«The first time I heard about global warming, I thought it couldn’t be true. Because if it were true, we wouldn’t talk about anything else. When you turn on the TV, they’ll talk about it. On the radio, in the newspapers, you would never read or listen about anything else. As if it were a world war. But nobody does it…”
Greta Thunberg, May the 30th, 2018
Officially, Greta Thunberg’s presentation in society was on August the 20th, 2018, the day she sat down in front of the Swedish parliament to demand that the country’s political parties, which a few weeks later ran in the elections, committed to making policies against climate change.
But the truth is that her entry into the scene of public activism was almost 3 months earlier, on May the 30th (that is, exactly 3 years ago today) with the publication of an article in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, the third most widely read in Sweden. It was published as a result of the competition by this newspaper asking for articles on climate change written by young people.
This is the note published by the newspaper to accompany it:
«The most shared article in the last 24 hours is that of 15-year-old Greta, who came in second in our competition for young people. Don’t miss it! It describes the insecurities and fears she feels for climate change. Why do politicians lie? She wonders and writes that we now have a responsibility to act. Greta Thunberg says that Sweden cannot be considered a leading country in terms of emissions, as politicians sometimes say, but that we are the ones who need help.”
She opened an Instagram account to celebrate it, and started it with a snapshot of the list of the most shared articles the next day, June 1, and the only comment that accompanied it was “The most shared on SvD two days in a row”, with a couple of happy faces:
She also posted a photo of the article:
Here is the translation of the text:
WE KNOW, AND NOW WE CAN DO SOMETHING
I want to feel safe.
When I come home alone in the afternoon.
When I’m sitting on the subway.
When I sleep at night.
But I don’t feel safe.
Because… how could I feel safe knowing that we are in the greatest crisis in human history?
When I know that if we don’t act right now, it will be too late?
The first time I heard about global warming I thought it couldn’t be true. Because if it were true, we wouldn’t talk about anything else. When you turn on the TV, they’ll talk about it. On the radio, in the newspapers, you would never read or listen about anything else.
As if it were a world war. But nobody does it…
And if someone does, almost no one agrees with what scientists say. The other day I was watching a political debate on TV and I saw them lying. They said it was not a good idea to invest in reducing emissions in Sweden, because we are a real «leading country» and that what we should do is «help other countries» to reduce their emissions.
Sweden is not a «leading country», it emits an average of 11 tons of CO2 per person per year, we are the eighth country in the world according to WWF.
We are the ones who need help.
I don’t understand how they can lie like that way on TV. Maybe many adults think that climate problems are difficult to understand?
Maybe that’s why, when a program is devoted to the weather, it becomes a children’s program? I understood the problem with the climate when I was 12 and decided not to fly anymore or eat meat again.
The climate crisis is the biggest problem of our time.
Still, everyone believes that we can solve this crisis without making any effort, without making sacrifices.
“Think positive!” Everyone tells me.
It’s as if, when the Titanic collided with the iceberg, everyone had sat down and started talking about what stories survivors could tell and how famous they would become. Or how many jobs are created to help them.
The ship should sink completely no matter what they did. But we can avoid the collision. We know the iceberg is there. We even know the exact coordinates. But we don’t slow down, nor do we change direction. And then we praise ourselves because we could have let go of weight. And meanwhile we increase the speed.
Will we reduce it in time?
If I reach the age of 100 I will live until 2103. When we think about the future now, we no longer think beyond 2050. Then at best I still won’t have reached the middle of my life. And what will happen next? In 2078 I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children and grandchildren, maybe they will come to celebrate that day with me.
Maybe we’ll talk about when I was a little girl.
Maybe they’ll ask me about you.
How do you want to be remembered then?
What you do or don’t do right now will affect the lives of my children and grandchildren. They maybe will ask me why you did nothing and why those who knew and could have said something did not.
Greta Thunberg, 15 years old.”
The success of this article, which foreshadowed the speech that made her world famous a few months later, gave her some visibility, and several Swedish climate activists contacted her to talk about possible joint actions, but this attempt was not succesful.
In February 2019, answering to a tweet from Greta herself complaining about rumors and lies already circulating about her, one of the participants in that meeting, meteorologist Martin Hedberg, explained on Twitter why:
«I participated in a phone-meeting with Greta, Bo (Thoren) and others in June 2018. After a while Greta concluded: «You are not radical enough. I have to do something myself.» and then she hung up. She went on to do her thing, her way. For that I am very grateful.»
It seems that in that conversation the proposal to start a school strike was already raised, inspired by the students of a high school in Florida, in the United States, who had refused to return to class after a massacre, but the rest of the participants did not “buy” the idea.
