Greta Thunberg is an amazingly influential activist, perhaps the most influential worldwide this century. Appalled by the lack of government action on climate change, in 2018 she staged a one-person protest outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm. As a 15-year-old student, she was skipping school to protest. Gradually others joined her, and news reporters took up the story. Through social media, her example triggered student protests around the world.
I have just watched the extraordinary documentary film I am Greta. Acting on a tip, director Nathan Greenberg decided to film Greta’s activities from her very first protest. He had no idea then that she would become world famous within a few months.
The film follows Greta, often accompanied by her father, as she travels around Europe, by train or electric car, giving short talks at prominent meetings, and addressing large protests where she is greeted as a hero.
Greta is not a scientist: she has not made a deep study into the science of climate change. Neither is she a seasoned activist, with special insights into campaigning. She is exactly as she presents herself, a schoolgirl who is disgusted with the world’s leaders for refusing to act on the research showing a pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In I am Greta, we see her meeting French president Emmanuel Macron, speaking at climate change conferences, meeting the Pope, and speaking at rallies. She was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York. Refusing to fly because of the climate impact, we watch her journey across the Atlantic in a racing yacht.
Greta has been inspirational to millions around the world, especially young people. Her message is that the world’s elders have failed to protect the Earth, so those who will inherit the Earth, the world’s youth, must protest until action is taken.
Greta’s action served as a spark in a highly receptive social environment. Well before she arrived on the scene, climate change had become the rallying point for the most significant new social movement in decades. There are campaigners and participants across the globe, drawing support from a wide cross section of the population. It is a remarkable movement because, unlike the labour, feminist or anti-racist movements, participants have little to gain for themselves.
Climate change is already having impacts. Yet, to the degree that the movement succeeds, its main beneficiaries will be future generations, many decades in the future. The movement is thus a mobilisation of altruism, of commitment to humankind, other species and the natural environment.
The movement is pitted against formidable foes. Most obvious is the fossil fuel industry, digging up coal, oil and natural gas for profit. Also crucial is social infrastructure and people’s habits, especially those who are affluent. Consumer goods, housing, transport, food production, and consumerism more generally, are built on using lots of energy. As critics have been saying for decades, ever-lasting economic growth is not sustainable.
Greta has been an inspiration because she has expressed a simple truth, that urgent action is needed — and pointed to the failure of leaders. A curious aspect of her fame has been her reception in major world forums. I am Greta shows her giving bluntly-worded speeches to world leaders and receiving rapturous applause. Strange to say, she is lauded for telling leaders that they are not doing what is required. We see her become disillusioned by participating in what seems to be a charade.
By far her biggest impact has been on young people worldwide. Those who attend protests rather than attending classes — sometimes supported by their teachers, sometimes not — become exposed to different truths about society, and experience the exhilaration of taking a public stand in solidarity with others. Greta was the spark for this huge mobilisation and remains an inspiration.
In light of her message and her experience with world leaders, why should she bother addressing their forums? It seems like a contradiction to put effort into addressing the older generation of political leaders, and condemning them, when they seem to be the least responsive audience. Yet there is an intriguing aspect of celebrity involved here. Greta’s biggest impact is the example she sets for young campaigners. By being feted by world leaders, Greta’s own fame increases, and thereby her influence on young admirers.
Greta has Asperger’s syndrome. In I am Greta, we learn about her struggles, including three years when she was able to interact with only her parents and her dogs. In becoming a popular icon, she has had to push well outside her comfort zone. This is part of what makes her such an inspirational figure.
For any movement, charismatic leaders can play a powerful role but also pose risks. A prominent leader can be tempted by fame and power to forsake the cause. Alternatively, any personal weakness can be a point of attack: discrediting a leader is an often-used way of discrediting a movement.
Greta, so far, has not succumbed to the corruptions of power. Nor has her credibility been dented by those who denounce her. In the film we see and hear from some of her detractors, and in their nasty put-downs it is they who sound like petulant children. In this context, Greta’s single-mindedness about the climate may be her greatest strength.
I am Greta is a remarkable window into the life of a girl who has become an inspiration to millions worldwide. In being a snapshot, it necessarily leaves the story unfinished — not just Greta’s story, but the story of the climate movement and the future of the Earth. Those who sympathise with the movement can be energised by the film; those who don’t may hate it.
Few of us can ever expect to become Greta-like figures. By the nature of celebrity, there’s room at the top for only a very few. That’s fine. Being an inspirational figure depends on vast numbers of others doing their own bit for the cause — and for those in the climate-change movement, there is plenty to do.
As I write this in late October, there have been 1587 ratings of I am Greta on the Internet Movie Database. The average rating is 2.9 which, if sustained, would place the film among the 25 lowest rated movies of all time. Given the film’s good production values and its straightforward narrative, the most plausible explanation for this anomalously low rating is a concerted effort by some climate sceptics to discredit the film and Greta. Reading user reviews and other comments on social media, it is apparent that Greta triggers strong antagonistic emotions in quite a few people, especially men. All I can suggest is that if you don’t believe in climate change induced by human activity and you want to arouse your inner beast, then be sure to watch I am Greta.
Thanks to Mark Diesendorf and Theresa Huxtable for useful comments.