by Rob Lyons
Lyons is a UK journalist specializing in science,
environmental and health issues.
is the author of 'Panic on a Plate - How Society
Developed an Eating Disorder'
'I Am Greta' (2020) Dir: Nathan Grossman
© B-Reel Films, Swedish Film Institute,
Storyville, Filmbasen, WDR, SWR, SVT, Good Pitch,
Dogwoof, Filmwelt, Hulu
The new documentary I Am Greta follows the Swedish soothsayer from
when she began her protests in 2018 to today.
It was intended to show
her global campaigning impact, but my feeling after watching it was
just one of pity.
"I don't actually see
the world in black and white. It's just the climate issue I see
in black and white. Sometimes I feel that it might be good if
everyone had a bit of
At least when it
comes to the climate."
These are the closing
remarks from the star of 'I Am Greta,' about the climate-campaigning
But perhaps those
comments tell us more about the state of politics today than they do
about the climate issue.
The film begins in August 2018. Thunberg is conducting a
one-schoolgirl protest outside the Swedish parliament, with a simple
handmade sign, Skolstrejk för klimatet ('School strike for
The filmmaker, Nathan
Grossman, says he was told about her protest by a friend and
went down to film her, perhaps for a short film. However, he adds:
"When I really
understood that this [was] becoming a national base was when the
strikes popped up in Australia and Belgium suddenly.
It's important to
remember that the strikes [by] the Scandinavians then were maybe
50, 60, 70 people maximum per strike. Suddenly, in Australia,
there were 10 or 15,000 people striking."
Thunberg is certainly an
unlikely hero for an international campaign.
She grew up experiencing
significant difficulties with socialising and making friends, due to
having Asperger's. When she was eight years old, a film about
climate change was shown at her school, showing,
bears, floods, hurricanes and droughts".
"That's when I
started to get depressed. And... anxiety set in… and I stopped
eating, I stopped speaking. I was sick. I almost starved to
recovered, but her 'laser focus' on things that interest her came to
the fore with her climate activism.
It takes sheer
bloody-mindedness to sit outside a parliament building on your own,
refusing to go to school, with the aim of putting the climate issue
at the centre of the Swedish election debate.
But her protest was a
the Green Party got
just 4.4 percent of the vote and lost nine seats in the 2018
That was just a quarter
of the vote for the right-wing populists, the Sweden Democrats, who
stood against further environmental action in Sweden.
(After months of
wrangling in a very divided vote, the Greens remained part of a weak
governing coalition led by the Social Democrats.)
As we see in the film, Thunberg's fame continues to grow, however.
Weekly school strikes
under the banner 'Fridays for Future' spring up around the
Greta is invited to
speak at the UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland.
She is told she will
be very lucky if she gets any time with the UN
secretary-general, António Guterres, who is "very busy".
But in the next
scene, they are side by side as he patiently listens to her
short speech to a group of young campaigners.
He was just the first
of a long line of world leaders to find time for Greta.
Her speech in the plenary
session is picked up by the media around the world and suddenly
every politician in the world, it seems, wants to be seen with her.
We see her chatting to
Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, and hobnobbing with
leading parliamentarians in the UK. Even the Pope wants to
But what is it about Greta that means they all want to be seen with
She is rightly
suspicious about whether governments are serious - in her terms
- about climate action.
She makes a funny point
about the climate talks, pointing out that the only vegan options on
offer there are rice and bulgar wheat, while the hamburgers have all
"It feels like all they want is to be spotlighted, to make it look
like they care, as if they are doing something," she says.
exactly what to say, they know what sells.
But in actual fact, they
are doing nothing. If the solution to the climate crisis was
changing tea bags for loose-leaf tea and eating vegetarian once a
week, then it wouldn't be a crisis."
What Greta represents is, essentially, childish idealism: there's a
big problem and we just have to solve it. Adults are liars and
robbing children of their futures.
It's no surprise that other children are inspired by her.
desperation of politicians to be seen connecting with young people
is rather embarrassing. And she is no more childish than the adult
members of Extinction Rebellion, who really are old enough to know
better and who cause far more damage with their petulant protests.
It seems there are plenty of people with a black-and-white worldview
when it comes to climate.
The trouble for Greta is that politicians are answerable to voters.
And in almost every democratic test, green parties have been, and
continue to be, a failure. Climate change is low among the concerns
of voters across the world.
When the costs of introducing cuts in
greenhouse gas emissions are opened up to scrutiny, green policies
Nonetheless, Greta is wrong to say that politicians are doing
nothing. In fact, the biggest problem is that they are doing
something: all the wrong things, clamping down on emissions without
any sense of the problems their policies will cause.
The only way such policies are enacted is by taking the choice away
from voters, either through undemocratic institutions like the EU,
or by the creation of a consensus between the major parties.
UK, for example, all of the major parties agree that eliminating
greenhouse gas emissions - 'net zero' - is a worthy goal, and only
argue about how quickly it should be achieved.
10-point Green Industrial Revolution plan, launched today, is just
the latest episode in a bidding war about which major party has the
best green credentials.
He certainly wasn't elected to implement
Greta is useful to politicians as a means to curtail debate. We must
listen to Greta! The rest of you must shut up! Think of the
children! Climate-change policies are regarded as 'above politics' -
which means that the rest of us don't get a vote on them.
It would be easy to dismiss Greta as a hypocrite.
After all, there
she is on her MacBook Air writing her speeches, or sailing off on a
trip to New York on a multi-million dollar yacht, Malizia II, to
On the trip, she keeps in touch with her family by
satellite phone, without apparent guilt about how the satellites got
She's created a global network thanks to the very
energy-intensive internet servers that power social media.
But my feeling at the end of this 90-minute
below documentary was one of
pity for her.
Scare stories about climate catastrophe left her
mentally ill in her childhood.
She must live in a constant state of
panic about future disasters - she seems particularly animated about
mass extinctions - that have been blown out of all proportion by
As Bjorn Lomborg noted in his recent book,
"We are not on the brink of imminent extinction. In fact, quite the
opposite. The rhetoric of impending doom belies an absolutely
essential point: life on earth is better now than at any time in
Whether Greta, who will be 18 in January
(2021), remains a significant
figure in the world as an adult remains to be seen.
But 'I Am Greta'
should really be seen as a portrait of,
a terrified schoolgirl,
frightened out of her wits by adults who should know better...