Written by Allan Zhang (SAS ’24)
In 2019, a female adolescent was on the cover of the Times Magazine. She is standing on a rocky shoreline, staring at the heavens (Boucher). Relatively tiny comparing to the surrounding nature, her eyes, however, reflected both hope and desperation. Initially surprised at her age, I learned that this youth environmental activist was Greta Thunberg, popular due to her address of climate change and emphasis on reconstructing a promising future for the world since 2018 (Walsh).
Whenever there is an issue, there is activism. In the recent years, it has became self-evident to human kind that climate change is our greatest challenge. Thus, many expect someone to be the savior. In just 14 months, Greta Thunberg has gone from a lone schoolgirl striking outside the Swedish Parliament to an international celebrity (Acker et al). She initiated School Strikes, screamed “how dare you” to world leaders and communicated anti-carbon statements on UN assemblies (BBC). Popularizing the ideas of climate strikes, almost the icon for environmental awareness, Greta cannot take the idea for herself (Eschner). Over the recent years, she has been depicted as a prophet, or a “climate messiah”, however , it leads to questioning of whether this phenomenon is necessary (Boucher). We as global citizens, should remain skeptical to idolizing any individual activist to savior status, as it demands productivity and an ideological purity that exceeds the capacity of any single human.
Can we trace a change as large as improved climatic education and action to Greta Thunberg particularly? Over the recent years, Greta has gained more than four hundred million followers on twitter and eleven million followers on Instagram. However, we should not conflate online interactions with effective social change without question. In fact, Greta did not smoothly make to convince various political leaders of her appeals in international summits. Positioning someone on the savior status, we expect her work to be almost absolutely effective. In such, pressuring legislations to change regulations and policies (Uscher).
Energy sources and industrialization have long been seen as the major drivers of environmental stress, which are substantially moderated by political and economical agenda (PItez et al). Nevertheless, to transform policies of functioning governments is usually beyond the capacity of any one individual. In an October, 2020 New York Times interview, journalist David Machese asked her: “What have you learned about people in power?” Greta stated: when she attempted to convince them to take actions, many evaded by observing that “I can’t do anything because I don’t have the support.” (Machese)
What accounts for the lack of political support Greta is perceiving? Some may say It is the extremity of her language, such as “you have stolen my dreams and childhood” and “how dare you”, or her circumstances restricting her from full political participation: “Normally Ms.Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum, since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult” (Caldwell). However, I am more liable to believe that her ideals were not fully accepted by politicians because of the demand for a relatively balanced popular interest. In the nature of democracy, individuals adhere to different political ideologies that lie in each section of the political spectrum (lumen). As a national leader, one is most likely to avoid political polarization (with some exceptions such as Trump), since the increase in conflicting partisanship lead to inaction with rigid mentalities lowering the legislative functioning.
Political polarization also increases disapprobation of one’s political opposites, undermining the validity of social institutions necessary for a functioning society and harming the relative balance of popular interest (Newport). When Greta travelled to UK in April 2019, several right-wing media mocked the “apocalyptic dread in her eyes”. Weeks after, before her address to the French parliament in July, conservative MPs insulted her with “Justin Bieber of Ecology” and a “prophetess in shorts” (Nevett). When the conservative and right-wing forces appreciate not Greta’s existence, they influence their supporters and swinging individuals to align with their perception of Greta. In such case, politicians in authority, no matter of ideological differences, would partially accept Greta to assemble the support from radical-inclined individuals, while partially rejecting her to appease the conservatives’ sentiments and to avoid extreme political polarization.
In such process, it is intricate for one individual to persuade the authority to re-evaluate social issues over political interests. Moreover, Machese asked: “Is there a political leader whom you think does seem to get it?” (Machese) Greta’s response was a no. Not elevating any particular world leader as properly understanding or tackling the environmental crisis demands further action from them all; however, it could also signal Greta’s lack of faith in all current regimes, promoting grassroots protests at the expense of legislative-popular coalitions. When positioning Greta into the savior status when she perceives acknowledgements and admirations from across the globe, the expectance for an idealistic activist can be naturally applied on her.
Thus, we are hopeful to see Greta pressuring world leaders to use their executive forces to bring about legislative changes. However, while advocating for “system change” and urging politicians to tale immediate actions, Greta does not prevail over legislation. What is system change? How do entire systems change When we see “save the planet initiatives, they often look like individual decisions, which do not influence political decision-making (Cannon). While various sources point out that the “Greta Thunberg Effect” can potentially promote environmental-friendly personal lifestyle, almost no signs of policy-changing inspired by Greta can be shown. When her progresses is not nearly as evident as we have expected, we learn that it is unsuitable to raise any particular individual human to the savior status of activism. To overturn the determining factor in promoting environmental actions – political interest is usually beyond the capacity of any single human.
Does the ideologically neutral activist exist? Is the existence of super-human organism who is free from any interference of bias plausible in our world? Once earlier, my English teacher observed: “Bias is the hook, it distinguishes and clarifies who we are.” In this case, an activist is no exception. Creating celebrities out of activists creates an unmeetable demand for ideological purity. In an age where technology allows mundane daily activities to be instantaneously shown to a global audience, with or without the subject’a content, leaves room for campaigns against the individual for every perceived moment of hypocrisy.
