Why Greta Thunberg shouldn´t have set sails for Madrid
There is a sort of “Greta effect” going on within many levels of society around the world. Industry after industry, non-governmental organizations and even politicians are discussing the opportunities and challenges that this high attention level on climate issues raised by Greta Thunberg creates for them. But the media attention seems focused only on Greta.
Recently she chose to decline yet another award, a wise move that gives her credibility. In line with that choice she should also have decided against taking another spectacular boat trip over the Atlantic to ensure the sustainability of this new social movement. She really should have skipped Madrid.
The other week I participated in a passionate conversation about the role of popular movements of societal changes, arranged by the Swedish Parliament and within the framework of the 1ooth anniversary of Sweden as a democracy. Like in so many forums, boardrooms and congresses I have attended or watched around the world, it quickly turned into a discussion about Greta Thunberg.
My concern is the lack of interest in the true “Greta effect” by media. Considering the Greta effect is crucial in order to ensure that this social movement will develop further and become a sustainable force for the issues at hand.
In 2018, Greta Thunberg (then 15) called for stronger action to prevent further global warming all by herself striking outside of Swedish Parliament. This has since then turned into an international movement of school students who skip class to participate in demonstrations to demand actions against the climate change. This new energized climate movement has sent ripples far beyond the students and their parents. It involves both traditional and new environmental organizations as well as other professions who form subgroups all over the world i.e. #teachersforclimate.
Greta has attended conferences and climate debates all over the world. She harshly addressed the UN Climate Change Conference and during 2019 she has been on the cover of many international prestigious publications including TIME magazine. She has been nominated for several prizes including the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her initial school-strike, which she did solo, transformed into a movement that has inspired millions of people around the world to do the same. The last large synchronized demonstration involved more than 150 countries.
And this, my friends is democracy at practice.
People coming together to put pressure on decision makers and the elite, demanding a better society for all. That is the core of social movements.
The question is how lasting this climate movement will be over time.
Is Greta Thunberg, and her success in getting the world’s attention, a fad? Or, is she here to shape the future for generations to come? And perhaps most important of all, how will her engagement impact other youth and how they will carry on her torch for days and years to come? What does this movement need in order to become consistent, and is the pure magnitude of participants a guarantee for that?
No one can deny the realization of their potential power the participation of this global movement has sparked among youth activists. Can you imagine having been part of something this impactful as a 12 year old? These youth activists are virtually standing on the threshold to a lifelong engagement.
In a historical context we can’t forget that communication has always played integral part in societal changes. What internet and social media has offered “Fridays for Future” (the name the school strikes have been associated with) is as important as newspapers once where for societal changes. When movements on voting rights took off around the industrialized world in the early 20th century, for example.
To be part of something of this magnitude—where ones own actions clearly matter—creates a memory for life of commitment, influence and global togetherness. And this last aspect is a perspective to be addressed for all of those who are worried of the future of liberal democracies. These relations and strong feelings of being true agents of change can easily be reinforced, maintained and prosper through digital media tools and platforms. Part of what is going on around Greta and Fridays for Future can perhaps be seen as a new form of political behavior and increase political participation in different countries where the movement is strong.
If so, Fridays for Future is in this very moment creating a new generation of politicians. It is a fact that the desire to be politically active in such young and formative age is very important. I’d go so far to say that it means everything for the continuous interest in joining political movements.
This is backed up by a Swedish study on civic engagement, a seven-year and multidisciplinary research project at Örebro University in Sweden. The study, Political Socialization and Human Agency: The Development of Civic Engagement from Adolescence to Adulthood, explores how political engagement among youth and their political interest, as well as their disinterest, is formed before the age of 16.
In other words, Fridays for Future as a practical democracy application that happens week after week among young people who have participated in school strikes and climate demonstrations, almost like a class on the curriculum.
This bodes for hope.
Not only for the climate but also the political engagement with future generations. It is also an excellent opportunity for those who see themselves as current key figures in the climate challenges we are up against. Such actors, whether they are an environmental movement, a corporation or a non-profit, or a political party, should come forward and share their work, visions and their experiences and continuous interventions. If they want to be embraced by this new generation they must work to find a way to be relevant to them. Media too should be genuinely curious about that by now.
There are also indicators that this movement just like many other major movements, will fade with time regardless of the immense interest right now. The belief that what Greta has started for climate change will work by itself, ignited by the pure force of so many participants over the world. This could prove dangerous.
People have come together in history and both succeeded and failed in what they wanted to change. The Washingtonian movement, for example, was started by six drunkards who by the support of each thought they could remain sober. The Washingtonians as a movement were against the consumption of alcoholic beverages because of the negative effects on individuals and society. They supposedly engaged the amazing figure of 600,000 people. In the 1840’s. It is mind blowing and offers perspective on the constant ability of people to team up in order to change things.
The Washingtonian movement is however often used as a classic example of how efforts and groups can fail due to lack of organizational skills; one being the challenge in finding ones role, when others engage in the same issue. They lost focus and lacked capability and communication methods to establish a sustainable organization. However one of the latest analysis of what made them fail come to the conclusion that what they did achieve was a tremendous strengthening of total abstinence sentiment and the actual enlistment of millions to the temperance cause.
