This much should be clear at this point:
• Greta Thunberg is not here for anyone’s patronizing back pats.
• Greta Thunberg is not here for anyone’s nervous little twitters.
• Greta Thunberg is not here to assuage anyone’s discomfort.
• Greta Thunberg is not here to be anyone’s cute little climate change activist trophy to keep up on a shelf.
Greta Thunberg is here for real change.
Yesterday at U.N. headquarters, Greta looked out at the assembled with a disgust she could scarcely hide, nearly twitching with rage, spitting out the unvarnished truth in a room used to long, dry speeches. In her captivating five minutes addressing the Climate Action Summit, she stressed that words without action are not only cheap, they kill people. Empty words are time-wasting niceties that do nothing of real benefit for those who are staring down a future that feels desolate and frightening. At best, these idle words are shiny little bows on a box of toxic waste meant to steer eyes away from what can be seen quite plainly: the young people of today and future generations are being handed a box of refuse. Words without action when the words are about matters of such grave consequence are, in fact, insults. Words about a subject as critical for our survival as climate change are essentially gibberish, no matter how high-minded or low-brow, unless they are backed by meaningful, thoughtful and prompt action.
I get it. The girl in the simple braids with the solemn mien is a little startling to those accustomed to seeing slick and polished politicians and policy wonks in their hallowed halls. We also see that Greta, with the Asperger’s diagnosis she makes no secret of, is not going to soften her message with a reassuring little smile and gentle tone for the assembled and we know how men want serious girls and women to smile, even just a little. Perhaps snickering at the audacity of Greta’s unapologetically stony-faced countenance is a natural response in a society much more comfortable with subterfuge and vacuous selfies.
As a vegan, I am well aware of how unwanted our presence is, especially when we don’t walk it back with a little self-deprecation, a little softening of our tone. I am very familiar with the pin-the-hypocrisy-on-the-vegan game, the uncomfortable smirks and defensiveness, so it’s not surprising to see this sort of thing unleashed on Greta Thunberg. She’s the Enemy of Fun, the prude who crashed the orgy, the messenger who must be done away with. As a culture, we like children who are rebellious and different, who swim against the current, but we mainly like them in fictional form, not in flesh-and-blood and looking at us with that face that just. Won’t. Smile.
More than as a vegan, though, as the mother of a teenager, I recognize her look of absolute, utter disgust with adults and our game-playing nonsense. That look from Greta on stage at the U.N. reminds me of my son when he talks about the state of our country. It cuts right through me like a laser. It is an expression of anger and disgust but under that, I still see the little boy in my 17-year-old. His face is full of disappointment and a loss of innocence at trying to comprehend how to navigate this world of dishonest, corrupted, dangerously flawed adults. How could we do this to them? Do we hate them? Or, as Greta put it more forcefully and plainly, “How dare you?”
How dare we doom Greta’s generation and future ones to asthma attacks, droughts, typhoons, hurricanes-of-the-century a few times a year, rising sea levels and mass extinctions when the science is in and has been for a long time? When we know that the poorest in the world will be the most severely harmed? How dare we? How dare we?
I have no idea.
The onus is on all of us now, child and grown-up alike, to get as comfortable as Greta with being utterly serious when we are talking about utterly serious subjects. We need to be so vast in number and so committed to making those in power uncomfortable that their only resort is to maybe snicker a little before they finally slither off into obscurity.
We need to all be our own version of Greta: fierce, unapologetic, speaking the truth and dedicated to thoughtful, meaningful, compassionate action. Does Greta Thunberg make you uncomfortable? Good. Better get used to it because she is quickly becoming an army.