Greta Thunberg: The Over Achieving School Striker Needs to Graduate Now

September saw worldwide attention on Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl who has virtually been the face of the climate change movement over the past year. Has Greta achieved key objectives? Is it time to move to solutions again?

Everyone has a view on Greta Thunberg, the child climate activist. In between all this came the news that the Swedish 16-year-old, now the face of global activism against lack of adequate action on climate change, has just collected another prestigious award.

Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize – the Right Livelihood Award was – conferred to her last week for her work on climate activism. The precocious 16-year-old was recognised “for inspiring and amplifying political demands for urgent climate action reflecting scientific facts”.

Sharing the award with her, lest you miss them like most people, are Davi Kopenawa, a Brazilian indigenous leader who has fought to protect the Amazon rainforest, Guo Jianmei, a Chinese women’s rights lawyer and Aminatou Haidar, a Western Sahara human rights defender.

For these three fellow fighters, the award with its accompanying million Swedish krona is well deserved although they are probably wondering if they might have been better off with separate, individual announcements on different days for each. For so dominant has Greta’s narrative been in recent months leading up to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York that no one really had a chance to be noticed when mentioned in the same line as her.

There is no doubt that Greta, a global citizen now with her instant recognisability and supporters in every part of the world, has made an impact. An impact that rivals if not exceeds those made by someone with all the experience, name recognition, and backers she never started with – Al Gore, former US vice president.

Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth sought to change attitudes and behaviour the same way, with limited impact. Mainly due to his very strengths, as an establishment insider being used against him to discredit some of his most alarmist predictions. That they still haven’t come true has not helped.

Of course, climate change cannot be an exact science and it will be foolish to hope that everything will go to plan. Be its predictions of doom or predictions of technology stepping up once more to save the day. Where Greta has made an impact is by seeking to mobilise the young, for invoking their possibly gloomy future with climate change.

But has she gone too wide with her rhetoric? Not really.

Greta Thunberg’s pitch has been consistent. That the world is simply not listening, or following up their words with real action on the ground. And this is something even a 16-year-old like her can recognise, removing her trust in these ‘leaders’. It is not an incorrect assumption, and her reaction is exactly how a 16-year-old would react.

But there is a risk with her dire warnings and seeming desperation to ‘force’ change.  For one, it risks alienating the biggest cohort of the young and old alike, the billions across Asia, Africa and other regions who barely eke out a subsistence out of limited resources access.

These are people for whom talk about sustainable water use, plastic pollution, energy conservation and responsible eating will be worse than an absurd joke considering the conditions they live under. These are people for whom ‘carbon footprint’ will never, and we dare say, can never actually reach the levels of the average citizen in the developed world.

Because the earth simply doesn’t have that many resources.  They would happily trade an arm and a leg for Greta’s life of ‘destroyed, broken dreams’.  She will also start to realise now that as the world gets down to the details of ‘managing’ climate emergency; drastic moves that impact these billions are simply unfair. Today, over 700 million people live on less than $1.90 per day, with over 1.3 billion poor multi dimensionally. (UN Figures)

Unless the prevailing thinking is why bother when they are already so miserable. That wouldn’t be so odd actually, after all, that is precisely how the pockets of ‘development’ in these countries have come up. By making many wait while ‘some’ moved up. These ‘many’ need to be accounted for now.

For countries like India, climate change discussions have never really occupied centre stage, but by simply doing the ‘right’ things the country has been credited for being at the forefront of achievers.  That is because some of the biggest missions launched here – be it about access to water, energy, or use of solar energy – have been driven by the necessity to provide the basics to people sustainably rather than a reaction to the climate emergency. It’s an example the world can learn from, and take far deeper into every county across the earth.

For the 16-year-old, now would be a good time to seek the normal which is a fuller education that sensitises her to the situation around the world before she returns better armed and with her own world view to her passion.

The battle for saving the earth from our depredations is a very complex one and before its over, it will challenge many cherished notions of how we have evolved, be it our preferred system to get efficient outcomes (markets or capitalism), the indicators we use to measure worth and well being, or simply what is humanity all about, if it allows the fate of billions to be ignored.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna Singh is the founder at IamRenew

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