Three years ago, before she was even old enough to vote, Greta Thunberg took a day off school and staged a one-girl protest outside the Swedish parliament. Her placard, which she carries with her to this day on her many travels, read: “SKOLSTREJK FOR KLIMATET”. It hardly needs translation. Since her adolescent political awakening, she has galvanised millions, probably helped to save life on earth, and has the unwanted distinction of being so famous that people know her solely by her first name. She turned 18 this year, and still hasn’t voted in a parliamentary election. That seems fitting, though, given her scorn for politicians. As you may recall, she made them squirm when she scowled and asked them: “How dare you?”
For such a famous personality, maybe one to whom the label “iconic” can be justifiably attached, what new is there to learn about her campaigning? Much, I have to admit – which is a testament to her success, but also evidence of the limits of what she and the movement she has helped to develop can achieve. As she keeps telling us, we are listening to the science, but not much gets done.
The BBC’s three-part documentary on Greta, following her carbon-neutral globetrotting over the last few years, is effectively an act of worship: a televisual version of a medieval cathedral, a monument to our new religion of environmentalism, constructed with impressive craftsmanship and soaring ambition, and dedicated to its patron saint, Greta. The film is thus predictable, but still awesome. We are presented with breathtaking and depressing scenes in the Canadian Rockies, for example, where majestic pine forests are being wiped out by the climate crisis; we observe the allegorical town of Paradise, California engulfed by forest fires, leaving 86 dead and many more lives destroyed; and we follow Greta and her dad across the Atlantic Ocean in a catamaran as she travels to make yet another speech at yet another climate summit. Along the way, we encounter the usual ornamental footage of tigers, tree frogs and talking professorial heads, as we are told stuff about the environment that, thanks in no small part to Greta, we are now familiar with – and fully accept, if only out of exhaustion. Even a few years ago, the climate deniers would be offered a “right to reply” to science in a film such as this. Now such false equivalence has become extinct. The debate is over. The Greta orthodoxy is established.
Greta’s critics often say to her that she will grow up one day, but the film reminds us that this young woman is already self-possessed far beyond her years. As an example, I remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes, as it was told to me as a child, as just a jolly warning about human vanity. But the way Greta tells it, it’s all about man’s murder of the planet, and her version has acid rain dripping from it: “The only one who dares to question the collective lie is a child.”
Greta knows full well that “people think I am an angry teenager who screams at world leaders. That’s like a picture people have of me. That’s not who I am.” But we never do find out who she is, beyond a few glimpses. When she finally gets back to Stockholm, her mum, Malena, virtually mauls her little girl with love. There are many more warm moments with her dad, Svante, who is with her always, lugging bags on and off trains and driving the Tesla. He’s not seen much because, as she frostily declares in his presence, “I don’t want him on the marches.” She acknowledges the pressures she has brought on her family, smilingly remarking to Svante at the end of another busy day: “You probably wish I had picked up ballet dancing or something else.” “I do, I do, I do,” he grins back, but with just a hint of a grimace. As a mere votary at the shrine of St Greta, I believe that everything she says is true, and that she is one of the great leaders of our age. She is, though, also a bit of a prisoner, because she has devoted herself to a cause that, realistically, will never be won. Saint or not, you have to feel a bit uneasy about what that may do to her.