Greta Thunberg’s story: the girl who woke up the world

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Greta Thunberg has got our attention. Now, her generation is poised to make a real difference.

Greta Thunberg was 15 when she turned up at the Swedish parliament in 2018 on a one-teenager protest against climate change. In the year since, her accomplishments read like a lifetime of achievements: named Person of the Year by Time magazine; Swedish Woman of the Year by the Swedish Women’s Educational Association; nominated for the Nobel Prize; awarded the Ambassador of Conscience Award by Amnesty International; presented with the International Children’s Peace Prize of 2019 by Desmond Tutu; and featured on the cover of Meghan Markle’s issue of Vogue

She’s spoken at the UN and made those in power not only answerable to her questions but nervous of them too. World leaders have started to take action, labelled ‘the Greta effect’. Not bad for a teenager who, by her own admission, didn’t even like to talk in class. 

But why Thunberg? Political commentator Isabel Oakeshott says, “Greta Thunberg is an extraordinary phenomenon. She has forced politicians in the UK to confront an issue many would rather ignore and propelled climate change to the top of the political agenda. In a short space of time, a 16-year-old with a smart PR and social media operation has achieved more than years of international summits and lobbying by big names. To have made an impact on this scale is quite incredible and she deserves huge credit.”

SMALL BEGINNINGS

Thunberg’s original plan was to sit outside parliament with a cardboard sign that read: skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate). Passers-by (politicians, secretaries, the general public) would see her, a teenager – long, honeyed hair braided into two plaits, dressed in leopard print leggings and a blue hoodie – and wonder, why isn’t that girl in school? Then, when they asked, she would hand them a flyer that gave them an explanation: “We kids most often don’t do what you tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you grown-ups don’t give a shit about my future, I won’t either. My name is Greta and I’m in ninth grade. And I refuse school for the climate until the Swedish general election.”

Greta Thunberg during her school stirke for the climate our´tside the Parliament building in Stockholm Sweden
Greta began her solo protests just last year

Thanks to that original plan, Greta has become a world icon, reaching the ranks of those known only by their first name. Her mission has stretched far beyond that day but its roots can be traced back much earlier to her family and childhood. Growing up with her mum, an opera singer, her actor father and her 14-year-old sister Beata, she was instilled with a commitment to caring for the environment by her mother’s own passions (she won the WWF Sweden Environmental Hero of the Year Award in 2017).

When Thunberg was nine years old, she says she heard the phrase ‘climate change’ for the first time. “[At school] they were always talking about how we should turn off lights, save water, not throw out food […] I thought this was very strange. If humans could really change the climate, everyone would be talking about it […] But that wasn’t happening,” she told The New Yorker.

She began doing her own research and looking for ways to help. At 12, she stopped eating meat, refused to take flights because of the carbon emissions and persuaded her parents to do the same, resulting in her mother giving up an international career. The family installed solar panels on their house and began growing their own vegetables. 

But then Thunberg quietly fell into a deep depression. She stopped talking, eating and spent time off school. In Scenes From The Heart, her mother’s memoir, she talks about the difficulties of living with her daughter’s illness: meticulously recording her food intake, managing her mood. When her eating disorder stabilised, she was given an official diagnosis: Asperger syndrome. Then things began to change. In the summer of 2018, an unusual heatwave hit Sweden, causing wildfires to spread across the country and turning Thunberg’s energy outward. “I got out of that depression by thinking to myself that I could do so much good with my life,” she said.

Inspired by the anti-gun protests by survivors of the Parkland shooting in Florida, she started a weekly school strike, charting it on social media and drawing politicians into her public charge. Her Twitter following has since grown to more than 3 million and her Instagram page, once a place for pictures of the vegetables she was growing and her dog Roxy, with 8.4 million followers quickly turned into a call to action.

Greta Thunberg meets the pope
Greta met the Pope in April this year

TALKING FRANKLY

In interviews, Thunberg is a calm but intense presence. When she appeared on The Ellen Show last month, she winced at the applause from the audience and answered questions with a disarming pragmatism. When asked if she would ever sit down with Donald Trump, she deadpanned, “I don’t understand why I would do that”, to a room that dissolved into laughter and cheers. She calls her Asperger syndrome a superpower: “[I] don’t enjoy participating in the social game that the rest of you seem so fond of.” 

This frankness is a powerful tool in her campaign. She has stood in front of global leaders at the World Economic Forum and declared, “Our house is on fire […] We are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes.” At the Houses of Parliament, she told MPs, “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us […] that nothing is being done.”