She decided to act alone, although the road must not have been easy for a 15-year-old girl who then already had a complicated history: a personal crisis at age 11, refusing to eat for a few months (this episode seems to have been responsible for her childish appearance, because it slowed her growth), diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, selective mutism and other mental pathologies, etc.
She focused on the idea of the school strike, although she found no support, not even from her parents, who however felt they could not oppose it. In fact they were not likely to have made a big drama out of it, considering that by then their daughter’s stubbornness had already turned them into vegans and they had also decided never to take a plane again, which led to the end of the international career of her mother as an opera singer.
The summer of 2018 was very hot in Sweden, and in the northern forests there were large forest fires, very unusual for those latitudes, and that most likely convinced her. The famous school strike began on August 20th, and from that day until September 16, the day of the legislative elections in Sweden, she sat every day outside the building of the Swedish parliament, in the center of Stockholm, quite close to her home, an action that generated the iconic image that we all have in our retinas of a girl almost a child with the poster «Skolstrejk för klimatet» sitting next to a wall.
But street activism may have started earlier. At least, the author of this text, who was on holiday in Stockholm in the last fortnight of July, seems to have seen a girl sitting on a street in the city center with a banner alluding to the climate crisis, but is not sure of it and has not been able to confirm it.
In any case, at the age of 15, Greta could not vote in the elections, but her intention was to influence the election campaign so that the parties would commit to making policies to reduce the country’s emissions. She did not achieve this goal, but her initiative attracted the attention of those who passed in front of Parliament, as well as activists and journalists, who began to give it more and more publicity.
This is one of the moments which those who fight her have interpreted that her strike was the result of an orchestrated campaing with dark intentions: her action was echoed by Ingmar Rentzhog, trained climatically in Al Gore’s Climate Reality «factory», who later founded the organization We Have No Time, and has been linked to the country’s energy lobbies. Rentzhog seems to have played a role in popularizing Greta’s strike in Sweden, and many denialist groups have taken this as a basis to consider her a puppet of these lobbies.
The start of the strike also coincided with the publication of a book by her mother, Malena Ernman, entitled Scener ur hjärtat (Scenes from the Heart), signed by all 4 family members, the parents and the two daughters, about the drama lived with Greta and the subsequent «conversion» of the whole family to the climatic cause. This led the deniers to consider the strike to have been a mere promotion of the book.
The truth is that both accusations are ex post constructions to try to deny and dismantle the legitimacy of the discourse and movement set in motion by Greta. Proof of this is that the first edition of the book was published with a photograph of the mother on the cover, who had been well known in Sweden for years (for example, she represented the country at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009), and that the second, in November, already carried the iconic image of Greta with the banner in front of the Parliament, that is, a kind of acceptance that the alleged promotion had become much more important than the reason for the promotion; and that the original title was so commercially unattractive that most translations have chosen to replace it with phrases or expressions from Greta’s speeches.
In any case, the quick and wide echo of her initiative exceeded the possible machinations that could have been around her, and soon became a global phenomenon. Especially because of a strategic decision made by Greta in mid-September, when the elections had already taken place: she turned the daily strike into a weekly one, with Friday as the chosen day, and with the hashtag #FridaysForFuture. This allowed the strike to be maintained over time (it has now been 145 uninterrupted weeks) and for students from around the world to be able to join it without entering into excessive conflict with their respective school systems.
But surely the strike alone would not have been as successful as it was if it were not for Greta’s ability to generate a new and very powerful discourse on the climate crisis, a discourse that has managed to concentrate exceptionally the magnitude of the huge challenge which the human species faces with climate change.
Aside from her interviews and posts on social media in the first months, the main concretion of this discourse was a Ted Talk, one of these short speeches in front of full audiences, recorded and broadcasted on social media for the organization of the same name under the motto «Ideas worth spreading«.
It is worth revisiting this speech by Greta, only 11 minutes long recorded in Stockholm on November 2018: dressed in an electric blue fleece, slowly expounding her history and her vision on climate change, with a hypnotic cadence that captures the attention from the first moment:
Meanwhile her school strike had begun to be replicated by young students in countries such as Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Australia, etc., with calls almost always made by girls her own age or a little older, all organized around the label she created, #FridaysForFuture, and it ended up becoming a global movement.
