Yesterday’s video of Greta Thunberg makes uncomfortable viewing, showing as it does someone in great distress. I’ve read many hot takes about how the 16-year-old climate campaigner triggers middle-aged white men because they’re threatened by a young female who stands up for the truth.
Personally, she makes me uncomfortable because her fame is obviously going to make it very hard for her to live a happy life, and her supporters are not making this prospect any more likely. Some, no doubt, will blame her torment on conservative critics, as if thrusting a child into the most important debate of our time is not going to carry huge psychological risks.
I’m terrified of climate change – as a conservative, I’m terrified of all change – but it’s still possible to agree with Greta and yet feel uncomfortable with children leading political movements. Political actors need to be treated like adults, for their ideas to be fully challenged, and the involvement of kids inevitably feels like using human shields. Some conservatives, inevitably, have gone ahead and attacked her anyway, because after all We Are The Baddies.
It’s been remarked on before but there is something profoundly religious about the Greta phenomenon. Freddie Sayers has noted the similarities to religious conservatives on these pages, Ben Judah likened her to the children of Fatima, but there is also something of Joan of Arc or Catherine of Sienna about the young Swede. These were women, often from modest backgrounds, who with an incredibly powerful faith were able to move kings and popes. But it’s worth pointing out that many of these charismatic figures endured great agonies, and even then their fame was limited by the media of the age. (Another medieval analogy is the Children’s Crusade, in which a shepherd boy led 30,000 children on a crusade into the Holy Land, with predictable results.)
Greta Thunberg’s role is clearly causing her suffering, but I would be surprised if this anxiety did not prove contagious. Her comments the other day, that there seemed little point in acquiring an education if the grown-ups were going to destroy the world, seemed like a deeply unhealthy message to encourage.
My fear of climate change has grown with my children, and my eldest is now at the age where her schoolfriends are going on marches. Yet my instinct is the same as it would be in any perilous situation – that we should tell them it’s going to be fine, because whether we’re rescued or not is entirely up to the grown-ups. Otherwise I fear that we’re going to lumber an entire generation with ever more anxieties about issues over which they have no control.