Greta, Interrupted

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Words || Lucy MacCulloch

In late July, Andrew Bolt said some offensive crap about Greta Thunberg (surprise!). It’s not worth repeating, but in the spirit of journalistic integrity the gist of it included calling her a mentally disturbed leader of a doomsday cult. A fun Friday night for me, honestly.

There’s a few things to unpack here. A big one is the ableism. 

Greta Thunberg has been very open about having Asperger’s syndrome, a milder autism spectrum disorder. Far from it making her “mentally disturbed”, Greta has described her Asperger’s as a “gift” as it lets her see through people’s lies and allows her to regard climate as a black-and-white issue. This ‘difference’ is  what made her school strike happen in the first place. 

In a society that perpetuates such fear-mongering around autism, this positivity is vital. Furthermore, Greta doesn’t conform to the usual ableist narrative of, ‘look at this successful person and how they overcame their disability or illness to be successful.” Instead, Greta says no — she is successful in part because of her Asperger’s.

The “mentally disturbed” jab could also be in regard to how open Greta has been about her depression when she was 11. After finding out about climate change and how little was being done to stop it, she stopped eating and became selectively mute, only speaking when she felt it was truly important– a.k.a. right now. 

I don’t need to tell you that making fun of someone’s mental illness is shitty. Not only that, her response was completely reasonable and valid. It’s increasingly well-documented that the climate is strongly linked to our mental health. A recent survey in Greenland, a country that lost 12 billion tonnes of ice in a day, found that 90% of its citizens know climate change exists and that it is significantly impacting their mental health, specifically,  through anxiety and depression. The Amazon rainforest is on fire right now and I would love to get into bed, put the duvet over my head and stay there for a good month or so. Climate grief is real, folks.

And this is my issue with the idea of the “doomsday cult”. There’s a lot of room for nihilism when you start thinking about the climate, especially if it isn’t directly affecting you. We’re all going to die, there’s no hope, what’s the point, your protests are annoying–  go away. There’s a difference between being hopeless and being apathetic. Greta says we have to earn our hope, and the only way we do that comes from action, not sitting around saying ‘she’ll be right, it’s fine, carry on as usual’. The house is on fire, things are really, really bad, and it’s time to panic. We just need to make sure the panic and grief doesn’t paralyse us, make us numb to the suffering going on around us, and push us into apathy and acceptance.

Thirdly, there is one aspect Andrew Bolt and I agree on, unfortunately: we both have an issue with how adults treat Greta Thunberg. This manifests in a few ways. 

For one, it’s given a lot of adults permission to bow out of climate activism because ‘hey, the kids are all right, I’m sure it will be fine.’

The second one is bipartisanship. Greta Thunberg is a very intelligent and very busy girl. She is completely capable of holding nuanced discussions about politics, and we should listen to her. But she’s also 16 years old, allowed to make mistakes, and also allowed to change her mind. Greta posts a photo of herself wearing an anti-fascist shirt and has to apologise because the US media has successfully convinced people that Antifa is: firstly, an organisation and not the literal opposite of that (what do you think anarchy is?) and secondly, inherently violent. If she came to the conclusion herself, that would be one thing, but instead she was piled on by people on Twitter who are more interested in having her meet their acceptability standards than actually having an impact on politics. 

I want to give her the room to do her own research, come to her own conclusions, let her become her own person with her own views. She’s going to fuck up, she’s going to do stuff I don’t agree with. She has done, and will continue to, do a lot of really amazing stuff as well, and she’s done that by following her own path. Let her.

I’ve seen this idea from the right and left, that Greta was placed at the forefront of the climate movement as a “gotcha” card against right-wing pundits like, “Oh, you dare attack a CHILD?” First of all: bold of you to assume that the left is organised enough to do anything other than earnestly participate in bad-faith debates with people that are so untethered from rationality they think rising sea levels are prime real estate opportunity. Secondly, as if the right hasn’t been attacking children for decades, if not centuries. Admittedly they are usually non-white children, but hey, it’s 2019.

In an ideal world, literal children wouldn’t have to be leading the climate movement because adults would have taken charge and put human and animal life in front of their paychecks, privilege and power. But are we really going to criticise these kids for taking an interest in the world? For learning? For being angry about injustice? 

Here’s the thing: Greta’s viewpoints aren’t suddenly going to get more ‘legitimate’ in two years time when she’s legally able to vote. In the same way that plenty of adults well past their 20s don’t properly inform themselves or just don’t care to use their vote in a way that best represents them. Tonnes of teenagers read the same news that you and I do and come to the same conclusions. We are in trouble, and we need action now.

You don’t have to agree with them on all points, nor are they beyond criticism. In fact, we owe them the respect to properly engage with their ideas. 

Climate change is the hardest thing humanity is going to have to tackle because it involves reckoning with every major atrocity we’ve ever committed, including but not limited to: colonialism, corruption, classism. No one has any one answer because it involves everyone from every discipline. We need the decades of research and pragmatism that comes from experience and age. But we need some childish idealism too, the kind that wants to share with others, help people, that celebrates compassion. 

We can discuss the insurance and the shopping list and the colour of the kitchen cabinets all we want. The house we’re living in is still on fire. It’s time we put it out.