Much ado about Greta

Why does one Swedish teenager manage to drive so many pundits off the deep end?

Much ado about Greta

Why does one Swedish teenager manage to drive so many pundits off the deep end?

“I don't want your hope,” the increasingly prominent teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg told an audience at the World Economic Forum — the super-rich meet-and-greet held annually at Davos, Switzerland — in January. Even with the “climate tipping-point” less than 12 years away, “Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But,” Thunberg went on, “I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

This time last year, Thunberg was an almost total unknown: a 15-year-old from Stockholm on the autism spectrum with a history of depression and selective mutism, who — having tried and failed to get her classmates involved — was staging a one-pupil “school strike” outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. In hindsight, of course, it seems odd to think that Thunberg’s school friends weren't interested in skipping school once a week, but perhaps they just needed to know that the impact on their grades would be compensated by their action forming part of some media spectacle.

Thunberg’s protest was picked up on by Ingmar Rentzhog, the founder of a climate-focused social media company called We Don't Have Time, who helped turn it into a viral news story; in just a few short months, Thunberg inspired a whole youth climate strike movement, which has gone onto stage protests involving an estimated 1.4 million pupils worldwide.

The teen activist’s speech at Davos was followed by talks to top EU institutions; in Berlin outside the Brandenburg Gate; before the French and British parliaments. A book of her collected speeches, No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference, was rushed out by Penguin in May. In Britain, campaigners have raised more than £10,000 to purchase copies of it for schools. Currently, Thunberg — who, for obvious reasons, refuses to travel by plane — is crossing the Atlantic on a zero-carbon yacht, and once in the Americas, she will attend the Climate Action Summit in New York and then the UN climate conference in Santiago, Chile. The other week, she appeared on the front cover of British GQ as their “Game Changer of the Year”. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thunberg’s rise would be remarkable on its own, but she is notable for another reason: no one seems to be able to boil the piss of right-wingers quite like Thunberg can. If they did a big global ranking of “boiling right-wingers’ piss,” Thunberg would have just pipped Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and the concept of “antifa” to first place. The British businessman Arron Banks, a major financial backer of the Brexit movement, made a “joke” about Thunberg’s Atlantic voyage which made it sound a bit like he was threatening to sink her yacht and make it look like an accident. Andrew Bolt, a notorious right-wing shithead in a notoriously right-wing and shitheaded Australian media environment, used his column in the Murdoch-owned Herald Sun to question the validity of ThunbergÆs activism on the basis of her autism. “I have never,” Bolt wrote, “seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru... Her intense fear of the climate is not surprising from someone with disorders which intensify fears.” Meanwhile, Brendan O’Neill, the editor of the Koch-backed internet magazineSpiked,described Thunberg as a “millenarian weirdo” whose “cultish” movement is fundamentally “against people” (ordinary people, after all, want little more from life than to eat meat, drive cars, boil alive in their skins... and I guess maybe fit in a little boot-licking from time to time as well).

What is it about Thunberg that bugs these people so much? On the one hand, a big factor here is clearly that these people are for the most part nakedly nasty bullies, who hate her for no deeper reason than the fact that she looks and acts like the sort person they believe is not supposed to speak — and who certainly isn't supposed to be in the business of telling them to do things they don't want to. For the right, children are supposed to function largely as symbols of a protected innocence who can be passively invoked to justify whatever evil they choose, or else as convenient fronts for op-eds whining about how anti-gun and anti-freedom of speech everyone else their age is, not as harbingers of a better world.

For this reason, another recent column by Weekly Standard editor Christopher Caldwell in the New York Times strikes me as much more interesting than the right’s rote bullying. For Caldwell, the problem with Thunberg is not the way she looks and/or acts (although he does claim that “normally” she would be “unqualified to debate in a democratic forum” on account of her age and — implicitly — her autism). It’s that her politics are fundamentally anti-democratic.

Thunberg is a “symbol” of a change of emphasis on behalf of climate activists in general, Caldwell writes. In Europe, as he points out, there is a growing consensus that “extreme weather alone will never spur” people to give up burning fossil fuels. “Nor will talking about it. Provocations and disruption are needed.”

“No more eliciting pieties by explaining what happens when carbon dioxide rises past 400 parts per million. Better to use the specter of imminent self-extinction to rally the public behind actions like banning cars from city centers and halting new oil exploration.”