The parallel here with Fridays for Future is clear. Regardless of time in history, together they do have the capability to create a huge movement. But will they be capable of managing, organizing and maintaining what they started?
A current concern I have with Fridays for Future is that it’s not distinct how the democratic process works within the movement. This is beyond the possibility to arrange a local school demonstration that can be linked to the larger platform of Fridaysforfuture.org. It is crucial that these factors are clearer and more inclusive in order to become a social movement that lasts.
They are also loosely linked to organizations that clearly work with different methods than Fridays for Future have used so far. One of them is the movement Extinction Rebellion. When Greta talked at one of their events in London she called upon the audience that is time to rebel.
”Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground.
So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules.
Because the rules have to be changed.
Everything needs to change. And it has to start today.
So everyone out there, it is now time for civil disobedience,
it is time to rebel.”
Greta ThunbergMedium “We don´t have time – the Rebellion has begun
Her speech was part of a launch of Extinction Rebellion’s climate action against the UK government. Just a few weeks prior they stopped commuters, which lead to fights between commuters and climate activists. Is that the best suited group for such attack? And what are the limits of the rebelling that Greta calls on this movement, which is loosely connected to Fridays for Future, to do?
This is a clear example of how Fridays for Future can easily splinter into offshoots with different methods, and possibly with different end goals even. Greta commented on Instagram : “If standing up against the climate and ecological breakdown and for humanity is against the rules then the rules must be broken.”
This kind of message could easily be interpreted in a dangerous way by an angry crowd.
Another obvious weakness is how media has gotten hung up on making a Savior-like portrait of Greta. After all, the traditional media platform is still of great importance for a large, broad and lasting impact that gives more perspective than those of a “Savior”. It also creates an increased pressure on Greta as an individual, and in a negative way. It is quite possible that media’s portrayal of her will have an effect that prevents the movement to move forward without the central figure it’s associated with. It could also pose a great personal danger for Greta. Not only that her movement is split into different methods. The media focus on Greta also spurs climate skeptics and in particular those who are found in nationalistic groups. Surely, after her tour in the US, and the media attention she reaped, Greta has ended up even more as a target by those who oppose her views. This is worrisome.
A so-called “founder syndrome” can easily befall Fridays for Future when more and more want to get involved but the way into the organization is diffuse. Today it’s not possible to become a member of Fridays For Future even if some other organizations are sprouting up around it
So is this a weakness or strength?
Maybe is this the first and lasting example of how the young are in charge of their own evolvement that can be viewed as a new way to organize. They may not need any specific democratic processes at all during this moment, but over time it can surely be viewed as a sign of frailty if it also leads to a number of fractions that are all pushing for different solutions.
In Sweden, one network collects about 90 organizations and independent actors who say they are taking the warnings from environmental science seriously. Swedish climate activism is made up of a mix of different organizations, including the more established environmental groups. All involved should strive to become relevant for the school-striking students over time. Key is a desire to listen to the youth as much as telling them what they are doing (within the environmental field).
Just like declining the award she recently turned down, Greta Thunberg should have considered against going to Madrid, Spain, where the UN Climate Conference was moved due to unrest in Chile. She could have participated online, perhaps being represented by other climate activists, in order for her movement to grow and develop. But she chose different and is currently on her way in a catamaran sailed by two Youtubers and professional sailors whose brand and following will benefit greatly and increase hugely by the collaboration.
It is important that media stop portraying Greta as some type of Jesus figure and instead focus on delving into what this true “Greta effect” consists of. Investigate and demand answers from corporations, the general public and politicians on what venues they have chosen and how they act based on what science tells us about the climate issue.
Popular movements can create a balance between despair and action. The knowledge that people, throughout history, have come together and solved similar problems is extremely important and soothing. People have been behind societal changes in the past and will of course be in the future as well. Keeping history on the forefront and looking back at i.e. how the Swedish democracy was built and how changes came to fruition will provide important building blocks for what is being constructed now.
Lastly, do not underestimate the aspect of a loose organization with one Savior-like figure on top, and that this engagement concerning climate awareness could easily derail and turn into a “street parliament”. It will lead to violence. And as we know, many anti-democratic movements find power in interfering with all types of protests against the elites and political power. A streak of contempt for politicians and the great climate angst, which is growing within some areas of the new movement, can become paralyzing and eventually turn into panic. Such panic can easily turn into a poisonous cocktail of popular anti-democratic factions, made up by people who also despise the elite and are already challenging the liberal democracies over the world.
I am not trying to put more pressure on Greta Thunberg, but calling for caution and engagement by the rest of the world, and in particular, urging media to stop writing about the teen phenomenon and start writing about the true Greta effect. It is after all, her influence on the daily work of so many people that can move things forward. And that is actually happening. The sense of urgency is a true creative force. Panic on other hand will only destroy us.
Photo: Marco Verch
By Brit Stakston | November 7, 2019