When idolizing Greta, many expect an absolute purity in her that does not involve any personal prejudice, nor in particular, political tendency. In 2019, Greta tweeted: “The problem of plastic pollution in the ocean is even worse than anyone feared. There’s actually more micro-plastic 1,000 feet down than there is in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We can’t continue like this.” One important characteristic of Greta is that she is a firm believer in an anti-plastic approach to combat the climate crisis. Throughout her career as an activist, she has been profoundly alerting the world of the consequences of plastic pollution. Nevertheless, in the same year, on her post “Lunch in Denmark”, she posted a photo that revealed her using plastic food containers and disposable materials. Based on this fact, one can possibly infer that Greta’s sometimes severe injunctions for saving the planet, such as the discontinuation of single-use plastics, is hard to immediately actualize in today’s plastic-obsessed society, leaving her at risk of propaganda campaigns for every plastic-wrapped purchase that is made for her.
Most agreeably, we do not disapprove the trustworthiness and pre-established works of a figure by nitpicking on tiny details. However, after this photograph of Greta dining on train went viral online, many accused her of being hypocritical, when she adhered to a double-principled attitude towards plastic products. Moreover, in 2021, the Japanese government declared to discharge Fukushima water of nucleus waste. Due to the colossal potential consequences of nuclear radiation, the UN had shown an attitude of deep disappointment. It was delivered by experts that the release of one million tonnes of contaminated water into the marine environment imposes considerable risks to the full enjoyment of human rights of concerned populations in and beyond the borders of Japan (Orellana).
Under such circumstance, Greta has not oppose or shown any sense of discontent toward this massively-pollutive event that may potentially devastate the marine environment of the Pacific Ocean and population near the coast. In this scenario, Greta did not maintain her usual advocacies for any environment-related issue. Her disregard of this event had led to concerns and discussions online about the reason or purpose concealing behind her indifference. Many believe, the Chinese state media in particular, that her reactions appealed to the mainstream western media’s downplays of Fukushima water disposal. When the rest of the world was startled, the New York Times published one article in total that expressed little alarm, while the Washington Post stressed that Japan will release the water “after treatment”. By expressing no opposing attitude towards releasing Fukushima water, Greta aligned with the stance of western mainstream media.
With this in consideration, many suggested that Greta is unsuccessful in maintaining the purity of her sole appeal to raise environmental awareness, with political factors casting unwanted interferences to her actions. While this can be true, no single individual can be politically-neutral and truly a global activist. In short, an individual cannot possibly be purely objective, even with Greta Thunberg who has been proven autistic and caught selective-mutism, judging or acting without any emotional inclination or personal beliefs. As an activist, one cannot be responsible for anything that is unjust since it is usually beyond human capacity. Famous Martin Luther KIng Jr., for example, was one of the greatest social activist in the history of America. Throughout his life, he advocated for racial justice, and organized various movements in resistance against white superiority. However, as a scientifically-regular human being, he surely did not respond to every instance of racial discrimination in this world. Conversely, did that invalidate or diminish his contribution in tackling injustice in the US?
In Greta’s scenario, many insist on her purity in objectivity, however, she is a human being like us all. In a democracy, she is guaranteed for the freedom to uphold a political stance differing from others. As an adolescent in a modernized world, it contains no wrongfulness in accommodating with the basic human needs that includes dining on plastic-wrapped train foods. However, with regard to Greta’s popularity and symbolization of environmental preservation, the expectance on her for being the savior suggests her to accept unprecedented requirements or anticipations. This phenomenon may be pressuring her as an individual, its greater influence lies on every witnessing audience.
Many accuse Greta of her hypocritical characteristic and self-contradiction. This restricts peoples’ willingness to engage in ideas associated with the individual, because one would misperceive the standards of a proper activist to be perfectly objective and representative internationally. It is unbolted that by setting a lofty ideal for any career is promotive, encouraging individuals to approach perfection indefinitely. Though it is unlikely to achieve. Thus, many would struggle or even suffer from the inability adapting to the ideal activist, whom in the human world is unlikely to exist.
Some may argue that elevating Greta to the savior status is beneficial, as it effectively concentrates her personal influence. While this can be true, idolizing her diminishes the voices of other environmental activists. In fact, although Greta and her team have been under the spotlight for successful environmental advocacy, she is not the only young climate activist worth celebrating (Eschner). Nakabuye, for example, is a 22-year-old founder of Uganda’s Fridays For Future movement. She has been a witness whose family were forced to seek off their farm in order to survive in the face of extreme droughts lead by climate change-related extreme weather. More deeply experienced than Greta, Nakabuye has been contributing ample effort in advocating: “I can tell you that we are a generation of scared people, but very ambitious ones.” (Eschner). However, her popular acknowledgement is not nearly as close to Greta. While capable of representing the entire idea of environmental preservation, Greta does not earn universal respect across political and cultural boundaries, as disproportionate harassment are reported (Eschner).
With this in mind, having a variety of youth climate activists is more compelling than idolizing any single individual, as their differences in experiences and specialities are beneficial through communicating to particular groups and accommodating cultural needs. This way, climate activism would, instead of centralizing the attention on one human, extend its influence internationally in order to infinitely approaching the state of universally-inspiring.
Thus, we should remain skeptical in elevating any one individual to the status of a savior by understanding two key aspects: one, unrealistic productivity; two, unfeasible ideological purity. With this in consideration, we do not need Greta as she is right now. However, regarding her unique identity and a strong popular basis, it is undeniable that she has been successful. The introduced reasonings mainly argue against the phenomenon of idolizing a single individual, and using her as a symbol of a much larger issue. I wish, with the phenomenon eliminated, that Greta can continue pursue her dreams. I wish, with the combined forces of the world, that we can all save mother Earth from suffering.