Greta Thunberg. This time last year she was unimaginable. Then, pretty much from nowhere, there she was: small and slight, a girl just turned 16, the way-too-young odd person out on a panel of adults sitting in front of the world’s economic powers at Davos last January. Unshowy and serious, careful, firm, she said it. Our house is on fire.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this: parrhesiastes. It means a person who speaks truth to power: you should not be behaving in this way. Don’t. More specifically it suggests someone in whom directness of expression and access to truth coincide; and it means someone of very little power who’s risking everything – because they can’t not, there’s no option – to speak ethical truth to powers so entrenched that they’re close to tyrannical, because telling this truth is about moral law. “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular know exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue to make unimaginable amounts of money, and I think many of you here today,” she said to the World Economic Forum conference, “belong to that group of people.”
Thunberg is Swedish; she was born in 2003 and lives in Stockholm with her younger sister Beata, her mother, a singer, and her father, an actor. There’s a picture of the family somewhere online taken when she was much younger; her mother and father are smiling broad old-fashioned smiles at the camera – doing what you do when you have your photo taken. Both the children, only waist- and knee-high, regard the lens with utter seriousness and inquiry. At eight years old, Greta Thunberg heard about climate change. She wondered why no one was doing anything to stop it. At 11 she stopped speaking, in protest; now she sees that “selective mutism” as the first step to understanding the power and necessity of speaking at all.
She was 15 when she began taking days off her education to sit in front of the Riksdag in Stockholm, declaring she’d do this till Sweden reduced carbon emissions in line with the Paris agreement. She gave out leaflets: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” She made a couple of speeches internationally that tapped into a profound unspoken understanding in young people; in just six months, nearly one and a half million children across the world were schoolstriking for action on climate change. Her Instagram post on these strikes reads: “Time is much shorter than we think. Failure means disaster. The grown-ups have failed us. And since most of them, including the press and the politicians, keep ignoring the situation, we must take action into our own hands. Starting today. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is needed. Please join in.”
Earlier this month Opec declared Thunberg, and with her the other young climate activists, the “greatest threat” to the fossil fuel industry. Thunberg tweeted them her thanks. “Our biggest compliment yet.” Hers is a voice totally unlike the world’s usual power-cacophony: clean, simple, inclusive, the voice of someone refusing to beguile. She talks ethics to politics without flinching. She cuts through the media white noise and political rabble-rousing to get to the essentials. This is a communal voice and Thunberg is its lightning conductor, and no wonder: when you hear her speak or you read her speeches you know you’re in the presence of the opposite of cynicism – of a spirit, in fact, that rebuffs cynicism and knows that the way we act, every single one of us, has transformatory impact and consequence. “The real power belongs to the people.”
This voice lets us know we’re in disavowal, and that we’d better wake up. Then it tells us, clear as anything, how to do this. Ali Smith.