…when Thunberg talks, especially in private, she sounds a lot like … a teenager. “We are not the ones who are responsible for this, but we are the ones who have to live with these consequences, and that is so incredibly unfair,” she said at one point.
And this is the way to understand Thunberg that paints her as neither a saint nor a demon but that still captures her appeal. Thunberg epitomizes, in a person, the unique moral position of being a teenager. She can see the world through an “adult” moral lens, and so she knows that the world is a heartbreakingly flawed place. But unlike an actual adult, she bears almost no conscious blame for this dismal state. Thunberg seems to gesture at this when referring to herself as a “child,” which she does often in speeches.
When I spoke with her, I asked whether she felt this dual position: the burden of awareness mixed with the lack of blame. “Yes, definitely,” she said. “Because we are so young, our perspective on the world, our perception of the world is so—is so, like, blank. We don’t have that much experience. We don’t say, Oh, we cannot change this because it’s always been this way, which a lot of old people say. We definitely need that new perspective to see the world.”
Perhaps that is why adults find her so unnerving. “This child—and she is a child—has been scared and her parents are letting her be controlled by that fear,” writes the right-wing commentator Erick Erickson, who blames her parents for “depriving her of a sound education so she can lecture grownups.” Jonathan Tobin, at The Federalist, worries that the shoe is on the other foot: Thunberg has “forced her parents to adopt a vegan diet” and “bullied her mother to give up her career because it involved air travel.”
These may seem like exaggerated concerns, but Erickson and Tobin are really just engaging in a great American tradition: In this country, even before we greet you, we ask whether you’re being parented wrong.
Other arguments against Thunberg’s rhetoric can and should be made; if she wants to participate as an adult citizen, she should be criticized like one. But in The New York Times, the journalist Christopher Caldwell takes maybe the oddest line of all, claiming that Thunberg’s message is antidemocratic. “Democracy often calls for waiting and seeing. Patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue,” he wrote. “Climate change is a serious issue. But to say, ‘We can’t wait,’ is to invite a problem just as grave.”
I want to thank Caldwell, because he reminded me of my own childhood. About 20 years ago, I was at a restaurant with my parents, reading a kid’s science magazine below the table. In a small box at the bottom of the page, it mentioned something called the greenhouse effect, caused by cars and factories. The effect could eventually screw up the entire planet’s environment.
My head jolted up. I interrupted my parents’ conversation, which was about something boring, like real-estate prices or which highway to take home.
“Is this real?” I asked, pointing at the magazine.
Oh yeah, definitely, one of them said.
“Is it getting fixed?” I said.
No, no, people don’t really know how to fix it.
And then I remember feeling something constrict in my chest. It was like the adult feeling of learning that a loved one is in danger, of seeing the comfortable world teeter on its axis. There was a problem with the entire planet, and everyone was just allowing it to go on?
In 1999, Caldwell was older than I am now, and the United States had virtually no national climate policy. Since then, I have gone to middle school and high school, graduated from college, moved across the country twice, spent years as a technology reporter, and covered climate change for four years. Since then, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has soared from 364 to 415 parts per million. But since then, the United States still has passed virtually no new national climate policy.
Caldwell is right that patience is a democratic virtue. But sloth is a cardinal sin. Perhaps only the young can tell the difference.
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