Greta T. is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden. At fifteen she decided to stop going to school on fridays and instead started portesting in front of the parliament in Stockholm, because politicians would not implemented any serious measures against climate change. This worked.
In May 2018 Greta T. won a writing competition of a renowned Swedish newspaper with a piece about environmental policy. On the 20th of August 2018 she protested in front of the Parliamnet House in Stockholm for the first time. „Skolstrejk für Klimatet“ was written on her sign. Afterwards things really got going. Her speech at the climate conference in Poland, going to Davos by train, her speech in front of the EU parliament and much more – and since last year thousands of school kids all over the globe started taking to the streets on fridays to protest for better climate policy.
After initial condescending recjection (just think about German politician Christian „climate expert“ Lindner from the FDP) Germany has started to take both the girl and the Fridays for Future movement she motivated, serisouly. On the 14th of August she embarked to the USA on a sailing boat to, among other things, take part in the UN climate summit and later the World Climate Conference.
This journey has garnered some special criticism:
- The sailing boat wasn’t CO2 neutral
- The journey wasn’t CO2 neutral, because a crew has to fly to the USA to return the boat
- This whole thing is just a PR stunt (often times this is coupled with a reference to swedish PR entrepreneur Ingmar Renthzog)
Should Gretas Popularity remain at this level further „critical“ reporting can be expected. Get ready for headlines like:
- Greta wears T-Shirt made in Bangladesh (alternatively: toothbrush made from whale bones, egg cup made from ivory)
- Shocking photos: did Greta register for a driver’s license?
- Greta’s mother at the check-in desk: secret flight to the carribean?
A girl sparks a global student movement that is even moderatly successful and is then subjugated to a standard no self-proclaimed accuser would apply to themselves? What’s going on there?
The typcial process of a paradigm shift
It’s common knowledge that political, scientific and societal changes of recognized base assumptions (the so called paradigm shift) happen in a pattern:
Step 1 Denial: Evolution, cosmogony etc. do not exist. They contradict the previous assumption (also: the Bible). Dissenting science is wrong/a minority opinon/PR.
Step 2 Relativisation: Yeah sure, it’s possible that evolution/cosmogony/climate change exists, but the act of creation predates the big bang/humans don’t contribute.
Step 3 Trivialisation: Yeah sure, but we have always been aware of that.
The discussion Greta T. got rolling is now somewhere between step 2 and 3. A year ago the EU banned plastic straws, which was accompanied by some snide comments. Today, this is seen as completely self-evident. Or think about bottle deposits (there was a German „apocalypse minister“ called Jürgen Tritin). The societal discourse around topics like flying, home insulation and secondary packaging seems to be going similarily. I am not concerned that European society won’t recognize the urgency of climate change. However, other parts of the world aren’t at the same level.
Instead, opponents of resolute climate policy fire another potentially dangerous shot at the sixteen-year-old girl:
This mechanism is as effective as it is insidious and works something like this: If someone acts prudent and becomes a role model, more and more impossible standards are applied to them until they have to fail. The aim of this method is to keep the own self-image (which failed to meet the standards set by the role model) stable. Therefore, the problem lies with the sender, not the recipient.
This leads to gloomy expectations for Greta. The closer society gets to step 3, the higher the standards will be set. You will see.
But even if step 2 can be overcome without much hassle, the battle is far from won. Then comes the final step, societal trivialization.
This is the biggest, damn problem. At some point Greta will be offered a seat in this advisory council or that experts panel, which will dilute her message. She has already made some concerning experience in the advisory council of Ingmar Rentzhog. Hopefully she can resist further appropriation.
How will the story end?
In my mind this depends not on her, but on us – if and when we comprehend Greta T for what she is. As she said herself: „I’m not saying anything new, I just want us to act on the knowledge we have.“ There is nothing to add. If we want Greta to lead us to salvation, we and her have already lost. She can’t do that and she will fail if she tries. However, if we understand her as a fascinating girl, a role model for consistency for many of her generation, then she has won. The EU becoming the trailblazer for climate policy, because Greta T. put the discontent and wishes of a new generation into words, would be the ultimate achievment. And I would be happy for her. Courage deserves a reward.
Let’s leave her alone, for as long as reality holds no power over her.
The following, related articles were published the day after this was originally posted.
- Article in the Guardian: Greta Thunberg’s attackers are morally bankrupt, but her deification isn’t helpful
- Article in the SPIEGEL: Vergesst Greta Thunber