Greta Thunberg has recently burst onto the world stage as the champion of the climate movement. With some justifiable rage, she seeks to organize the world’s young people, and listening adults, to combat the threat to everyone’s way of life posed by climate change, and the stubborn inaction of entrenched economic, political, and military interests on this most urgent and universal of problems. Before addressing the substance of Thunberg’s activity, it’s important to look at core ways in which she is read or “interpellated” by her worldwide audience.
While celebrity culture is a trap in an of itself, people have become notable and deemed worthy of emulation and interpretation since time immemorial. Cultures are made by visionaries who show what is possible and invite others to join them. Such figures attract much attention, empty flattery as well as misguided hatred. In this, it is Thunberg’s courage as much as anything else which makes her exemplary. In considering dominant narrative frames surrounding her, we can help crystallize focus on her particular impact and resonance as a political and cultural figure.
Pieces have already been written about the complexity of political readings of Thunberg arising from her age. Diana Georgescu explains:
The polarization [Thunberg engenders] is not down so much to political divide. Rather, the split in opinion is due to our deep-seated belief that childhood is an age of innocence and being dependent on adults, a time that aligns with the private, not the public and political sphere. Before the 1800s few adults held this view: it only gained acceptance with the rise of the middle-class in the nineteenth century.
With these words, we see that Thunberg is challenging much more than environmental policy, understood in the narrow sense of meteorological change. Thunberg is challenging norms of how people are supposed to engage in society. Of course, there have been child activists before—Malala comes to mind—but also, notably, child workers, from factory workers to child entertainers like Shirley Temple. Thunberg is different, in rallying for a cause which is truly global in scope, and complex in its appeal. The climate movement is an economic movement, calling attention to the imminent breakdown of our economic system; it is also a moral movement, issuing a challenge to those with influence, big or small, to act in the way that is right and not the way that is easy (for the moment); it is also a spiritual and cultural movement, exploring the ways in which people can interact with the world and other people.
In this, Thunberg has stepped out of the role of children which has increasingly become the role of adults as well: sit down, shut up, and listen to what the teacher tells you. Whether the teacher is at a school, in the courtroom, on TV, or in office, the time has come for all of us to put our childishness aside. The enthocentric view of childhood which has predominated is being destroyed by the obliteration of any protection of the private from the public. Climate change is coming for us personally, and so each person can become attuned to its challenge.
typically have delayed access or no access to this phenomenon of human communication and share a problem that is called mind-blindness. Since interpersonal communication is approximately 65% nonverbal, you can quickly see that not being able to formulate a theory of mind leaves these individuals at a distinct disadvantage in relationship with others because the behavior of other people does not make sense to them.
It may seem counterintuitive that someone who lacks some of the normative foundations of empathy would lead a global movement for environmental justice. Yet the mystery dissolves when we think of how much in our environment is actually not trying to influence us for the better. How many things in life is it better to miss out on? Further, we see in Thunberg a change in the logic of the activist, especially the privileged activist. Instead of being inspired by the pain of others, this new activist starts with the self and its complexity, and moves into the social domain because the social is related to the self. This form of engagement is more authentic, since it leaves aside in its grounding the question of “looking right” to others or letting passion be overcome by politeness. Climate change is a problem because we are all worried about it; Thunberg was so worried she stopped going to school. Everyone should stop doing everything they can until we figure out this problem, not for other generations or the Third World, but because the ecological, metabolic disconnect in our society is tearing each of us apart, this instant. In this way we see that simpleminded critiques of Thunberg for “this focus away from personal responsibility” are misguided; far from blaming only corporations and governments for the problem of climate change, Thunberg is furious with the complacent people of the world who are allowing this to happen and not forcing the issue to solve this pressing economic, ecological, and psychological issue.
- Conspiracy Theories
The most detailed conspiracy of the many surrounding Thunberg is the idea that she is really an actress, Estella Renee. This theory mirrors the idea that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an actress. We see here how political paranoia and art are intermingled, a long-running theme in Western, and indeed world, culture:
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
These lines from Shakespeare iterate the poetic truth that we are all actors, that all of life is a play-act in some sense. This poetic truth resonates in the way that people account for anomalous social events by characterizing them as phony, in the literal sense that witnesses to a mass shooting may be “crisis actors” merely playing the role of traumatized bystander. In a way, all this is logical. Governments regularly intervene by staging “set-pieces” to corral public attention and opinion; Donald Trump would then be the greatest crisis actor of all time, as he has raised the aesthetization of politics to the highest level yet seen.
Back to Thunberg. Her movement for the climate fits neatly into paranoia surrounding Agenda 21. Proponents of such thinking may hold “that Agenda 21, a 23-year-old non-binding UN resolution that suggests ways for governments and NGOs to promote sustainable development, is the linchpin in a plot to subjugate humanity under an eco-totalitarian regime,” or other symbolically equivalent theories. From this perspective, ecological activism is “concern trolling” initiated by shadowy government operatives and fallen for by simpleminded liberal virtue signalers. Fundamentally, it matters not from this perspective whether Thunberg is herself “in on the game,” or one of those duped. Either way, he activity is accounted for within the logic of “traditional society vs. communist, collectivist innovators” which has become the dominant narrative in world discourse.
Underneath it All
All this to say that Greta Thunberg clearly represents the forefront of social entrepreneurship at this time, and that her meteoric rise and dynamic sustained presence on the world stage represents an invitation to all of us to follow in her footsteps. Not only in the service of her project, but our own. We must take heed of Thunberg’s youth, and see that advanced societies have domesticated their populations so as to make them infantile. Now, even children are called to action by a world situation that requires the attention of each one of us. We should see in Thunberg’s challenge to childhood the invitation to challenge our own childishness. In Thunberg’s condition, Asperger’s, we should see one aspect of what is important now: truly valuing our selves and being able to “shut the world out.” Only in this way can we meet our own challenge in the world, and find the intrinsic motivation to change our way of life. Finally, in the conspiracy theories surrounding Thunberg, we should see how we are all susceptible to reading situations in a way which confirms our own pet theories, and how this tendency tends to dismiss or defame anyone who rises above to live according to a higher challenge, and disseminate that sense of personal overcoming to the whole world.
Thunberg is the Joan of Arc of the 21st century. Already, in the past two years she has dramatically impact global culture by helping to normalize a new role for children, and indeed for all people. In a word, Thunberg possesses assertiveness, a boldness she has honed and is in complete communion with. I mean not to reduce Thunberg to her age or cognitive mode, but rather to show that aspects of her experience likely helped her to find her passion and articulate it. Hence, we should feel no guilt about “tuning out” the world for a time, surrounding ourselves with our passions and comforts. Only in this way will we find the personal resonance, leading to dramatic social intervention, this historical moment requires of us.