A few weeks later she was invited to the IPCC COP24, held in Poland, in Katowice, in her first speech at an international forum and where she used elements from her first article:
But I found out all this later: I personally «discovered» her in a tweet from American activist and author Naomi Klein in January 2019, retweeting another by Greta herself, with a photo of her inside a tent in Davos, where she went to participate in the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. With a splendid smile, she pointed out that the temperature outside was 15 degrees below zero.
My first impression was: what has Naomi Klein seen in this girl? But the next day, in my work as a journalist in the 324cat news web of the CCMA, the Catalan Audiovisual Media Corporation, I had to write my first text about her and in which I included the words she addressed attendees at an informal meeting of celebrities and world-class entrepreneurs and managers at Davos, in which she said the following:
Some people, some companies, some industrialists in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think some of those belong to this group of people.
Discovering Greta affected me a lot, because her discourse and her example married in a very deep way with thoughts and feelings that I had had for decades, but that I had kept buried, perhaps because I had not found outside support to take them out and work on them. All emerged then in me, and led me to write a much more personal text, which I posted on my blog a few weeks later:
All of this made me understand why so many people had noticed her and taken her as a reference and, inspired by her example, had decided to take action, and made me think that most likely the same had happened to me.
Since then I have followed her trajectory, and almost every step she has taken, every decision she has made and every word that has come out of her mouth has only reaffirmed my conviction that, despite her young age, she is one of the most lucid and determined people on the planet, and therefore one of the most valuable.
This entire journey has been portrayed in an exceptional way by the Swedish documentary filmmaker Nathan Grossman, who followed her from the first day of the school strike to the speech in front of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2019, a journey that condensed in the film “I am Greta”. Also Greta herself on the Swedish public radio program aired in June 2020 and published in text form by Time magazine a few weeks later, has analyzed its own role in the movement against the climate crisis.
A few months ago I wrote another article on both:
Why did we have to wait for Greta?
In any case, now looking on all this 3 years after she began her public life, the question that comes to me in a very powerful way is: why didn’t all this happen until Greta arrived? Why haven’t the environmentalist and ecological ideas of the last decades had the same effect, the ideas of those who were supposed to start from convictions similar to those of Greta?
Is it her personal story? Is it her vital example? Is it the power of her speech? Is it the whole of it? Maybe it’s the conviction and radicalism with which she does it all? Could it be that previous discourses have been issued from an Adlerian feeling, from a subaltern mentality, from a previously assumed defeatism?
Or maybe, when they tried to be soft and no problematic, they became just another element of the media sphere, as happened to the main climate activist until the arrival of Greta, Al Gore? I analyzed this case in an earlier text:
The truth is that all these previous ideas have been pointed out as interesting curiosities to read an article and then move on to something else or, on the contrary, stigmatized as «radical» and unrealistic by hegemonic discourses.
Most likely this has happened because the vast majority of these radical discourses have been made from subordinate political positions, positions almost always on the left or far left of the ideological spectrum, and this has been an insurmountable burden that has prevented them from being perceived as relevant by those who were not politically and mentally situated in these spheres.
Ambition and lucidity
In this sense, it seems that Greta has sensed clearly this danger, and therefore has refused to include in her speech any political element that would place her in any specific area, neither right nor left, and has only demanded political action against the climate crisis.
And she has done it with so great ambition, seeking to have the maximum possible impact, an ambition that surpassed that of the Swedish activists who contacted her almost 3 years ago, who did not know then how to value her energy and determination.
What is also true is that she has arrived at a time when the evidence on the dangers and risks of climate change is so enormous that it is worth reacting now, although there is still room for doubt as to when the worst consequences will arrive.
Especially because, apart from this same climate change, it is now more than clear that the dynamics of humanity on the planet are being the equivalent of a cancer or a plague in a living organism, which we either reverse, or it “reverts” us. That is, that «saving the planet» is nothing more than a mantra to continue to deceive ourselves: in any case it will be the planet or the biosphere that will save itself from us, by annihilating our civilization and maybe our species.
My own project
My intention with this text is to close the series of articles and texts that I have written and transcribed about and from Greta, and to dedicate myself from now on to build my own story in relation to the situation we are living as a species, a situation that fascinates me and scares me in equal parts.
In fact, I plan to continue the work that I started a few years ago, before I knew her, around my personal background and everything I learned when I studied history and social anthropology at the university, and which has materialized in the analysis and study of the concept of RETROPROGRESS created by philosopher Salvador Pániker almost 40 years ago.
It is a concept that allows us to see that we humans are captivated by a myth, that of progress, which right now harms us much more than does us good, and that we will only really change and really adapt to the planet when we leave it for a better one.
And that could be, precisely, that of retroprogress.
Josep Maria Camps Collet