My Brief Thoughts on “I Am Greta”
In my last post I talked about what it looks like when someone doesn’t give in to Climate Cope using Greta Thunberg as an example. I recently watched the “I Am Greta” documentary on Hulu and had a lot to say about it which I’ll try to summarize here.
It sounds strange, but this movie isn’t really about climate change. It is really about Greta Thunberg as a person, and her political movement. I don’t mind at all, because climate change information isn’t particularly hard to come by. Greta herself is more of a mystery.
Criticism of Greta and her movement ranges from tough but fair, to incoherent/insane. Some of it is true in a cosmic sense, but not in any meaningful way.
So I’m going to address three bad criticisms and three better ones. I will also be referencing her own words as much as possible as her detractors so rarely do.
She’s Too Young.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.”
My politics weren’t particularly coherent as a teenager, so I get why people are hesitant to support the concept of politically active youth, but I think it’s overall a good thing, especially with regard to climate change.
Early in the film a woman approaches Greta saying she should be in school. Greta says “Why would I need an education if there is no future.” This is what I mean when a criticism is right in the cosmic sense but wrong in reality. Of course she should be in school. In a better world she would be in school, but not in this world.
“78% of Gen Zers aren’t planning — or didn’t want — to have children of their own as a result of climate change… Seven in 10 millennials felt the same… And 73% of millennials say climate change affected where they planned to live… climate change has negatively affected 59% of respondents’ mental health (71% for millennials and 67% for Gen Z).”
Younger generations are acutely aware of how much climate change will affect their life. Do we expect them to just patiently watch as the last of their carbon budget is spent on planes that don’t work and ships that keep crashing into each other?
Climate change could have been addressed before kids like Greta were born, but it wasn’t. In 2019, when a group of children asked Diane Feinstein to support the Green New Deal she rebuked them saying “I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I know what I’m doing.” This is extremely damning testimony.
She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
“To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise — the best odds given by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] — the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.”
I think the worst criticism is that she hasn’t done her research. I’m not sure I could name a public figure who is more substantive when it comes to discussing climate change than Greta Thunberg. In fact most of her message is just reciting statistics, and stating that the current international government response is inadequate.
When Greta does use emotional appeals “you have stolen my dreams.” they are frequently dismissed as the whining of a petulant child who herself is insulated from the harshest consequences of climate change. This criticism persists despite her immediate acknowledgement that she is “one of the lucky ones”
“Thunberg has tried to share the spotlight. This week, she visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to show solidarity with Indigenous activists, and routinely mentions in speeches that those on the front lines of climate change are feeling its effects more acutely than her… ‘It is something that comes up a lot, the fact that Greta is a white, [privileged] girl,’ Bastida said. ‘But we are not resentful at all. We just are thankful that the movement has gotten to where it has needed to be for a long time.’”
I think it would be a fallacious to say she’s hogging media attention from more radical/diverse activists as there’s no indication that mainstream media would pay any attention to them anyway. Mainstream media does a notoriously poor job covering climate change. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes once called it a “ratings killer”.
She just wants attention.
“‘When I am around too many people, I just shut off my brain, in a way to not get too tired, because I cannot take everything in,’ she told me. ‘It’s hard to be the center of attention; I don’t like that. I have to tell myself it’s for a good cause.’”
Accusing a kid with Asperger’s of either not doing their research, or wanting to be the center of attention is a tough sell for me.
This usually coincides with the assertion that she’s being manipulated by her parents, so they can reap all the benefits of involuntarily going vegan, and no longer being allowed to board planes. This argument is particularly problematic, because in this scenario she has been manipulated to believe things which are true.
I’ve also heard that she is being coached by her parents. In the documentary I saw her dad was trying to help her write a speech so this accusation is undeniably true, as well as completely meaningless.
(Moving on to better criticisms.)
She doesn’t know how the world works.
I think it’s fair to say she doesn’t have a holistic, compelling, and coherent social change theory, possibly because she is a teenager. I think I was reading Glenn Beck at her age, so it would be pretty rich for me to accuse her of not reading enough Wallerstein or something.
She hasn’t done anything.
