There’s much to admire about Greta Thunberg. It’s impossible to view the side-by-side images of the Swedish 16-year-old, sitting alone on an otherwise ordinary Friday little more than a year ago, and compare with the massive crowds in Montreal or Munich or Manila without considering her impact. For many, she is the right messenger at the right moment.
There’s also cause for short-term hope in Thunberg’s success. Some estimates from Friday’s global climate strike hover around seven million participants, and there’s no question that there’s animating power in nonviolent protest – the kind of pressure that forces world leaders and companies to act.
Yet there is a place for well-considered critique, despite the fact it’s unwelcome. Perhaps the first concern with any criticism of Thunberg and her tactics is that it’s commonly framed – in news accounts, on social media – as arising exclusively from climate-denial corners. The only people who have a problem with Greta, according to this thinking, are those who mock climate scientists and their evidence-based appeals for action. Many high-profile climate scientists and policymakers publicly support her and are quick to defend her, rightly noting that Thunberg understands and correctly conveys the science.
Others argue the success of nonviolent movements in effecting change overall, with some observers who are leading or watching those massive Friday for the Future rallies pointing to the “3.5 percent rule.” The term was coined by Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University, whose research on nonviolent protest – alongside Maria Stephen – suggests there’s evidence, drawn from a review of 323 global actions spanning more than a century, that such protests are twice as likely to be successful than violent action, and there is a “tipping point” within a society when the threshold is reached. Thunberg and the global climate marches are not among those studied, although some activists note the principle at work.
The complexity and consequences of climate change, though, make it unlike the anti-apartheid fight in South Africa or other scenarios where the scope of the challenge is, or was, more limited. While it’s thrilling to see millions of people in the street – or annoying, depending on one’s perspective – the cold reality is that it’s not necessarily mixing down to the mainstream. That’s especially true when Thunberg herself becomes something of a lightning rod because she’s so divisive and alienating in her message.
Which she is, and that’s a liability. In fact, Thunberg’s “teen celebrity” role is a distraction we can ill afford, while the underlying framework of her argument masks the gravity of the global situation. It assumes the planet still has time for the “blame and shame” that is the thrust of her every message.
It’s rooted in a near-anointed yet misplaced anger at “grownups” who don’t listen, as if there weren’t at least a half-century’s worth of adults, some already dead, who fought before her and tirelessly do so now. Thunberg’s dramatic yet overwrought charge that her elders have “stolen my dreams and my childhood” isn’t really factual.
It’s rhetorical. And it’s less a prophetic indictment from the new Joan of Arc, than it is an inflammatory and unhelpful incitement from someone who, presumably, must believe she was entitled to them simply by virtue of generational position, as if an entire chain of humanity, fraught with suffering while navigating the variables on this fragile blue ball, owed them to her.
When one locates the climate crisis on the sweeping arc of that history, and then hears Thunberg’s finger-pointing rage over “my generation” forced to clean up “your carbon dioxide,” what’s clear is that she’s advancing a false construct that assumes climate costs will be inherited tomorrow rather than shared today.
What’s tragic is that she’s doing so on a timeline of climate consequences that can’t and won’t accommodate her, no matter how righteous the anger or grievous the lament over being alive in this era. What’s even more tragic is a world uncritically celebrating this error as if it were unequivocal moral authority and swooning over this “leadership.” It is neither.
While she has raised awareness and energized communities, it’s a mistake to place Thunberg above criticism or assume her detractors are all die-hard climate deniers or fragile misogynists upset by a “little girl.” Rather, Thunberg is a liability because her worldview makes clear that she’s not taking climate change seriously enough, and neither are we if fail to grasp that.
She’s right. This is all wrong, and she shouldn’t be up there.