I Looked Into Greta Thunberg So You Don’t Have To

Rachel S

If you’re on Facebook, chances are you’ve come across a video, meme, article, or related bit of content about a young Nordic girl with two long braids that really wants you to care more about climate change. Her name is Greta Thunberg and she’s really important.

I had been avoiding her presence on my timeline because I feel weird about kids being involved in politics; I think they’re stupid by virtue of being children (all children are stupid, change my mind), I think it’s dumb to pretend otherwise, and I think they usually (read: invariably) end up being taken advantage of by people who are older and more experienced than them and also happen to agree with them. But I decided to look into this Greta after Daisy shared an article about some Greta-themed bumper stickers– but more on that later.

The first thing I learned is that she rose to prominence at age 15 (she’s now 16), which is about half a decade older than I thought she was. I’m not sure if she looks so young because she just does or if it’s a conscious ploy to ham up her innocence; either way I find it off-putting. I don’t know.

The second thing I learned is that she stopped going to school in order to protest about climate change. She just, doesn’t go to class and instead holds a sign outside of the Swedish parliament. That’s her whole thing. Except now there’s LOTS of marches and people keep asking her to give speeches and TED talks and maybe even accept a Nobel Peace Prize. Well, I thought, she must be a very gifted speaker indeed. What kind of persuasive arguments has she mastered? What ideas does she have for combatting climate change? What’s her plan for a better future?

Well. . . nothing. No plans, no arguments, no ideas. The content of her speeches– and I watched several of them, which I don’t recommend because she sounds kind of like a really advanced robot a la Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (NO I haven’t seen Bladerunner and I won’t because I’m a scholar) and that’s not exactly her fault, she’s autistic and, more to the point, Nordic, but it is unsettling– is just that climate change is bad and we need to fix it. Not “we” inclusive of Greta, to be clear. “We” as in grown ups. For Greta. Because she’s a kid. You can tell because she uses words like “grown ups” and “kids” rather than “adults” and “children.”

If you feel like I’m oversimplifying, I invite you to watch the entirety of the speech she presented for the UN Climate Change COP24 Conference:

Basically, climate change is bad, no one is talking about it, and it’s the entire adult world’s fault. Well. . . okay, yeah, probably it is quite bad. But to stand in front of a crowd of politicians and policy makers and point a finger at them for doing literally the worst thing they possibly could in Greta’s eyes? And to allege that NO ONE is talking about it, when it’s arguably been one of the hottest topics in public discourse of the 21st century? Why are we letting that go? Why are we acting like it’s groundbreaking or important?

Opinions on Greta Thunberg and her activism are, in a word, varied. She has supporters worldwide who celebrate her authenticity, innocence, and commitment, which are fair points. She is vegan, she peer pressured her parents into also being vegan, and she refuses to travel via airplane. I respect moral and behavioral consistency.

Her detractors, on the other hand, come in many forms. Some German vehicles have been seen sporting the bumper stickers I had previously mentioned that say “f*ck you Greta.” People are already fed up with her; frankly, I’m surprised it took this long, since she’s affected no change and continues to say the exact same things. Regardless of the validity of a message, prancing around Europe with fingers a’pointing and saying “your fault” isn’t going to win any opponents over. It will only boost the sticker market.

Others have drawn cautious parallels between Thunberg and historical figures such as Joan of Arc:

Her archetype appears to be the medieval child saint: a virgin who chooses death over loss of chastity, or Joan of Arc, an obscure girl struck by visions to command armies.

This RT article is titled “I am terrified of ‘children’s crusader’ Greta Thunberg — and you should be too,” and I find the allusion to the Children’s Crusade apt. RT says,

The journey of Greta Thunberg’s activism reads like a Biblical tale: from sitting alone with a placard on a Stockholm street last August, to leading tens thousands of children across the world to walk out of classes on Fridays to protest climate change.

A brief history* lesson to refresh our memories: In 1212, one or two kids in Europe decided to have their own crusade to the Holy Land in order to reclaim Jerusalem and/or convert its Muslim inhabitants to Catholicism. Thousands of children were persuaded to join them; they all died and/or became slaves. The end.

Now, obviously Greta and co. aren’t marching into the arms of slave traders to be snapped up and sold to naughty Arabs. But there are plenty of people out there more than happy to take advantage of naive and unexperienced children for their own political ends. Already people are being accused of exploiting Thunberg– after no more than a year of fame. The more influential she gets, the more people will seek to take advantage of her.

Maybe I’m being cynical, but I suspect that’s the sole reason she’s received a shred of attention. Greta is the perfect poster child: Young, innocent, impassioned, pure. She’s a perfect modernization of the Medieval child saint archetype. And, lacking any sort of substance to her protests and positions, she’s the perfect pawn.

I will borrow Igor Ogorodnev’s words to close:

And the other thing: children’s idealism has often fallen victim to or been used as a pawn for quite adult agendas. The children’s crusade never did reach Jerusalem, while less apocryphally the Cultural Revolution was also carried out by the hands of bright-eyed youths, convinced they were building a better future. And there are bigger political and commercial forces at work here too, with every green corporation and special interest group keen to make Thunberg their public face.

Now, Thunberg herself hasn’t ransacked any ancient temples to purge them of the Four Olds, or ordered petrol cars to be set on fire, and some might say it is bad form to attack a child. But the teenager has openly used her youth to shame us for supposedly mortgaging her future, and wants us to take decisions with economic implications for billions of adults (almost all of them poorer than Thunberg) so she has made herself fair game.

There is no call here for her to be burnt at the stake in Rouen. Just a word of caution, where none has been heard.

*Unsurprisingly, the Children’s Crusade narrative we are most familiar with is likely a mixture of fact and myth. The parallel still stands.