The main achievement of her movement is that it exists, and that it exists on a pretty large scale. Outside of that, not much has been materially accomplished.
Ideologically her main accomplishment is the spread of a few basic premises which are necessary for any meaningful climate action:
- Climate change is real, and very serious.
- The people in power have done nothing, and will continue to do nothing. You should not be patient.
- You do not need anyone’s permission to be an activist, particularly as a young person.
One of the interviews in the film showed young people explaining how Greta’s protest made them realize that their age did not contradict their ability to become politically active.
As far as how that activism actually takes place is up in the air. I personally think it would be a natural step for the Friday Climate Strike to become a fight for a 4 day workweek which would mean a significant reduction in emissions.
Regardless of where the movement goes all successive climate movements of the coming decades will likely have been influenced if not openly inspired by Greta’s “Skolstrejk för klimatet.”
She is being used.
“I honestly don’t understand why I even get invited. It feels like all they want is to be spotlighted to make it look like they care, as if they were doing something. They know what to say, they know what sells. But in fact, they’re doing basically nothing.”
Anyone who is invited to Davos, the UN, and the US Congress probably doesn’t have the most subversive message. She also met with & fist bumped this guy. Seeking allies is a complicated endeavor in this fight. If you’re too diplomatic, you won’t affect change. If you’re too subversive, you’ll be ignored.
I learned more about autism in this film than I did about climate. The film makes it clear very early on that her climate activism is both because of, and in spite of her Asperger’s.
“Sometimes it feels like we who have Asperger’s or autism are the only ones who see through the noise.”
While most of us can rationalize away climate change, Greta has to confront the issue head on. The same condition that provides clarity on climate, makes activism uniquely exhausting.
“what happened to Greta in particular can’t be explained simply by a psychiatric label. In the end, she simply couldn’t reconcile the contradictions of modern life. Things simply didn’t add up. We, who live in an age of historic abundance, who have access to huge shared resources, can’t afford to help vulnerable people in flight from war and terror — people like you and me, but who have lost everything.
In school one day, Greta’s class watches a film about how much rubbish there is in the oceans. An island of plastic, larger than Mexico, is floating around in the South Pacific. Greta cries throughout the film. Her classmates are also clearly moved. Before the lesson is over the teacher announces that on Monday there will be a substitute teaching the class, because she’s going to a wedding over the weekend, in Connecticut, right outside of New York. “Wow, lucky you,” the pupils say. Out in the corridor the trash island off the coast of Chile is already forgotten. New iPhones are taken out of fur-trimmed down jackets, and everyone who has been to New York talks about how great it is, with all those shops, and Barcelona has amazing shopping too, and in Thailand everything is so cheap, and someone is going with her mother to Vietnam over the Easter break, and Greta can’t reconcile any of this with any of what she has just seen” -The Guardian
Climate activism provides a purpose and a direction, but not an easy one. The amount of unfamiliar situations and socializing required is very demanding, especially for someone on the spectrum. This contradiction is what makes her story particularly compelling to me.
“Greta stands by the wall and there are a dozen people around her. She looks stressed. The journalist from [newspaper] Dagens Nyheter asks whether it’s OK if they film an interview, and Svante sees out of the corner of his eye that something is wrong. “Wait, let me check,” he says, and takes Greta behind a pillar under the arch. Her whole body is tense. She is breathing heavily, and Svante says that there’s nothing to worry about. “Let’s go home now,” he says. “OK?” Greta shakes her head. She’s crying.
“You don’t need to do any of this. Let’s forget about this and get out of here.” But Greta doesn’t want to go home. She stands perfectly still for a few seconds. Breathes. Then she walks around in a little circle and somehow pushes away all that panic and fear that she has been carrying inside her for as long as she can remember. After that she stops, and stares straight ahead. Her breathing is still agitated and tears are running down her cheeks. “No,” she says. “I’m doing this.” -The Guardian
It wouldn’t surprise me if Greta elected to take more of a backseat role in the years to come. Anecdotally it feels like the international media is growing bored with her as time passes. Still the premises she established should pay dividends with or without her personal activism as political climate movements comprised largely of young people gain influence worldwide.