Environment Opinion World

Greta Thunberg: An encapsulation of everything wrong with modern activism

Written by Tristan Jacquel

Editor: as with all our articles, the views presented here are the views of the writer and are not necessarily the views of our editors or of George Heriot’s School.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old girl who saw the damages of climate change and, unlike the rest of her fellow adolescents, actually did something about it.


Well, that idealised image of her isn’t quite the true picture: things often aren’t as simple as they seem and whilst her intentions seem pure, Greta Thunberg likely poses a greater threat to the climate change movement than any other person on the planet.

She represents all the flaws in modern activism: and because she represents such an important movement at the same time, those flaws fall onto the movement itself.

Climate change is an undeniable and pressing concern, but the methods Greta Thunberg employs are dangerous. Their unrefined and flawed nature presents the possibility that they could be seriously harmful to the movement.

The truth is that the current climate change movement lives and dies with Greta, she is the climate movement.

Leadership and representation are not harmful to activism, but when prominent activists are acting in contradictory and confusing ways, this reflects on the movement. Leaders of large and important movements such as the climate movement need to at the very least be consistent, consistency comes above all else.

Whilst hypocrisy does not itself affect the inherent truth or validity of a movement, it does affect the representation of it. And in the internet age, when misinformation is rampant and climate change deniers, flat earthers and even neo-fascists can easily find others and form communities, reaching these people becomes a herculean task. This task is made all the more difficult when these groups can pick out inconsistencies in the movement:

  • “You claim that we shouldn’t travel as it adds to our carbon footprint, but you flew out to xyz place just last week…”
  • “You aren’t even qualified to talk about this…”
  • “You’re a hypocrite…”
  • “You’re an idiot…”

These arguments are shoddy attempts not to engage in discourse, but they are convincing to those who are resistant to change. They are ad hominems that attempt to shut down an individual’s arguments by discrediting the individual without even engaging with their points. But they are dangerous because they are listened to.

I don’t care about age. Nor do I care about those who do not accept the science.

Greta Thunberg – Speaking to The Guardian

This precedent that she sets is very dangerous: it reflects the attitudes of authoritarian dictators.

“Those people don’t matter, they don’t deserve a voice because of their opinions.”

This is the attitude she takes towards people who disagree with her, or who she feels are responsible for the climate crisis. This is not productive.

Never mind how closely it relates to the attitudes of authoritarians and the potential exclusionary culture that can arise because of this. The people who deny science, or can’t be bothered to do something about it are exactly the people who climate activists need to connect to.

Particularly because this is not a scenario akin to those in which exclusionary dictators thrive, it is imperative that activists reach everyone. Climate change is not an issue that a small number of people can change by silencing their opposition, stopping halfway and saying, “Well, we tried, but those people deny science so they aren’t even worth talking to.” will never solve societal issues, least of all climate change.

What is most important in these cases, is that we get these people involved. We cannot exclude them from this discussion simply because they’re wrong: that’s not how productive discourse is carried out.

Issues like climate change must be tackled by a combined effort of entire societies. Anything less will be insufficient, Greta’s approach is insufficient.

Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you.

Greta Thunberg – UN Climate Change COP24 Conference

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of her behaviour is a further reflection of her desire not to engage with others. She generalises and speaks for entire generations of people with no grounds or evidence to support herself.

Again, her generalisation of massive groups of people directly parallels the politics of authoritarians and dictators. The same problems arise here as with her refusal to engage with climate change deniers, except on a much larger scale. She denies other people the right to an opinion.

Taking this into consideration, Greta Thunberg has been near enough the worst possible icon for a movement so far:

  • She is completely unqualified, having even dismissed her schooling in favour of activism.
  • She is incredibly hypocritical, her sailing to the US comes as a brilliant example of a PR stunt that actively went against her message.
  • She blatantly dismisses and misrepresents anyone whom she blames or disagrees with.
  • She lacks any real goal or method of bringing about change. She merely encourages people to skip school or work for strikes that make no real impact.

Her being on the side of science and evidence does not excuse this behaviour. Scientists have been talking about climate change for over two centuries and have been actively campaigning to reduce fossil fuel emissions for several decades.

If we wish to truly make a change, this is not the way to go about it. We need to make serious attempts at large scale change.

  1. Vote for parties whose policies tackle climate change effectively. (The Liberal Democrats and, as always, the Green Party are pledging large sums to combat the issue)
  2. Educate people on climate change, engage with them and teach them about the science behind it.
  3. Make changes yourself, there is almost always a way to reduce your own carbon footprint if you try.

This is how changes are made, not by excluding others and screaming at world leaders, but by being the change you want to see.

About the author

Tristan Jacquel

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