In ransacking history for an equivalent to Greta Thunberg I made the same mistake everyone else makes. I came up (nearly) empty with the exception of the obvious, Joan of Arc. So, this time ignoring gender I expanded my search and came to a startling realization. There simply isn’t an equivalent. If you’re looking for one you’re out of luck. You’re just going to have to wait until another one comes along. There isn’t anyone like Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg — and there never has been.
You can’t even ask her what she was doing when the planes hit the World Trade Center because she hadn’t been born yet. So here we have a human being in our midst who is still in her teens with one more year to go in her teens and four foot eleven inches tall, speaking with the wisdom and intelligence and authority of — well, no one else, really. Perhaps Churchill at the world’s previous darkest hour? Robert F Kennedy at his most elegant? Martin Luther King at his most profound? Maybe. Only somehow better and more urgent and with an eloquence and beauty and simplicity of language like no one else before or since.
It goes without saying that she was going to be derided and reviled and rejected and ignored by our biggest modern monsters like Donald Trump and his even stupider (if it can be imagined) eponymous son, Don Junior. But what on earth are the rest of us, otherwise rational people on the left, doing when they put her down? Am I missing something? Am I crazy? Does someone out there who hates the Republican Party and Fox News and the disastrous anti-democracy, pro-fascist course we’re on really think she’s an upstart irrelevance? Apparently so.
Call me irresponsible, call me unreliable, throw in undependable, but my life and my world have been profoundly affected by her. I upgraded from vegetarian to vegan because of Ms. Thunberg more than a year ago. (Excuse me, “Doctor Thunberg.” She was awarded a well-deserved honorary doctorate by the Université de Mons in Belgium.) I have tried mightily to live an even more carbon neutral life thanks to her influence. Climate change has become one of the central tenets of my existence thanks to this “mere” teenager, this slip of a girl. What in the hell are we thinking when we mock and ignore this woman of profound power who’s trying to save our lives and our planet? Are we nuts?
After recently speaking to the Brazilian Senate about their moral responsibility to protect the Amazon rainforest— “the lungs of the earth”— and the indigenous people who are its sacred stewards, she was labelled a ‘brat’ by (who else?) Brazil’s far-right fascist monster and leader Jair Bolsonaro. “I’m in no position to tell you what to do,” Greta said to them, “but I can tell you this: people all around the world are watching you right now. And will you take action to help prevent the worst impact of the climate and ecological crisis? Will you support the indigenous peoples who live in the Amazon to care for the lungs of the earth? And will you be on the right side of history?”
Regrettably, never before in human history have so many people ignored the ugly things future history will say of them. They seem in a headlong rush to be on the wrong side of history. They may, after all, be on safe ground, for once. If we continue down our same merry path, if we continue to melt our polar ice caps, if Brazil’s mighty rainforest one day passes the point of no return when it emits more carbon than oxygen, there may be no future history left to revile us. We won’t even be remembered as the fools who mocked a “little girl.” Shame on us all if it comes to that. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.