What Does the Rise of the Child Activist Say About Us?
The media obsession with — and recent mockery of — teen climate activist Greta Thunberg show how we’re failing future generations
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 dystopian short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” the eponymous city pays a high price for the happiness of its inhabitants: the constant torture of one child kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.
Everyone in Omelas knows about the child: “This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve,” Le Guin writes, “whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child.” Occasionally, a citizen can’t take the fact that their life rests upon a child’s suffering, and they leave for parts unknown (hence the title of the story).
Le Guin’s story comes to mind now as I watch grown adults using social media to pile on climate change activist Greta Thunberg. The Swedish teen is currently sailing across the North Atlantic on a zero-emissions trip to attend the United Nations climate talks. And despite Thunberg’s noble cause, high-profile pundits are finding excuses to ridicule her. “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August,” Arron Banks, a co-founder of the Leave. EU campaign who is currently under investigation for smuggling diamonds out of South Africa, tweeted last week. After causing outrage online, he followed up, saying, “It was a joke.”
Banks wasn’t the only right-wing commentator to mock Thunberg. Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer joined in the jeering by addressing her tweets directly to the teenager: “Hi Greta, I’ve just booked some long haul flights for my family to enjoy some winter sun on the beach this Christmas. Level of guilt being felt: 0%.”
Sarah Vine, a newspaper columnist and wife of Tory politician Michael Gove (who once seemed entranced by a Thunberg speech)…