Monday 21 October 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Greta's a force of nature who puts us all to shame - and it's time we did as she asks'


Inspiration: Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has awoken a new generation of activists. Photo: REUTERS
Inspiration: Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has awoken a new generation of activists. Photo: REUTERS
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Watching Greta Thunberg deliver her speech at the United Nations conference this week prompted competing reactions in many of us.

The first for me was pure admiration for this diminutive and impassioned young person whose commitment to securing a safe future for herself and her generation is an absolute joy to behold. Every time this kid has opened her mouth in public, it has been to stunning effect. "How dare you?" she tearfully asked the assembled officials. "I should be back at school." She has gifted us a new way of talking about the environment - one that's angry, unapologetic and (let's be honest, here) pretty teenagerish. But that suits the moment. It breaks past the alienating terminology around hydrofluorocarbons and anthropogenic emissions. It cuts through the guff.

The second reaction, though (and in this I have something in common with Ryan Tubridy, whose expressions of concern for Greta this week triggered a mini furore), was a creeping unease. It really is strange that the world has pinned its hopes for redemption on a single teenage schoolgirl from Sweden. One who's now so famous she doesn't even need a surname. She's a cipher. A celebrity. With an entourage.

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She inspires memes. Adults over the world have been chuckling over images on Twitter showing her apparent undisguised horror at the appearance of Donald Trump. Clucking in faux sympathy over her (probably rhetorical) observation that she should be back home. In school. The very idea, though. We like Greta where she matters, in the glare of the spotlight, making us feel good about ourselves.

The thing is, though, might Greta really be better off back in school? It's been a year since her once solitary school protest started to garner attention. It's been five months since she made the cover of 'Time' magazine. It's no time for grown-ups, but a year is long when you are 16.

To be clear I have absolutely no truck with Greta-haters. It's been well observed that Ms Thunberg annoys people, as though she represented some kind of a direct threat to their right to exist, or, more accurately perhaps, to their entitlement to keep buying their fruit encased in styrofoam and cling-wrap without feeling guilty about it.

People say her parents are manipulating her into activism. That there's a political conspiracy behind her. But my theory is that there's also a sort of person out there who dislikes the notion of an uppity kid, full stop. There are even more people out there who love to dismiss the opinions of teenage girls in particular. Greta is too serious, too unsmiling, too pessimistic to those who think that way.

As Greta might say, it's just unfair.

The Greta debate descended into new lows this week. Within hours of her speech, an extraordinary scene played out in a Fox news studio as a guest - later bolstered by a mocking tweet about Greta from none other than US President Donald Trump - referred to her as "a mentally ill Swedish child [she has Asperger's] being exploited by her parents and the international left".

It was a deft reminder of how undeserving many of us adults are of our status as custodians of the planet; we are not even custodians of our own stupidity. Good on Greta for replacing her Twitter bio with Trump's mocking description of her.

Greta Thunberg is quite evidently a tough young person with the kind of single-minded tenacity most of us would kill for. OK, she cried on stage but that's clearly not weakness, that's fervour. She's calling us on our neglect of the planet and she is right. Suggesting she is nothing but a pawn of the left entirely underestimates her character.

Greta may have famous and well-connected parents - who facilitated her absence from school and have very likely helped her to publicise her cause, as most modern parents would do - but anyone who has parented a teenager knows it would be near-impossible to make one fake the kind of commitment that's been required. It just would not fly.

Greta is on record as saying her Asperger's is her super-power, that it allows her to keep her focus on horrors like emaciated polar bears and plastic-strewn beaches, while the rest of us think about the bad things for a few seconds and then get back to the business of living our climate-stressing lives. Who among us would ever have been motivated to mount the kind of entirely solo protests Greta Thunberg undertook last year that ultimately led to the global Friday youth climate action protests.

She is a force of nature. She has made us question everything. And she has awoken a whole new generation of young activists, 15 of whom joined her this week by filing a complaint backed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child alleging that five countries violated their rights by not doing enough to address the climate crisis.

All that said, though, a point will surely be reached when even the doughtiest teen must start to wilt under the collective weight of expectation of - at a wild guesstimate - about 50pc of the world's first-world adult population.

The contest Greta has entered - pitting a clear-thinking child against what she memorably calls "fairy tales of eternal economic growth" - doesn't lend itself to swift resolution.

But I guess it's convenient for us to saddle one kid - one exceptional child - with the task of representing our collective Better Side in this matter, leaving us to stand about uselessly shaking our heads and saying variants of "isn't it awful?".

And there's no doubt that it's far easier to watch Greta on the telly and declare her fabulous (or fatuous, depending on your angle) than to actually do something meaningful to reduce our carbon footprint.

Surely it's time for us grown-ups to do as she asks, take the lead and get on with the business of demonstrating our climate crisis bona fides in how we live, work and travel. And in how we vote.

The kids will keep us in check if we falter.

Irish Independent

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