In a video released May 2021, Our Relationship to Nature is Broken, Greta Thunberg, a vegan, extends her climate-change message to focus on food production. At present, she says, 83 percent of agricultural land is devoted to the raising of livestock, while animals provide only 18 percent of our food calories. The raising of animals for food leads to deforestation, the destruction of wild habitats, mass extinction of species, the increase in new diseases, and the addition of billions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere. She “connects the dots,” as she puts it, showing climate change, farming methods, and people’s consumption of meat and dairy to be interlinked. Her point is that to slow global warming, not only are new political and economic systems needed, but our whole destructive relationship to nature must change.
On Point with a Large and Urgent Message
When we think of Greta Thunberg, she often seems a small, solemn, solitary figure, alone even in a crowd. Alone in front of Swedish Parliament with her homemade sign, “Skolstrejk för Klimatet”—School Strike for Climate. Alone at podiums or microphones, such as at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Alone in the spotlight delivering her extraordinary TED talk. And alone in her informational videos that she posts to extend the reach of her message.
If she seems like a person separate unto herself, she meanwhile directs her urgent message to everyone in the entire world, from the most powerful leaders, to young people like herself, many too young to vote. That message is to treat the present climate crisis like the crisis it is. Curb emissions of greenhouse gases, which are still increasing. Leave the oil, coal, and gas in the ground. Accelerate the switch to renewable energy sources. Limit global warming to 1.5˚C over pre-industrial levels. Raise your awareness and educate yourself. Listen to the climate scientists. Mobilize for climate justice and equity. Save the future, for future generations. Demand action; do not settle for more talk. Be change agents for new attitudes, new political and economic systems, and new habits, choices, and ways of thinking. Why? Because the clock ticks steadily towards the point of no return, towards the collapse of civilization. Time is running out, and, in her famous words, “Our house is on fire.”
In the face of these enormous, daunting issues, Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg, now 18, keeps her composure and maturity, her almost otherworldly quality. To her, this independence and self-possession are essential. In a speech she said, “Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself.” While she has sometimes, she says, “supported and cooperated with several NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that work with the climate and environment,” the fact is, “I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself.”
On many occasions, Thunberg has spoken frankly about her cognitive differences and diagnoses—her neurodiversity. The conditions that she has been found to have–Asperger’s, OCD, and selective mutism—no doubt play a role in her determined mission. People with Asperger’s syndrome, on the autism spectrum, are often indifferent to social codes, popularity, and social games, and they tend to see things in black and white. Shrugging off the criticisms and bullying of detractors, she makes no apology for seeing things in a stark, bleak way, saying that the looming environmental catastrophe warrants it.
Suffering a serious depression in a time before she began to speak out against climate change, Thunberg has said, she had “no energy, no friends, and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder.” But with help and support of people who cared about her, she told The View in 2021, she was able to put her autism to good purpose—to make it into a “superpower.”
As an example of this power, she said she is able to focus and study for many hours, concentrating with great absorption. In the past three years, she has taken what she learned about climate change and dedicated herself to speaking out. Her goal, she explains, is to do what is right and to make a difference. She is often asked, “What can we do?” and she invariably replies, “Inform yourself.”
On Her Own, But Not Alone
Happily, Greta Thunberg is, of course, not alone. She is not alone in at least four important ways.
First, despite their initial skepticism, her devoted parents are now fully supportive of her. The family, including Greta’s sister Beata, has written a book together, Scenes from the Heart, about their lives. Thunberg’s father, Svante Thunberg, accompanied Greta to the United States and back in 2019—an arduous trip involving two trans-Atlantic crossings in zero-emissions sail boats. Her mother, Malena Ernman, an opera singer, now takes only local singing engagements that she can reach by train. And Thunberg’s parents are supportive monetarily. When Thunberg travels in her role as climate activist, she stresses that she takes no remuneration, adding, “My parents pay for tickets and accommodation.”
Nor is Thunberg is alone in her role of as youthful leader working to bring about change—far from it. The Independent has described, for example, the achievements of Licypriya Kangujam, 9, of India; Lesein Mutunkei, 17, of Kenya; Ella and Caitlin McEwan, 10 and 8, of the UK; Lilly Platt, 13, of the Netherlands; Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 21, of the U.S., and Luisa Neubauer, 25, of Germany.
Similarly, in his article “The Left Turn” (New Yorker, May 31, 2021), Andrew Marantz talks to young data-driven activists, many in their 20s and early 30s, such as Alexandra Rojas, Max Berger, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Sean McElwee, Waleed Shahid, Varshini Prakash, Guido Girgenti, Evan Weber, and Yong Jung Cho. They are working furiously to help push past the old paradigm or “ideological frame” of small government, privatization, and deregulation. One of their central agenda items is to “decarbonize the American economy” and ensure “a livable planet,” via a Green New Deal. As Marantz points out, “Bringing about this kind of fundamental political change is not easy work for anyone, much less a small cadre of near-neophytes.” Still, it is clear that many capable, dedicated young people have emerged to do the hard work in their areas, as Thunberg has in hers.
There is another group that Greta Thunberg is not apart from, but a part of: the millions she reaches with her message. Thunberg has, at this time, 11.4 million followers on Instagram, 4.9 million on Twitter, and a vast Facebook audience. Many hundreds of thousands of young people all over the world have held school strikes and “Fridays For Future” marches, following the pattern of her initial solo protest. Her slim but powerful book, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019) and her compelling informational videos have reached and mobilized countless numbers. As she says in the video, Our Relationship to Nature is Broken, “Those with the most power have the most responsibility, and most of us can do something. What will you do?”
Finally, she stands in solidarity with the climate scientists, never failing to credit those who sounded the alarm first, more than 30 years ago, and those who have worked tirelessly in the meantime, proving and predicting, researching and tracking global warming’s many manifestations. She relies on them, too, saying that she writes her own speeches, but “I have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.” When speaking in Brussels in 2019 about the nature of her and her followers’ protest, she said, “Unite behind the science. That is our demand.”
As she says in her latest video, no comprehensive change will occur unless we “connect the dots.” Thinking of Greta Thunberg—and those she stands with, and those who stand with her—makes this necessary task and mobilization seem possible, with a better future just ahead.
Quotations from speeches are from the book, Greta Thunberg, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).