All eyes have been on Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish activist, as she begins her journey across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral sailing ship to speak at a meeting of the United Nations on climate change. Air travel generates tons of carbon emissions. She won’t do it. And we like watching her not do it.
Thunberg first came to public notice about a year ago, via a personal protest in front of the Swedish Parliament. This in turn inspired a worldwide series of strikes by school children, called Fridays for Future, drawing more than a million participants. Nearly 1,600 strikes in 118 countries were planned for this spring, including fifty strikes organized by Laudato Si’ Generation, a youth initiative under the umbrella of the Global Catholic Climate Movement. As the clock runs out on the opportunity to turn back some of the worst effects of climate change, Greta, as her supporters call her, has been incredibly brave, focused, and passionate about her cause. In recognition of her efforts, she has been nominated for a Nobel Prize, and affirmed by Pope Francis. She has become an icon of the children-and-youth movement demanding concrete action for sustainability in response to the climate crisis.
On one level, the Greta Thunberg phenomenon conforms to a well-known pattern: one highly motivated individual, present at the right place and time in history, ignites a movement and becomes its public face. The kindling was ready—mounting concern about the environment, and a growing sense of the need for change—and she struck the match. The timing is what matters.