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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

Greta Thunberg addresses the National Assembly In Paris on July 23, 2019 in Paris, France. Photo: Micah Garen/Getty Images

InIn 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), also got involved, calling Thunberg’s recent GQ cover “a bit… weird?” Journalist and extremely problematic public figure Toby Young agreed.

There’s an abundant sense of glee in these mean tweets from adults directed toward a 16-year-old with Asperger’s. In fact, Thunberg has been cruelly mocked for her autism by adults who have major public platforms. What all these grown-ups have in common is that they’re yelling across the aisle at a schoolgirl in defense of their own right-wing politics. It’s a terrible look for them, but their words could have much worse consequences for Thunberg.

Unless the writers delete their tweets, those words will always remain out in the public domain. The widespread online bullying may have real, long-lasting effects, stopping Thunberg from growing and changing like her peers. As author Kate Eichhorn writes in her book The End of Forgetting: Growing Up With Social Media, “Several decades into the age of digital media, the ability to leave one’s childhood and adolescent years behind is now imperiled… Can one ever transcend one’s youth if it remains perpetually present?”

As a result, the future emotional fallout for Thunberg is potentially huge. Jillian Roberts, PhD, a child psychologist and professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, warns that the jokes and abuse not only are hurtful and demeaning to young advocates, but may also discourage other young people from activism. “It could cause anxiety and undermine self-confidence,” Roberts tells GEN. “It could diminish hope and one’s confidence that the world is a good and positive place.”

Isabelle Letellier, PhD, a psychologist and lecturer in child and youth studies at Stockholm University, Sweden, explains that adult-on-child bullying is particularly harmful. “Children are obviously more vulnerable than grown-ups, because they are in the process of building their identity,” she says.

For Thunberg, her confrontational approach toward climate change defies many social and cultural norms in her home country of Sweden, where the media obsession over her activism has reached unhealthy levels, Letellier says. “Society, in general, is mostly uncomfortable with Greta’s tone — the fact that she dares to actually say things that can only guilt adults.”

“Activists like Greta Thunberg are vital leaders who call demanding bold action from our political leaders to address the climate emergency.”

While pundits may feel threatened by Thunberg, it’s crucial to keep in mind that July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded on our planet. A few weeks ago, Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in one day. Marine heat waves are now instantly killing coral reefs. We feel scared and helpless, yes, but that doesn’t explain why a child must be the one to shoulder the burden, take time off school, and sail across the world — and yet still need to fend off cruel jibes along the way.

What is it about a child activist that obsesses the media and the public, at least for a while? There’s a hope that young people can shock our governments into change. The image of a child’s face should serve as a reminder to politicians that climate change is going to harm future generations, so they have to start legislating for a world beyond their one or two terms in office.

Paul Zeitz, who once worked in sustainable development for the U.S. State Department and now serves as a policy adviser at the Foundation for Climate Restoration, says that youth activism is a “critical factor” behind a surge in bipartisan climate bills being introduced in Congress. “Activists like Greta Thunberg are vital leaders who call demanding bold action from our political leaders to address the climate emergency,” Zeitz tells GEN. “It is no longer workable to stand silent while the prospects that humanity will go extinct are increasing with each day of inaction.”

“Inspirational activists like Greta are born once a decade.”

Child activists seem so brave and vulnerable out in the world, like plucky fairy-tale orphans, as their parents make only rare appearances in their public narratives. Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala and author of the memoir Let Her Fly, says it’s imperative that parents provide emotional support to their child activists. “Inspirational activists like Greta are born once a decade,” he tells GEN. “It is always a challenge when young activists set out on a mission it should not be their responsibility to deliver.”

Are we discussing climate change more these days? Absolutely. Has Thunberg’s presence in the news gotten us more interested in the subject? Possibly. Global warming seems to be speeding up and becoming more visible in its effects, just as Thunberg is becoming ubiquitous within our media. So, can our fascination with her be explained by the simple human need to anthropomorphize everything, even the slow, man-made death of our planet? Probably.

“We should appreciate gradual change, which begins with a few individuals who themselves believe in it. Today, many smart children inspire the older generation,” Yousafzai says. His world-famous daughter has already left home and moved into adulthood; she just finished her second year at University of Oxford, where she’s studying politics, philosophy, and economics. Looking back on his daughter’s years as a child activist, Yousafzai adds, “It is not the children’s fault if their fame outweighs their impact. It is our fault for not listening to them, for underestimating them. We are blind to their purity and deaf to their song of tomorrow.”

The citizens of Le Guin’s imaginary Omelas choose to be blind and deaf to the child’s suffering by locking the poor kid away in a cellar. Out here in the real world, though, we do the opposite, plastering them over magazine covers, TV screens, and social media. We might call them prophets, but we’re not really listening to them, are we? We just want to put a face to our enormous, vague fears while we comfort ourselves with the hope that there will always be more time.

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