It is untrue to say nothing is being done. But it is fair to say nothing of significance. In 2015, leaders from nearly every country met to put together a plan to address the climate crisis, in what was termed The Paris Agreement (“If you’ve read it,” Thunberg has said, “you know it’s radical”). A report from the UN Environment Programme released last year detailed that nearly every G20 country is failing to follow through. The 2019 general election manifestos were startling proof that those in power are having to finally take stock and listen.

By her second day on strike last year, Thunberg was posting photos of people sat beside her sign. They shared sandwiches and strategised. Swedish newspapers showed up asking for interviews and by October, The Guardian and The New Yorker had profiled her. The global movement was ignited. Today, #ClimateStrike has more than half a million posts on Instagram, with protests taking place on Fridays all over the world. On 15 March, it’s estimated that 1.6 million people in 133 countries participated in an organised climate strike.

But it’s not just those in power that her protests have resonated with. Thunberg is part of Generation Z, already famed for their social conscience. According to research, 66% of Gen Z believe that communities are created by causes, not economic backgrounds and educational levels, while cultural consultancy Sparks & Honey found that 60% of Gen Z want to change the world, compared to 39% of millennials. But many of them also resent the idea that their involvement in activism is a choice they have made.

“We’re not ‘interested’ in activism. We’re doing it because we feel like we have no other choice,” says Tolmeia Gregory, 19, a climate campaigner who runs the sustainable fashion blog Tolly Dolly Posh. “I don’t want people to think I enjoy sitting in front of rows of police officers [at protests] – which of course is an extreme privilege to do without much risk as a white person – and seeing my friends being unlawfully arrested, because I’m ‘interested’ in activism. I’m doing it because I’m scared of what is happening to the world around us. I’m doing it as an act of desperation and I know many other young people feel the same.”

NO SECOND CHANCES

Cork-based climate activist Saoi O’Connor, 17, says, “When I started striking in January, I would try to explain to people on the street what I was doing and about Greta Thunberg, but they looked at me like I was mad. Now, people understand. Having Thunberg in the public eye has definitely made people more aware.” O’Connor went from being the only person striking from school, like Thunberg, to being one of thousands protesting on the streets of Cork on 15 March. “The energy that day was tremendous,” says O’Connor.

And younger children are getting involved too. “I connected with her blunt truthfulness and her rare ability to say it as it is,” says Holly Gillibrand, 14, who lives in the Scottish Highlands and takes part in the school strike every Friday. 

“Greta Thunberg is my inspiration. She is the reason the strike started and the reason it will carry on,” says 12-year-old Eve Moore. “She is an inspiration to young people because she is standing up for what she believes in. We can all learn from her and her actions. Our school is quite eco-unfriendly. I have been trying to set up an eco-club with my tutor to tackle the amount of plastic waste and get food bins for our school. I joined the Extinction Rebellion group in my area with my best friend. Together we can help make a change.”

Six-year-old Betty Cowan says, “I’ve got a book about her called Greta’s Story. At school we’re trying not to litter and I decided I didn’t want a toy advent calendar this year as it has too much plastic in it. Plus, I tell my mum and dad off if they buy plastic bags. I went to a protest with my friend Emily too.”

“I pick up plastic when I see it lying on the floor now,” says Luke Gray, eight. “And when I went to Canada on holiday with my family, I was very worried about the pollution the plane puts out so I asked my mum to give money to a charity to help.” Luke is now the eco rep for his class, his mission inspired by Thunberg. “She is trying to save the planet by striking from school to put up signs. She cares more than the older people because they won’t live when there’s climate change.”

But as we celebrate Thunberg and her peers’ bravery for taking action, we mustn’t forget that their work shouldn’t be in place of our own. “People tell me that I’m ‘inspirational’,” says Gillibrand. “People like to admire you, but it’s easier to continue with their lives than to take it upon themselves to act.”

At the time of writing, Thunberg had just arrived in Lisbon after spending 20 days sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the United Nations COP25 climate conference taking place in Madrid. On arrival she announced, “We need to work together to make sure that we secure future living conditions for humankind, and that we fight for not only ourselves, but for our children and for our grandchildren and for every single living being on Earth. And everyone has to do everything they can in order to make sure they are on the right side of history.”

And she has kept the promise she made in February at the seventh edition of Youth For Climate in Brussels where, in front of thousands of young people, she said, “We will be a pain in the arse. We will keep on striking until they do something.” The teens in the crowd whistled and cheered. And, as we venture into 2020, we should all too, for Greta Thunberg, the voice of a generation.

CLAUDIA SAYS: Greta woke everyone up this year. She taught my children that plastic is bad and it would be nice to hear from other kids about her influence on them.

Images: Getty

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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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