By Manik Sharma Sep. 23, 2019
Last August, Greta Thunberg was a lone 15-year-old sitting outside the Swedish parliament, with a “School Strike for Climate” placard. A year on, the world is rallying behind her as she leads one of the biggest climate change protests in history. How has this teen managed to do so much in such little time?
In August of 2018, a month before the Swedish parliamentary elections, a strange sight presented itself to grown-ups exiting the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. Outside, a 15-year-old sat with a placard in hand, questioning the government’s inaction over climate change. Sweden had just experienced the hottest year in its history which prompted the teenager to skip school every Friday to sit outside the country’s seat of power. A couple of months later, the same teenager wrote a straightforward yet compelling takedown of the world’s political paralysis in the face of worsening climate warnings.
A year on, Greta Thunberg has become the face of probably the biggest ever climate protest in history. This August, she completed a two-week transatlantic journey on a yacht from England to New York, and deposed before the American Congress last week. She was seen fist-bumping Obama and made an appearance on The Daily Show. On Saturday, she kicked off the UN Youth Climate Summit.
Which begs the question, how has this teen managed to do so much in such little time? And why has she been so impactful?
Even Sweden, a country that prides itself on pioneering progressive and reformist legislations has been in thrall of Thunberg’s perseverance. Her lone, initial protests outside the parliament gradually found the support of teachers, directors, and other adults prepared to lose pay or cut back on a day of privilege to echo her commitment. She is no teen prodigy, in fact she told CNN that she was an “invisible girl for most of her 16 years”. But today her popularity is unique on many levels.
But in Thunberg’s case, her age and condition also make her incorruptible to an extent, perhaps immune to the whims of power, jealousy, and greed. BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images
But in Thunberg’s case, her age and condition also make her incorruptible to an extent, perhaps immune to the whims of power, jealousy, and greed.
BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images
Thunberg was detected with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, early in her life. Her detractors or doubters have often questioned her ability to articulate and understand scientific ideas when they aren’t rehearsed for her on paper. Then there is her family background. Thunberg is the daughter of popular opera singer Malenda Ernman and Swedish actor Svante Thunberg, the kind of privileged background that climate cynics latch onto as a convenient reason to deny the teenager the same seriousness we are forced to afford to the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Of course, there is some sense in the argument that a debate as widely scoped and expansive as climate change, can probably only be held together by individuals who don’t have to worry about livelihoods, rent, or basic necessities. And the amount of weight and money being thrown behind her by a number of climate organisations, including those chaired by Al Gore and Bernie Sanders, has also led to suggestions that Thunberg is more paw than she is tiger. But none of these doubts or suspicions have been birthed by Thunberg’s own conduct.
The reason? Thunberg’s projected weaknesses, her being a child, her disorder, have become her greatest strength. “Because of my condition I see things in black or white,” Thunberg has said. And by extension, she has also become an example of how social-cultural movements can be led by children.
There is a distinctive earnestness to a teen’s passion for something, unmarred as it is by adult indulgences or self-praise. But in Thunberg’s case, her age and condition also make her incorruptible to an extent, perhaps immune to the whims of power, jealousy, and greed. Thunberg’s limitations also ensure her directness, the ability to be straightforward without being bogged down by social niceties expected of adults in her position. To European leaders in April this year, she frankly urged, “Forget Brexit and focus on climate change”. Earlier in January she told some of the richest people in at the World Economic Forum, blankly, “Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular know exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money, and I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.” Where an adult spokesperson might have attempted to mollycoddle such a crowd, Thunberg has the ability to be brutally honest.
The real reason Thunberg’s clarion call to people makes sense is because adults have thoroughly disappointed us. Not once, but repeatedly, knowingly. Thunberg ends her Guardian piece, stating plainly, “The adults have failed us. And since most of them, including the press and the politicians, keep ignoring the situation, we must take action into our own hands, starting today.” It’s hard to disagree with her. Thunberg plainly requests change, getting over the notion that adulthood somehow endows one with better sense.
The real reason Thunberg’s clarion call to people makes sense is because adults have thoroughly disappointed us. Not once, but repeatedly, knowingly.
And she may yet be a hope.
After all, it was teenagers and young men and women, who have led countless movements through history. The Arab Spring was largely led by youth, the worldwide protests during the ’70s against nuclearisation of nations were spawned in hostels and schools. Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai stood up to the Taliban and is now an advocate for girl’s education. American teenager Cameron Kasky has led a nationwide protest of students against gun use in America.
The truth is, the planet has long been bought and sold by adults who were meant, at least in context of their vaguely hyped maturity, to care for it better. Thunberg may be one thing or another, fervent revolutionary or the last draw of the tired liberal, but she is as much an example of an endangered future as she is of the lousy, inactive present. A present that is ruled by clumsy, insensitive, and ineffective leaders. Millennials are often dismissed as complacent and selfish. They are seen through the prisms of Instagram and Tinder, parsed through the partisan sieve of nostalgia, and declared unfit to recreate some random Golden Age that existed before their own.
But Thunberg is a reminder that it is time for adults to be more accommodating. Because as this teen wonder from Sweden prophetically said, “No one is too small to make a change.”