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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Greta Thunberg

Many of the Swedish climate activist's putative allies aren't down for the cause. They're simply hoping to be absolved.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Greta Thunberg is the most important person in the world. There are politicians and public figures with more power and influence. There are people of all kinds who are more well known. But Thunberg has done more than any other human being on our ailing planet to bring a particular argument of existential importance—an argument far more difficult to accept than a mere demand for “climate action”—before the masses for our consideration. And we aren’t really listening. 

That’s not for want of trying on her part. Since last year, Thunberg has helped mobilize people across the globe for climate action, including the millions who have participated in this week’s climate strikes. She’s brought a new intensity to climate rhetoric as well. “This is all wrong,” she told an audience at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit on Monday. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”

The right has responded predictably to her rise to prominence. President Trump tweeted sarcastically this week that Thunberg seemed like a “very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” On Fox, the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles called her a “mentally ill Swedish child,” which prompted an apology from the network. (Host Laura Ingraham’s comparison of Thunberg and other young climate activists to Children of the Corn did not.)

None of this noise should distract us from the oddity of how positively her words have been received overall. Thunberg has aimed her fire not just at climate denying conservatives, but also at those who have accepted the reality of climate change without making the commitments necessary to truly slow its progress. This includes the liberal world leaders she addressed at the U.N. on Monday.

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in ten years only gives us a 50 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control,” she said. “Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution, or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.”

“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions?” she asked finally. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.” 

In the spirit of telling it like it is, Thunberg scolded Democrats supportive of climate policy for their timidity in an appearance before the Senate’s climate task force last week. “I know you’re trying,” she said, “but just not hard enough.” No one in the party seems to have taken the criticism particularly hard. On Twitter, Hillary Clinton called Thunberg one of her favorite “gutsy women.” Joe Biden tweeted Tuesday that he was “inspired” by her “courage and tenacity.” “She is right,” he wrote. “We cannot fail future generations any longer.” Thunberg was sent off from a meeting with former President Obama last week with a fist bump. “You and me, we’re a team,” he told her. The applause Thunberg received Monday from the very leaders she excoriated seemed to say the same. 

Greta Thunberg and Barack Obama are not on the same team. The actual content of her speeches—the actual commitments she’s asked us all to make—lie well outside the bounds of conventional politics. Like many climate activists, Thunberg wants us to leave behind many things we now take for granted. The items on her chopping block, however, include not just fossil fuel-burning cars and coal power plants, but contemporary capitalism itself. To address climate change, Thunberg wants us to abandon an economic system designed to run on auto-pilot and instead build a world in which we make difficult decisions, in an emergency mindset, about what we should protect and what we should value. Cumulatively, those decisions might mean an end to the triumphalism that has animated us for centuries—trading the promise of progress for the project of bare survival.

This message is plain in Thunberg’s speeches. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction,” she said Monday, “and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” Importantly, Thunberg’s criticisms of growth economics aren’t programmatic and teleological enough to place her on the left. Thunberg has also been critical of the optimism underpinning proposals the left has embraced, like the Green New Deal. 

“[T]he science doesn’t mainly speak of ‘great opportunities to create the society we always wanted,’” she told Congress last week. “It tells of unspoken human sufferings, which will get worse and worse the longer we delay action—unless we start to act now. And yes, of course a sustainable transformed world will include lots of new benefits. But you have to understand. This is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses or green economic growth. This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” Her primary ideological commitment is to survival, in whatever form it may take. She envisions a world in which we force ourselves to make do with less, not one where we sustain expectations of more.  

This is essentially the view of the climate situation laid out by University of Manitoba environmental scientist Vaclav Smil’s new book Growth, which was excerpted this week in New York magazine. “[N]o government has ever made policies with the biosphere in mind,” it reads. “No government has advocated moderate, subdued economic growth as its priority, even in the world’s most affluent countries, and no major political party has been serious about reconsidering the pace of economic growth.” Seriousness, for Smil and other pessimistic climate analysts, would mean accepting a world of “deliberately declining levels and performances that would put civilization into a state of ‘regress.’” 

“This noun alone illuminates our predicament,’ Smil writes. “Using regress as a qualifier of civilizational achievement, after a long-lasting addiction to progress, seems unreal. This creates an irreconcilable conflict or, more accurately, a challenge for which we have yet to find an effective solution (assuming that one exists).” 

The leaders at the U.N. who greeted Thunberg warmly and cheered her bravery had made very few large commitments of any kind by the end of Monday’s summit, much less any pledges in keeping with the concept of “regress.” “While countries were expected to come to the Summit to announce that they would enhance their climate ambition, most of the major economies fell woefully short,” World Resources Institute head Andrew Steer said in a statement afterwards. “Smaller nations, especially the most vulnerable countries, are pushing ahead. But we need far greater national leadership on climate action—and we need it now.” 

This is what conservatives mocking and scolding liberals for the attention they’ve paid Thunberg don’t understand. Thunberg isn’t being applauded because she’s being taken seriously. She’s being applauded because she’s not. 

Thunberg’s activism was ready-made for superficial and inspirational news stories about a new generation of climate activists, and those stories have made her an interesting vessel for a set of truly radical propositions. It’s hard to imagine an academic calling for an end to economic growth being openly praised by American politicians the way that Thunberg has been. But Thunberg gets that praise only because her youth allows politicians and the press to flatten her image. For their purposes, Thunberg isn’t a precocious advocate for a new way of thinking about society, but an instrument of performative self-flagellation. The powerful nod vigorously when Thunberg castigates them, not in agreement with what she says must be done, but in the hopes that nodding might be considered an acceptable substitute.  This is an iteration of the guilt suffused throughout liberal politics, which often seems better suited to producing tears and slogans than genuine change. 

Thunberg is a case study in what Cornel West has often called, in relation to the radicalism of Martin Luther King Jr., “Santa Clausification”—the softening of a public figure’s profile into something more anodyne and broadly acceptable. This often takes years, but Thunberg might not need as much time—the necessary elisions have already begun. We should try, nevertheless, to engage seriously with her actual words, whether we agree fully with her vision of the future or not, and learn, too, from the example set by the mass mobilizations she has inspired. She’s asked us not to watch her, or applaud her, but to join her.