Editor’s Note: Since the time this article was published, Greta Thunberg has begun to shift her message to make it more inclusive of the power of everyday people to help shift not just the conversation but also the realities of climate breakdown. Read more of her shifted message at The Guardian.
“There are so many things wrong with that sentence.”
A friend of mine made me laugh, when gently suggesting I’d gone conversationally wrong. I was trying to make my way on something and, as soon as I said what I said, I realized that, well, I could have said it better. My friend was right. There were so many things wrong with that sentence.
When I discovered Greta Thunberg, I was taken. I liked her so much. Girl from Sweden, with the braids. Straightforward eyes, guileless gestures and expressions. Sitting outside in sun and rain in front of her country’s Parliament building to strike for climate. And, before this, convincing her parents to stop flying (if we want to curb climate breakdown, it’s one way to go about solution 43), convincing them to alter their food lifestyle (it’s solution number 4), and convincing them that it was okay if she skipped school to strike for what she notes is literally her life and the life of her generation.
Greta’s absolute steadfastness to take climate seriously and to strike as both a symbol of that and as a bid for the power system to take her concerns seriously remind me of my own daughter. At age 5 months, she went on a hunger strike. I’d returned to work and, despite that she was being cared for by her loving grandmother, nothing could console her regarding my absence. Two weeks of infant communication via a hunger strike, with my child losing weight and still refusing to eat when I wasn’t present, and I took a turn that changed the trajectory of my life. It wasn’t something I could reason with her about. Without words, an infant spoke something serious to me about her particular needs. I quit my job to raise her.
While Greta is a young woman, and she does have words, the parallel struck me. Unable to vote in elections (the way my daughter was unable to “vote” about my return to work) and convinced that the best way to curb climate breakdown is to communicate her needs (and the needs of her generation) to the powers-that-be, she strikes from school and wields words that, ultimately, are a plea: save us, your children.
When I first listened to Greta (I found every video available and watched; I found every article and read; I found stunning pictures), she made me cry, even as she spoke a few sentences about climate breakdown that feel uncomfortable to hear.
These sentences might even be “wrong,” if you stack them up against convention (children, and she is still on the edge of childhood at 16, even though in some countries she’d be fully understood as an adult… children shouldn’t talk that way to their elders). The same sentences might be “wrong” if spoken by one adult to another. After all, behavioral science and leading climate psychology thinkers now understand that climate messaging has largely failed because it is too negative, too accusational, too shaming, too depressing, and too scarcity-based. In certain respects, we’ve gone backwards, not forwards, and it hasn’t all been because somebody paid a lot of money to sow doubt about what we know in our deepest minds to be true: earth is different, at a time when it should not be different in these particular ways.
Yet for everything that’s “wrong” about Greta’s ways, there is something compelling about the girl. Maybe it’s her fearlessness. Maybe it’s her childlike heart that actually does have hope, even though she suggests that grown-ups should keep their hope to themselves and offer solutions instead. Maybe it’s because she’s actually trying to do something about what many of us secretly care about (but aren’t sure how to make strides on).
Summer is coming, and soon Greta and many of her millions of followers will have nothing to strike from—that is, if they don’t have school in the summer months. I wonder what she will do. Part of me hopes she’ll read a book like Drawdown and refocus her efforts on helping citizens and communities understand that it is not only corporations and governments that have the power to change things, but that there are countless ways we-the-people, right where we are, have the power. It is we, after all, who the corporations and governments sell to or serve. It is we who turn on the lights, or turn them off. It is we who can use muscle power, insulate our homes, or drive a cooler (pun intended) car.
My own approach to curbing climate breakdown is so very different from Greta’s.
While she (albeit, quietly) argues, I want to awe.
While she (albeit without malice) accuses, I want to spur pride.
These differences? I’m not really sure they make her wrong. And societal change often needs to work in two directions—from the bottom up and the top down. What seems actually wrong, to me, is forgetting that different people in different circumstances have different roles to play—and playing these varying roles is okay. And, when one of us gets our sentences truly wrong, we have the choice to gently—even humorously—engage each other. Indeed, we can even like each other, as we differently make our mutual way.