Youth and activism
Updated: May 11, 2022
Just a year ago, Greta Thunberg was alone in the climate strike, striking outside the Swedish Parliament to highlight the Swedish government’s inaction on combatting climate change. This year, she is heralded as the leader of a movement that has inspired millions to join the strike. As much praise as she is receiving for "bringing momentum" to climate change activism, the criticism has been vicious. The two most prominent areas of attack have been her abilities and her age.
There's no doubt that what Thunberg is doing is mentally tolling for anybody, regardless of their previous mental stability. However, the topic of mental health and ableism would not be in the conversation if a "normal" teenager were to lead the climate strike. In her 2018 TED talk, Thunberg shares that "she was diagnosed with Asperger's, OCD, and selective mutism." She calls her Asperger's diagnosis her "superpower," but that does not stop people from using her diagnoses as a way to "prove" she is mentally unstable or otherwise incompetent.
Just as recently as last Monday, Sept. 23, Michael Knowles from the Daily Wire was a host on Fox News and called Thunberg a "mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and the international left." Since then, a spokesperson for Fox News told The Washington Post “the comment made by Michael Knowles who was a guest on The Story tonight was disgraceful — we apologize to Greta Thunberg and to our viewers.” However, Knowles refuses to apologize, defending himself by saying that "there is nothing shameful about living with mental disorders" but there is "with exploiting a child—particularly a child with mental disorders—to advance your political agenda."
This leads to the other major point of criticism: her age. To some extent, I understand why people are uncomfortable with the thought of listening to a teenager. The power dichotomy feels reversed. Younger people generally look up to the expertise of older generations; Thunberg, in being the face of a global movement, flips those tables. I also think back to what I was like as a 16-year-old and I cringe. I'm sure most people will say the same about themselves. However, it's important to not project our embarrassment from our teen years onto other teens. These people are raising understandable concerns about the trajectory of our planet. Their futures are the ones being affected by our current policies and decisions.
Also, I understand why someone's youth may be associated with naïveté or susceptibility. Teenagers can be prone to social pressures like peer pressure or parental pressures. However, Thunberg made it clear that her activism was based on her own passion, not her parents' ambitions. Last year, Thunberg's parents "weren’t very fond of [a school strike]," telling her that "if I were to do this I would have to do it completely by myself and with no support from them." Although they are much more supportive now and have changed their lifestyles to honor their daughter's cause, Thunberg herself took the first step.
It's also important to note that Thunberg is not asking to be a leader of the climate change response, nor does she claim to know the exact policies that will save us from our climate crisis. Does she offer suggestions, such as limiting aviation and consuming a plant-based diet? Sure. However, on a larger scale, she is trying to raise awareness, directing the authority towards climatologists and holding policymakers accountable.
There are far more young activists fighting for climate protection. Autumn Peltier, an indigenous Canadian, advocates for clean water. Alexandria Villaseñor founded Earth Uprising. Alongside Thunberg, she helped organize the Sept. 20 climate strike and filed a complaint against five of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gasses. This is the tip of the iceberg; there are more young activists fighting for a cleaner planet.
Frankly, I don't know the "right" answers to how to combat climate change. I don't know what policies will most effectively stop us from hitting the 2°C benchmark or how best to realistically protect the environment while allowing society to continue normally. Neither do the children who participated in the school climate strike. Even Thunberg and the other on-the-rise youth activists don't. All we simply ask is for dialogue that can help us find these solutions and policy to follow.