Swedish 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a march for the environment in Brussels. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock
Which brings me to us—editors, journalists, prize juries, teachers, onlookers.
It has been less than a year since Scenes from the Heart was published and, during that time, Greta has become a global celebrity. This week, she was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. She has briefly met the Pope, who encouraged her to “Keep doing what you’re doing.” She has received numerous awards, including, most recently, the German Golden Camera award. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She has been featured and interviewed in most of the world’s leading media. She has appeared on a panel with the UN Secretary General António Guterres, addressed the European Parliament, and lunched with the Financial Times.
“Is Greta the new Che Guevara?” asked the German TV-anchor Maybrit Ilner recently during a TV debate about the striking school children.
In defense of the excellent Ms. Ilner, she probably meant to refer to Che Guevara as a global political symbol. But the question is telling: Greta is turning into a revolutionary icon.
Given what we know about Greta’s problems and challenges, is this an appropriate adult response to Greta’s school strike?
It is easy to exoticize. It is easy to look at pictures of the girl with pigtails and simply see someone out of the ordinary. Someone—or something—foreign. German mediahave dubbed Greta the “Pippi Longstocking of climate change,” with reference to another Swedish girl-rebel with a similar hairdo. They don’t seem to appreciate that the girl with pigtails comes from a country where her peers look more like the stars of the Norwegian television series SKAM than Pippi Longstocking—or that the girl is clearly marked by years of self-starvation. Instead they choose to portray the child as a dated cultural stereotype, based on her looks.
A workplace strike shows company owners and management that workers are able to harm them economically. A school strike, on the other hand, constitutes a form of self-harm, undertaken to attract adult attention. And the global school strike for climate is led by a girl with a long and tragic history of self-harm to her own body.
In Scenes from the Heart, when Greta eventually starts eating again, she only allows herself certain foods. Her mother has to prepare the same food every day for Greta to bring to school and keep in the school refrigerator: pancakes filled with rice. Greta will eat them only if there is no sticker with her name on the container: stickers, paper and newspapers trigger Greta’s OCD against eating.
“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” Greta said when she addressed the world’s leaders in Davos.
Given the child’s history of precisely that—fear and panic—the adult response should perhaps not be “You go, girl” (the words of Madeleine Albright when she was asked what she thinks of Greta’s school strike), but something considerably more cautious.
Greta does not skip classes from just any school, but one for children with special needs. Many other Swedish families fight hard to get their children into such schools, because places are rare. According to the family’s book, however, resources will be ample for such families once we change the system—including, according to Ernman, “patriarchal structures” that she claims favor boys with neuropsychiatric disorders over girls.
I do not wish to suggest that Greta is too young to understand the consequences of her actions, nor that the challenges she faces make her unsuitable to take a stand on political issues, or even to lead a global movement. No one who has heard her address world leaders in impeccable English can doubt that she is very intelligent. Ernman also stresses that her daughter has never felt better than during her campaign for the climate. Greta herself has said that realizing that she could do something about climate change has helped her recover.
I am also not questioning Greta’s role as a public speaker, nor the power of hundreds of thousands of protesting school children, nor that climate change is an existential threat to humankind.
But adults have a moral obligation to remain adults in relation to children and not be carried away by emotions, icons, selfies, images of mass protests, or messianic or revolutionary dreams.
Greta was recently named ”Woman of the Year” by a Swedish newspaper. But she is not a woman, she is a child. It is time we stopped to ask if we are using her, failing her, and even sacrificing her, for what we perceive to be a greater good.
Editor’s note: On April 24, 2019, a substantially edited version of this article was published without the prior approval of the author. Quillette apologises for the mistake.
Paulina Neuding is Quillette’s European editor. Follow her on Twitter @paulinaneuding.
Feature photo by Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.