada came up with the idea of ‘Tsunami Tendenko’ – an idea based upon three principles to be applied in emergencies:
- Don’t believe in preconceived ideas
- Do everything you can
- Take the lead in evacuation
It was a policy in which children were expected to take initiative based upon their instincts, rather than act in unison under the umbrella of a supposed collective wisdom. Above all, they should never feel safe just because an adult seemed to be acting as though they were safe. As it happens, it was also a policy that was to save many lives in the 2011 tsunami in the city of Kamaishi, since school children abandoned their schoolrooms spontaneously as soon as the warning siren sounded. No-one waited for Miss.
If the parallels existing between Tsunami Tendenko1 and the current culture of child-led climate alarmism have not already occurred to you then I have not been doing a good enough job. But, there again, maybe the job has been done rather too well. Perhaps we should also be focusing upon the respects in which the analogy breaks down.
For example, when Katada says ‘Don’t believe in preconceived ideas’, he has in mind ideas such as the belief that Japan’s sea defences are high enough to protect its citizens. It has been said that, following the 2011 tsunami, these sea defences resulted in more lives being lost than would have been the case if they had not existed. It wasn’t their inadequacy that was the issue, rather it was the misplaced trust in them, resulting in a reluctance to run for the hills. This trust in the safeguards is quite different from the preconceived ideas that our climate-fearing children are currently exposed to, in which existing defences against the effects of climate change are assumed to be anything but adequate. In fact, when Greta Thunberg says ‘Listen to the scientists’ she is actually saying ‘You must believe in the preconceived ideas’. Or, at the very least, ‘You must believe in the preconception that the scientists are predicting imminent catastrophe’. Tsunami Tendenko is predicated upon a distrust in scientific authority – Greta’s position is exactly the opposite.
Secondly, when Katada says ‘Do everything you can’, he has in mind that you should climb as high as you can within the time allowed, not stopping to help others2. There is nothing in his concept that includes taking measures that are simply impossible or, at best, likely to cause as many problems as they solve. Tsunami Tendenko is a highly pragmatic concept that doesn’t require anyone to have the powers of a Moses or King Canute. And yet, here we stand before Greta, Extinction Rebellion and David Attenborough, vilified for not boldly embracing targets for achieving carbon neutrality that have no economic or technological credibility.
Finally, when Katada says ‘Take the lead in evacuation’, it has its parallels in the attitude that we can all do our bit for the environment without having to wait for an official directive. What it doesn’t condone is an attitude where one authority is to be replaced by an alternative one founded upon the power of civil disobedience. Extinction Rebellion may believe that they are providing an anarchic initiative in the face of a recalcitrant and feckless authority, but in reality they are playing the role of Hamaguchi Gohei, wildly burning the crops in an attempt to grasp control of the situation. Once again, this is not really Tsunami Tendenko, it is a naked power grab in order to dictate the agenda in accordance with a certain political and ideological framing of the problem. As for the climate-striking children, there is nothing to suggest that they are taking any sort of lead, or acting under anything other than a collective, presupposed wisdom handed down to them. They are not Hamaguchi, but they are a burning rice crop.
When I look at Tilly and Greta, I see in both of them much that is to be admired. Both have acted decisively and with great courage. Each has demonstrated that some children are quite capable of acting with an authority that many adults lack. And I’m sure that Greta Thunberg promotes her message with every bit as much sincerity as did Tilly when she was screaming her warnings on that Phuket beach. But let us not get carried away, for in Tilly’s case no great sophistication or worldly wisdom was required to take stock of the situation. A well-established fact passed on to her in a geography lesson was sufficient to get the ball rolling. The rest was probably down to infectious panic and herding instinct, and I’m quite sure that she was as surprised as anyone when everybody on the beach followed her. Greta, on the other hand, has taken it upon herself to save the whole world, possessed with a level of understanding and life experience that I personally wouldn’t trust to clear a beach. Yet, for her, the failure of the world’s leaders to follow her example seems to be a source of ever-present angst and confusion.
Others, I’m sure, would strongly disagree with my analysis of Greta Thunberg’s faux authority, but that would be because we would have differing views as to what should be the preconceived ideas to be disbelieved. I do not think that she is acting upon a reliable insight that we adults lack, as we lounge about on our sunbeds in ignorant, sun-kissed bliss. If one does as Greta insists, and looks closely at what the scientists are saying, there is to be found no sign of certain, imminent catastrophe, ignored in preference for a preconceived but ill-judged assumption of safety. There is nothing as clear cut as a tsunami on the horizon. In reality, the situation is so much more complicated than that, and both action and inaction may have serious consequences. Nevertheless, the declaration of a climate emergency has created the environment in which strategies akin to Tsunami Tendenko start to seem appropriate. There may be no tsunami, and the children may not be acting in the true spirit of Tendenko, but none of that matters once fear has taken charge.
 ‘Tendenko’ does not translate easily into English. The best stab at it seems to be ‘child who does each for oneself’.
 In practice, such selfishness goes against human nature. In the Kamaishi tsunami, the older children could not bring themselves to leave the younger children behind.