‘Narcissistic’, ‘Courageous’, ‘Focussed’, ‘Paranoid’, ‘Fear-Monger’, ‘Determined’. These are just some of the words used to describe teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s ‘war’ on climate change deniers and politicians acting like sitting ducks. The wild spectrum of descriptions suggest that she has touched a chord, or a nerve for many (in different ways) thus eliciting reactions that turn her into a climate justice Joan of Arc or an unwitting, exploited child, depending on which side you believe in. Like everything else in the world, I don’t think these characteristics are so easy to tease apart. More pertinently, it can end up diverting attention from the fundamental issue of the message itself: Climate crises stands to affect younger (and future) generations in catastrophic ways unless radical action at global and local level is taken RIGHT NOW.
Before sharing my perspective, let me try and summarise each side of the argument.
Heading a revolution?
Greta started with a school strike, which has turned into a massive movement a year later. Her blunt questions, pin-pointedly asking reasons for political and social apathy regarding climate change created a ripple effect amongst the youth. A poster at a rally asked, “Why should we go to school, when you don’t listen to the educated?” In other words, what is the aim of education? In making connections of climate crises with the inefficacy of education, Greta says,
“Why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts in the school system when the most important facts given by the finest science of that same school system clearly means nothing to our politicians and our society.”
The involvement of young people in climate change activism is a clear call that status quo is no longer an option. Something’s gotta give. The youth are not going to be silenced by pep-talks of a projected future. They are voicing what many of us millenials realised earlier, but willfully ignored in order to keep the development myth going; Our personal anxieties are deeply connected to the loss of ecosystems and social relationships. The trust has been broken. Our lives have been gambled away without our consent. Greta rightfully embodies that anger, urgency and impatience needed to demand radical action. Yet…
Many have been less than enthusiastic in supporting her cause. In June 2019, Conservative and far-right lawmakers urged a boycott of Greta’s appearance in the French parliament, accusing her of being a “guru of the apocalypse” and that she should be awarded a “Nobel prize of fear”. Her rise to fame was attributed to the PR genius Ingmar Rentzhog, who owns a start-up called ‘We Don’t have time’, which aims to “hold leaders and companies accountable for climate change” by leveraging “the power of social media”. (Rentzhog and his CEO David Olsson have backgrounds in finance, not environmental activism). This revelation led many environmentalists to argue that Greta is infact being used as the face of ‘green capitalism’, and is an unwitting pawn to all the nefarious activities apparently underway to ‘greenwash’ the economy without really changing anything. Others have pitied her for being paranoid, attributing it to her condition (she has Asperger’s syndrome) and instead fired her parents and other supporters for being “heartless” and “selfish” by allowing the young girl to panic “unreasonably”. The last word irks me. Unreasonable? Where has ‘reason’ got us till now?
None of the above accusations (true or false) invalidate her cause. The fact remains that she is an uncommonly determined teenager, readily owning her privilege, and using it to convey the most urgent message of this century. She presents a narrative which needs critical support in order to push policy decisions. This is not the time for idol worship or dissecting her motives to reduce it into yet another capitalist conspiracy. Her story depends on what we are willing to take from her. We lost the chance back in 1992, when the then 12 year-old Severn Cullis Suzuki addressed the delegates in Rio de Janeiro during the Earth summit’s plenary session. She came to be known as the “the girl who silenced the world for six minutes”, until collective amnesia set in, and business continued as usual. Let’s not allow Greta’s words to become another footnote in our rather short evolutionary history. Monbiot’s words are a call to action,
“Who are these people? Another “they”, who might rescue us from our follies? The success of this mobilisation depends on us. It will reach the critical threshold only if enough of us cast aside denial and despair, and join this exuberant, proliferating movement. The time for excuses is over. The struggle to overthrow our life-denying system has begun.”
Will we squander this chance by bickering over futile questions; Or will we take her story forward? That’s the greater question.