Must you be a cynical old miser to cock an eyebrow at Greta Thunberg and her school striking movement? The 16-year-old Swede has won the hearts of the tree-hugging left with her Fridays For Future movement, bagging a slot in last year’s TIME 100 and counting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Leonardo DiCaprio among her fans. But she’s also garnered a fair bit of criticism: her moral crusade reaches for unachievable level of ideological purity, my colleague Joanna Rossiter argues. Plus isn’t she effectively a prop for a European clean energy lobby set to make a fortune from the greening of Western economies? At least that’s what the positively ancient climate heretic Dominic Green thinks, a man so old he is probably decomposing into fossil fuel as you read this.
Thunberg’s rise piggybacks on another trend in activism: causes fronted by young people it would be very uncool to critique. The Parkland teens prompted the pro-gun lobby to ask itself ‘do I want to shout down the victim of a school shooting?’ Now, we have Greta, not just a teenager, but a meek and polite one, who is open about her various disabilities. What kind of total bastard would stand in the way of her yacht?
I went to Midtown Manhattan to find out.
After a fairly eco-conscious commute – the subway and a long walk – a couple of high-schoolers directed me to the Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. Around a hundred or so teenagers were standing in small groups talking to each other, a throng of braces, Vans sneakers and backpacks. I was struck by how much better these kids dressed than I did at their age. Dotted among them were adults – some parents with young children, some activists trying to recruit for their NGOs, the rest media from all over the world (when you show up on the UN’s doorstep, what do you expect?)
The teens were idly holding placards by their sides unless asked to pose for a picture. Some choice slogans included ‘#METOO MOTHER EARTH’, ‘I’m with her 🌎’ and ‘our house is on fire – ecocide = genocide’. Some bore the Extinction Rebellion logo, drawn on in Sharpie. Most of these guys hadn’t actually returned to school yet (class starts on September 5), which perhaps explained the sense of aimlessness the meet initially had. Upon arrival it felt as though this gathering could have taken place in a mall rather than a sweltering park.
That all changed when a top-knotted photographer started to set up his shot. He assembled a few placard-holders and seated some on the steps.
‘So we’re not necessarily doing smiles, it’s a serious business,’ he said, directing the high-schoolers where to point their feet and shoulders. The group swelled, with more teens joining, signs in hands. After pushing the gathering crowd back, the photographer said ‘let’s have some chanting.’ On cue, the local heads of the Fridays For Future chapter began:
‘What do we want?’
‘When do we want it?’
‘If we don’t get it?’
‘Shut it down!’
‘If we don’t get it?’
‘Shut it down!’
‘We are unstoppable, a better world is possible! We are unstoppable, a better world is possible…’
I heard a voice of an older man from over my shoulder. ‘So you think the sun’s gonna heat up and boil the oceans? Maybe not for a few thousand years…’ None of the chanting teens seemed to notice.
‘Thank you all,’ said the photographer, turning around, and the students immediately started dispersing. But then, a small entourage of adults showed up, flanked by police. A pigtailed girl emerged from their midst, and posed for photos with the New York FFF leaders.
Greta Thunberg is, unsurprisingly, rather small in person – but by goodness did she make a big impression.
‘Is it her?’ ‘Oh my God!’ came the chatter from the high-schoolers and the media. At that point it was impossible to tell which was which.
She didn’t stay long before being escorted back towards the United Nations. ‘Thank you Greta! We love you!’ members of the crowd yelled. Thunberg turned back around, nodding to acknowledge them.
As she turned the corner, I passed a teenage girl who had just shaken Greta’s hand, heading back towards her friends. She was almost hyperventilating. ‘That was so cool!’, she exclaimed.
Twelve years ago, when I was in high school, no one seemed to care that much about anything. Seeing the excitement for myself today, it’s pretty hard to be cynical.