Passing fad whipped up by social media for some, a generation Z icon for others, Greta Thunberg continues to make headlines around the world. For months the young Swede has called out the greenwashing, inaction and inconsistencies of the powers that be in the hope of getting them to confront climate change. Faced with the jaded discourse of adults, she offers the common sense of a child – relentlessly pragmatic, impassioned and clear-headed. In a short space of time she has gone from being a lone voice to a world leader.
Barely sixteen, with two plaited pigtails that give her a pre-adolescent aspect, and the look of ironclad determination in her serious face, Thunberg has been speaking truth to power for months. The mission of this young Stockholm schoolgirl, unknown to the media until last autumn, is to save the planet by compelling politicians to act on global warming.
A charming novelty? It may have appeared that way at first when, at the end of August 2018, armed with a placard she skipped school to stage a one-girl ‘school strike for climate’ sit in outside the Swedish parliament to protest her government’s non-compliance with the Paris climate agreement. Except that, ever since, the eco warrior has amassed an army of followers, and not just on social networks. On top of her 250,000 Twitter and 300,000 Instagram followers add the thousands of young people around the world who have rallied to her #FridaysforFuture movement. As the momentum built, she attended the COP24 in December, where she met with the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, and in January her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos caused a sensation. The following month she called a general strike which was held on March 15th in more than 120 countries. That put an end to the patronizing and saw her go from local curiosity to global phenomenon.
Pragmatic and unflappable
Behind the fascination that she elicits, there is her age of course, but above all it is her speeches, plain and forceful, which point out the inconsistencies and contradictions of the powerful who are supposed to know better, shattering the wall of adult rhetoric with the sensibility of a child, full of sincerity and relentless pragmatism. “You say that you love you children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she said, dressing down attendees at the COP 24, “You tell us to go to school, but what’s the point in learning if we haven’t got a future?” Her plain-speaking has cut through the haze of inertia surrounding the environmental discourse which preaches the necessity to act, but the also the need for patience. The young lady is not for waiting. She is afraid and she want’s you to feel it too. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” she said to the executives of Davos, I want you to panic. I want you to act as if your house is on fire, because it is.” And as for the politicians, she says that if they are not willing to take action to save the planet, then they serve no purpose.
Where some see naivety, others see pragmatism. Firmly in the second camp, Corinne Lepage believes that the strength of the Greta Thunberg phenomenon comes from her capacity to blow up the all-encompassing cynicism of the climate debate. “Barely more than a child, she is equipped with a vast conscience and exceptional courage,” stresses the COP21 president “with her simple and direct questions, she shatters the wall of denial that insulates society, she is young, gifted, has chutzpah…” and a level of inhibition that, allied to supreme foresight makes her an incredibly persuasive figure. An attitude in which her Asperger’s, diagnosed a few years ago, no doubt plays a part. That’s according to the young militant herself, who sees her condition as a gift, as it allows her to zero in and stay focused on climate change. “If I’d been like other kids my age, I would have been too caught up in teenage life to realize the gravity of the situation,” she declared in a recent interview, “but my difference has helped me to see the world from a different angle.” She has become a menace to some, while others seek to exploit her as an alibi-marketing opportunity.
The origins of her awakening came when, as a child, she saw images of starving polar bears and islands of plastic floating in the ocean and was shocked by the environmental reality of her world and the slackness of politicians who had not taken measures to prevent it. “I found it strange that civilization was facing an existential crisis and yet no one decided to make it a priority.” She became depressed, but after a while decided to act on her feelings. “I told myself that being depressed solved nothing and that it would fit me better to do something positive with my life, to make things change.”
Thunberg has used the power of her righteous indignation to put the climate issue center stage, and has made no shortage of enemies in the business and political world by doing so. Some denounce her as a puppet of the left, while others say she is manipulating the media. But for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have taken part in climate marches in her name over the last six months, she is an authentic leaders and a symbol of the resistance who has, according to Corinne Lepage, has stirred something that lay dormant in the youth of the world, and anger, a desire to rail against the apathy they see all around them. “This conviction that anything is possible, that they can changed the established order,” notes Lepage, “in the face of an older generation which tells them ‘it’s impossible’.” It was the case in Paris in May 1968 and it’s the same today.
By Caroline Castets
(Translation, Simon McGeady)