In this context, Thunberg is effective — because when she expresses herself, she is so urgently, hauntingly certain. “Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification... Second is sowing panic.” Caldwell is at pains to emphasize that things might not be so clear-cut. Thunberg’s insistence that climate change be understood as an “emergency” is “a political, not a meteorological, goal” (heaven forfend, really?! Jesus, I knew the planet was supposed to be dying — but is there any need to get political about it?). Meanwhile, despite Thunberg's calls for action, “it is hard to say what a real, low-carbon politics would look like.” “Contrary to the assumptions of many of Ms. Thunberg's admirers,” Caldwell claims, it could well involve economic protectionism and restrictions on immigration (why exactly Caldwell wants to insist that the only plausible alternative to unrestricted capitalist accumulation is some sort of eco-fascism... I couldn’t possibly say).

“Democracy often calls for waiting and seeing,” Caldwell concludes, in a paragraph which may very well come to be remembered as one of the eternally great masterpieces of absurdly pig-headed smugness. “Patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue. Climate change is a serious issue. But to say, ‘We can’t wait,’ is to invite a problem just as grave.”

In her unadulterated certainty about the nature of the crisis we are facing, Thunberg has come to stand for a Truth that people like Caldwell love feeling like they could go on ignoring. It is a certainty that threatens their very reality, just as surely as climate disaster threatens the existence of society in general. Recently, there has been some triangulation (not just from the right) on the idea that we should attempt to switch over to renewables by 2050: which seems an intriguing compromise, on behalf of people who are currently middle-aged, between the knowledge that some time after you die, the world will end, and the likelihood that you might yourself have to live through the (to some extent) painful changes needed to prevent this.

If right-wingers really do want Thunberg to shut up and go away — then they should be careful what they wish for.

I certainly don't think right-wing objections to Thunberg can possibly have anything to do with any alleged hostility to “democracy.” Conservative political commentators, after all, are people who typically lend their wholehearted support to the same disgraceful system that is run on tax breaks for venture capitalists and the power of rich white men failing upwards and is currently hard at work disenfranchising as many minority voters as possible. A recent attempt by the increasingly hard-right London Times at a take-down of Thunberg highlighted various of her supporters’ links with lobbyists ostensibly preparing for “the biggest bonanza of government contracts in history: the greening of the Western economies.” This may well be true — it certainly seems difficult to envision how, given the way things presently are, a Green New Deal could be enacted without at least some shadowy figure standing to benefit financially. But then how on earth is this supposed to be any worse than business as usual? At least this way we’d have a corrupt crony capitalism that isn't killing quite as many people in the long term.

If right-wingers really do want Thunberg to shut up and go away — then they should be careful what they wish for. Like it or not, the science Thunberg invokes is real, and so too are the political forces she appeals to. Thunberg threatens to break the established order of things apart, so surely conservatives must take some succour from the fact that, for the most part, she really does appear to be fighting to keep the world as it is.

For the most part, Thunberg’s activism hasher speaking before assembled panels of various elites, begging them to govern everyone more responsibly, including herself. Thunberg talks, yes, of transforming the way we organize our society — but not so much about changing who is in charge. In this, she largely fails to break out from the logic of “raising awareness” which is otherwise fueling the crisis of political agency we are experiencing today. “We children are doing this to wake the adults up,” she told the British parliament in April. “We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis.” But why shouldn't the demand be for children to take things over for themselves?

Perhaps I'm being too harsh on Thunberg — I don't want to repeat the mistakes of all those bloviating Tory pundits. Her remarks about hope at Davos, for instance, can be read in more than one way. On the surface, they might appear simply to be an imperative that people in general wake up, that we as a species get wise to the problems that climate change is presenting us with: stop “hoping” things will get better and take the action (whatever it is) that we need to — swapping our complacent optimism for “panic.”

But when Thunberg tells her audience: “I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic” — I wonder what the force of that “you” is. When one bears in mind that she was talking to an assembly of the super-rich, it might plausibly be argued that she is in fact sketching a picture of the real, antagonistic interests which divide our world that make it impossible to find a solution to the climate crisis that would preserve our present institutions intact. “I don’t want you to hope,” she is telling her audience at Davos — because the hope of the sort of person who attends Davos is toxic to the hope of almost everyone else now living.

But a more radical Thunberg would need a real movement behind her. What youth climate strike events have been staged so far are encouraging, but their promise remains far too invested in a single figurehead. Initially, let’s remember, Thunberg’s plan was to go on strike from school every Friday. Imagine if every single school pupil in the carbon-emitting world committed to going on strike from school every Friday n. When pupils did it for just one day this March in Britain, the whole right-wing commentariat had a collective meltdown. Imagine if Gen Z really did choose to stand up en masse and say, not just for one day but for all days: we refuse to be disciplined into conforming to the whims of the people responsible for destroying the planet.

In many ways, Thunberg is still waiting to be joined by her classmates. If she ever is, well, then right-wingers really would have something to fear.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.