What does a world leader look like? The common assumption it’s a statesman in a suit has taken a battering in recent times, as a global political class under the heel of capitalism has revealed itself unwilling and unable to rise to the challenges of a planet in a climate crisis. We can no longer take for granted that the heads of the most powerful western democracies will strive to cloak their failings in a veneer of respectability, as a populist authoritarian turn takes nations like the United States into the brazen and surrealist terrain of eccentric demagoguery, cynical science-denial, and an aggressive style of rhetoric aimed at stoking divisions and sowing chaos. With presidents at the helm like Donald Trump, a former television personality with a bent for connecting with his base through facetious, rabble-rousing tweets, it’s perhaps no wonder activist resistance is also scrambling for new forms and outsider voices to appeal in this novel terrain. Enter Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl in braided pigtails who has Asperger’s syndrome and, on the face of things, is as far from a government-savvy lobbyist or leftist counterculture veteran as one could get. When she began her protests in August 2018 at the age of fifteen, it was a solo endeavour, as she sat alone with a placard reading «School Strike for Climate» outside the parliament in Stockholm every Friday. She’d soon, however, inspire a major global movement, as others followed her example with Fridays for Future strikes. A year on, more than seven million people went on strike around the world for the climate — the largest climate strike in history. From being ostracised at school, and having few friends, she was suddenly a star that other teens idolised, and political power-players were clambering for selfies with.
Seeing through the static
I Am Greta, a new feature by Swedish documentarian Nathan Grossman screened at Venice and Toronto, endeavours to make sense of Greta’s role on the world stage, and her personal relationship to social action and celebrity. It’s less a straight biography of her life than consideration of why a youth who doesn’t speak the language of well-oiled networking was so uniquely able to take a stand — and what that indicates about a civilisation with the wrong priorities catastrophically baked into its systems. Grossman, who was introduced to the Thunberg family through a friend, can’t have known in advance the height of influence and exposure Thunberg would have when he started charting her demonstrations with a camera from the outset, but he clearly saw the resonance in what she was doing. The film stresses that her activism has been an organic response to her surroundings and a self-directed development; that she is not simply a stage-managed mouthpiece of adult interests. The very failure of older generations to fulfill their basic responsibilities is what drove her to sound the alarm, she says; a child parentified by their neglect, who must protect the futures of herself and other young people, as the urgent need to curb emissions cannot wait. She regards Asperger’s as an advantage that has enabled her to «see through the static»; to remain immune to the empty platitudes and hypocritical promises of those who talk big about environmental concerns but keep consuming at an unsustainable rate. It has kept her from being starstruck into distraction or swayed by personalities and unusually focused on the bare facts of the situation. «Sometimes I think it might be good if everyone had a tiny bit of Aspergers — especially when it comes to the climate,» she says.
Thunberg’s father, Svante, accompanies her as she attends a busy roster of speaking engagements, from a UN climate conference in Poland to a trip to the United States. A patient and gentle, unassuming presence, he seems the opposite of a stage dad, taking care she does not overdo things, insisting she eat regular meals, and even tactfully suggesting she tone down her rhetoric (she waves him away with the declaration that nothing less than acknowledging «mass extinction» will do.) Their travel, out of carbon footprint concerns, is done by trains, electric cars, and buses, and — in a two-week journey to New York that captivated the media — a yacht powered by solar panels and underwater turbines. While famous figures from Pope Francis to Emmanuel Macron Arnold Schwarzenegger# line up to meet her and grab photo opportunities, she’s unimpressed by the glitz of public functions, sensing all are participating in a fake role-playing game. It’s precisely her bald honesty, unadorned with social niceties and with zero qualms about pointing out the emperor’s lack of clothes, that has cut through an image-obsessed, Instagrammable world.
she’s unimpressed by the glitz of public functions, sensing all are participating in a fake role-playing game
We see her at points homesick and disrupted (her Asperger’s makes routine and order important for her), but she and her family argue that, aside from what’s at stake for the world, activism has turned her life around to make her much happier. When she first grasped the reality of climate change she grew deeply depressed and entered a phase of «selective mutism». Having an impact has brought her back out of her shell, with a sense of purpose. Even death threats from online trolls and patronising insults from autocratic strongmen including Putin, Trump, and Bolsonaro do not phase her, as long as her voice on climate is heard. She chats with a Belgian student activist about their need to take care not to burn out; to keep expanding their non-hierarchical network and to commit their energy to the shared cause. The work these young women have taken upon themselves to do amazes, but their vision of a future world no longer out of kilter is one where such activism would have no place — because grown adults would display true leadership again, and do their jobs by engaging with truth authentically.
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