Greta Thunberg: Prophet or puppet?
Less than a year ago, said David Wallace-Wells in NYMag.com, Greta Thunberg was “an unknown, awkward, nearly friendless 15-year-old” who spent her Fridays alone on the steps of the Swedish parliament, protesting her government’s lack of action on climate change. Today she commands a “global army of teenage activists numbered in the millions,” and with her searing address to the United Nations this week, the attention of the world. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” an irate Thunberg told delegates. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.” Thunberg’s message is hardly a new one, said Barbie Nadeau in TheDailyBeast.com; she’s simply relaying the scientific consensus that only drastic cuts in global carbon emissions can stave off climate disaster. But something about her is resonating: Millions of young people turned out in more than 150 countries for last week’s Thunberg-inspired climate strikes. Whether it’s her youth, her uncompromising rhetoric, or her personal integrity (she sailed to New York in a zero-carbon yacht), Greta Thunberg may be just “the climate heroine we need” to make us finally take action.
Thunberg is just “a pawn,” said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. Yes, she’s passionate—what 16-year-old isn’t?—but “there’s a reason that we don’t look to teenagers” for guidance on public policy. They see everything in black and white, with no feel for the “costs and complexity” of major change. All children know is what adults have fed them—in this case, evidently, a “diet of apocalyptic warnings” about our supposedly doomed planet. Thunberg’s exploitation is particularly “egregious,” said Tiana Lowe in WashingtonExaminer.com. She has suffered from depression and eating disorders, and has formal diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The people who are using a troubled teenager to advance a political agenda are guilty of “child abuse.”
Thunberg’s nobody’s puppet, said Rebecca Onion in Slate.com. She’s a self-radicalized climate activist who devours every word of U.N. climate reports and shamed her own parents into giving up air travel and meat. As for her Asperger’s, she calls it “my superpower,” the source of her incredible focus. Thunberg’s neurology means that she doesn’t have the “soothing periods of denial” most of us retreat into, and she’s responded to her anxiety in a healthy way—with astonishingly focused and effective activism. It’s one thing for an environmentalist to warn about the world we’ve leaving for our children, said Jen Psaki in CNN.com. Thunberg is one of those children, giving “a face and a voice to the generation who will suffer.”
“St. Greta” is “sincere and talented,” said Gerard Baker in The Wall Street Journal. But the fanaticism she and her fans display resembles that found in “extreme religious cults.” Climate change does need to be addressed, but the “Old Testament–style” rhetoric of punishment and repentance will only alienate people and get in the way of practical solutions. But if climate scientists are right, said Franklin Foer in TheAtlantic.com, Thunberg’s moral outrage is entirely appropriate. This may be that rare situation where staying calm and keeping things in perspective—what we usually think of as the “mature response” to crisis—is delusional self-soothing, while Thunberg’s alarmism is what’s needed. Climate change may be that rare emergency where “to protect our children, we need to embrace their despair.” ■