It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a real master class on social activism play out in the public arena. For the past three years, Donald Trump has owned the journalistic caste and the news cycle in this country. Along the way, the government has managed to throw basic human compassion under the bus at the border and attempted to roll back medical treatment for both the poor and middle class, to name a few examples. And activists, from frontline volunteers, to even Senators like Jeff Merkley, have had to play catchup to Trump’s tune.
Then along comes a small girl with pigtails from Sweden to give all of them an incredible demonstration on how it’s done. With her enemies on places like Fox News, she’s bringing a gun to a knife fight as they self-humiliate their perspectives on an hourly basis. They’ve called her mentally ill (she has publicly self-admitted Aspergers syndrome) attempted to send her back to school (she willingly volunteers to go back if they will just respond to the authority of science) and of course attempted to harass her over silly nonsense.
On my Facebook feed, whose implicit mission seems to be to show you all those nasty thoughts members of your family, friends and their friends have, one classic “Get off my lawn!” character was complaining about Greta not talking about picking up trash in her address to the U.N. He had circulated a piece of fake news conflating a messy beach in Australia with trash protestors had allegedly left behind. They hadn’t. But even so, that’s reaching.
I watched the video of her entering the U.N., right behind our current soon-to-be-ex-president. If looks could have killed, they would have. The speech she gave was the perfect mix of a deep, globally responsible viewpoint, marked with the appropriate egocentricity of a 16-year-old girl. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” she said, cutting her critics regarding her missing school off at the knees.
Regarding missing school, as a teacher all of my life, I can attest to the power of active learning experiences. Nineteenth century novelist Berthold Auerbach famously said, “Years teach us more than books.” There’s no question that Greta is in school right now, while at the same time dramatically reeducating the public on the actual persona of what the rising generation considers important. When I saw the Moscow High School students walk up to their climate rally last Friday, I felt renewed hope. This generation is framing planetary survival as the most important issue.
And while some on the left might attempt to appropriate Greta, she was having none of it. “Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” That quote wasn’t aimed at her critics. It was aimed directly at the hearts of her friends.
To cap off the week, a group of 16 young people from locations across the globe filed a lawsuit against five countries that are the primary signatories of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child. They allege that carbon dioxide pollution is depriving them of any hope for a future. And they’re right. How this will play out is anyone’s guess, but from a strategic activist perspective, this is how you win. At the beginning of any fight, you try all your different punches and see what will land.
Donald Trump snapped back. Attempting to belittle Thunberg, he Tweeted “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” In an awesome act of social media judo, Thunberg captured the quote and put it as her Twitter tagline.
Stay tuned, folks. Change is coming. Our world is becoming their world. And Thunberg is demonstrating this generation’s power.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.