Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden, who just happens to also have Asperger’s Syndrome, was recently named by TIME magazine as their “Person of the Year”. While I myself am not an activist for anything in particular, I do heavily admire her efforts. It is quite a milestone that the person who is finally getting the world to focus on climate change is a teenage girl. Let’s take a look at the journey she took and how she has captivated the world with her intimidating speeches, how she responds to people who mock her, and the bigger movement she started.
When Greta was 11, her primary-school teacher showed her class a video of the effects of climate change and explained all that was happening because of it. While the other kids felt glum about it, but otherwise moved on, Greta didn’t. She started feeling incredibly alone and fell into a depression. She stopped speaking for months and so little that she almost had to go to the hospital for malnutrition, which ended up only stunting her growth. She recalled feeling confused during that time, saying she couldn’t understand how it could exist and not be prioritized and was in a bit of denial about it.
At first, her father Svante reassured her that everything would be okay, but as he read more about the crisis, he realized he had been wrong “his entire life”. The whole family soon started changing their habits to reduce their emissions: mostly stopping eating meat, installing solar panels, growing their own vegetables, and giving up flying by plane. They didn’t really do it to save the climate, her parents say, but mostly because they wanted to make her happy and to get her back to life after that period of depression. Slowly, Greta began eating and talking again.
Her diagnosis with Asperger’s helped explain her powerful reaction to learning about the climate crisis. Because she doesn’t process information in a typical way, she couldn’t sort out the fact that Earth was in danger. She says she’s grateful for that in some ways, explaining if her brain worked differently, she wouldn’t be able to sit for hours and read things she was interested in. In May 2018, when she wrote an essay about climate change published in a Swedish newspaper, she was contacted by a handful of Scandinavian climate activists and she suggested they model their campaign after the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School protesting gun violence. They decided against it, but it stuck in Greta’s head. She told her parents she was going to go on strike to pressure the Swedish government to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, lasting until the elections in September.
People tried convincing her to try a different way, but there was no moving her. She put together flyers with facts on extinction rates and carbon budgets and a cheeky sense of humor. On August 20, she arrived in front of Parliament alone with just her homemade school-strike sign. She said learning about climate change triggered her depression and got her out of it, because she could improve it too. Her father said striking made her “come back to life”. On the second day, a stranger joined her. A few days later, more came. By early September, enough people had joined that she announced she would continue every Friday until Sweden aligned with the Paris Agreement, starting the Fridays for Future movement. By the end of 2018, tens of thousands of students throughout Europe started skipping school on Fridays to protest the inaction of the leaders in their own home countries. In January 2019, 35,000 students in Belgium protested following her example, striking a chord. When an environmental minister insulted them, a public outcry forced her to resign from office. Talk about the old Bible quote, “And a child shall lead them”.
In September, the strikes spread beyond northern Europe. In New York City, a quarter of a million people reportedly marched in Battery Park and outside City Hall; in London, 100,000 people swarmed the streets near Westminster Abbey; 1.4 million people took to the streets in Germany alone. About 4 million people worldwide were protesting, each having a sign telling a different story. Make the World Greta Again became a rallying cry. Thunberg’s moral clarity inspired other young people around the world too. 16-year-old Rita Amorim from Lisbon says she wants to be like her, and others worldwide have started their own climate protests. Thunberg has become the voice of millions, a symbol of a rising global rebellion. Way to go, Greta.
Thunberg’s speeches often go straight for the gut. In her first big address at the United Nations, she said, “you say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes”. This went viral almost immediately. Over the last year, she’s given dozens of similar admonitions, talking to chief executives, heads of state, thought leaders and even movie stars, speaking quietly but forcefully every time, articulating the sense of injustice often obvious to the very young, saying adults, by not acting in the face of extraordinary crisis are being foolish at best and corrupt at worst. Her blunt honesty is cathartic to those who share her fear and threatening to those who don’t. Her sharpest weapon is shame. Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson describes Thunberg’s approach as more effective than her own.
Greta is no stranger to being mocked as a result of this. Online trolls mock her appearance and speech patterns; a Roman hung her in effigy off a bridge; she was shouted that she was in oil country in Alberta, Canada; Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada tweeted that she was “clearly mentally unstable”; and Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, called her a “little brat” after she tweeted about the killings of indigenous people in the country. She co-opted both his and President Trump’s frequent ridicule on her Twitter bio. It’s hit the point that she often now has to be protected by police whenever she travels. For the most part, she sees this as evidence that the climate strikers have hit a nerve. “It’s a good sign because that shows we are making a difference and they see us as a threat”.
With all of this to consider, it’s only a matter of time before her wishes for the world that can be granted and world leaders all over will listen to this movement she unintentionally started. We’re told that anyone has the power to make a difference, we just need to wonder how far we’re willing to go. Greta, I can tell you intend to go far. You go girl.