I want you to panic—Greta Thunberg age 16.
Sixteen is a very precious age. It is the age of our maximum heightened sensuality and openness to the world, of volatility and grace—there is a divine glint of promise in the sixteen-year-old — a terrible beauty that you can find even in the most sullen and lacklustre teenager if you look hard enough. This explains the cultural tendency for the adulation of the teenager, that began in America and spread to the rest of the world—and also the media embrace of Greta Thunberg. The teenager is a symbol of potential, sensual power, the possibility of a utopian future.
There is something of a religious response to the earnest pleas of the baby-faced and pigtailed teenager named Greta. She has the feel of a Joan of Arc archetype, a youth saviour. Greta—the avatar perhaps more than the person—represents a powerful meme. What can be questioned however is the Hollywood star-making machinery behind her. Slick promotional videos of orchestrated doom are the backdrop to her small, still, and powerful voice: the dramatic film score, the hungry babies, scenes of Sodom and Gomorrah, all tell us that the end of the world is nigh.
In today’s news—which is indistinguishable from marketing—we are so often carried away by crass emotionality and melodrama, swept into polarised views of this or that. We become either believers or heretics, it’s hard to find a middle ground. And who would dare question the purity of Greta and her message but a true heretic— ‘a climate science denier’?—which is code for enemy of the people. The problem is: how do we make sense of what is actually happening when we are being emotionally manipulated? And what is left of our reason when we are subject to such intense ‘meme-possession’ and participation mystique?
If you think about it, a sixteen year old is barely grown up enough to drink alcohol responsibly or drive a car, let alone vote or occupy a position of power. And some neuroscientists say that the frontal brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. So why should we expect Greta to be a moral authority and spokesperson for something as complex as climate science? Is Greta, for good or ill, being used as a child-puppet for ideology?
You would think that you would have to sweat blood and tears and discover something of life changing import—or at least saved a few lives—to be be nominated for The Nobel Peace Prize. But Greta is a young teenage mystic with apocalyptic visions, beating the drum of ideology and berating the sins of the older generation. Her virtue is moral purity. And yet where does she get her noble ideas? Obviously, they come from her parents and teachers. Her elders are talking through her. Unless it’s God speaking, that is. That is to say: if there is adult wisdom in Greta it is being channeled.
How many books has Greta read, how many lovers has she celebrated and suffered, how many families or businesses has she built? The answer is probably very few. And yet she is being trumpeted as the moral authority of the age, invited to Davos and paraded in front of billionaires, applauded for her bravery for dropping out of school. (Which, by the way, I wholeheartedly support—there are better ways to learn these days). Greta is obviously very sensitive and attuned. Still, teenagers can’t be adults, even if they appear to be old souls.
The worship of this near-child—besides being a quasi-religious phenomena—is at least a sign that we lack real grown ups, which is her actual and correct message. Greta the child appeals to so many maternal and compassionate souls who would keep us all on the level of children. This is what the buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’ and it may be actually cruel. We are grooming children to enact the activist fantasies of infantile parents, which is an unconscious form of child abuse. I’m not blaming young activists here, who are merely reflecting the superego of their parents world. I’m questioning the infantile adults who project their apocalyptic fantasies on children. Note: I’m not saying we aren’t facing the abyss—we certainly are.
The problem is: there is the total lack of respect for elders in this society, which is pretty remarkable and unprecedented, but this goes along with the cult of youth. The young will always feel betrayed by their parents, even if they are only dimly aware of what their parents have sacrificed for them. We often forget to thank them—for giving us life to begin with—but also for the ancestral wisdom and the opportunity to do amazing things like read and write and talk. Perhaps Greta should have noticed how many have lived and died and sacrificed themselves for the luxury of youth, before she started to cast such aspersions on her elders.
In the west, there have been two different views of nature distilled by Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Sade. Rousseau viewed civilisation as corrupt and nature as benevolent, whereas the Marquis de Sade viewed nature as a place of brutal copulation and murder that needed to be tamed. But nature is both—a one-sided vision is dangerous and lopsided. It's easy to see that Greta Thunberg supporters have fallen for the former myth, of the intrinsic nobility of the child of nature and the inexorable evil of man.
From Rousseau’s perspective, the ‘noble savage’, without education, without adult supervision, without discipline — is the pinnacle of purity. Civilisation itself is evil—whereas the natural world is primordially pure. And it’s pretty easy to think this way by looking around at our fucked up world. However, the hyper-rational and cynical De Sade saw through Rousseau pretty quickly: nature is not only life-giving and bountiful, it is also a Darwinian blood orgy full of plagues, poisons, and cancers—without much compassion at all. The natural world knows no good or evil—it is human beings who define it as such.
Greta appeals to the Rousseau in all of us—she is a revolutionary in spirit. Like Joan of Arc again, she is angry and she is young—and nothing is more seductive than that. She wants us to panic for good reason, for it is panic that foments revolution. She is angry because ‘we’—meaning everybody over thirty—have cheated her of her future.
Greta is not only expressing resentment towards the old, she is praised and given accolades for shaming them. In actuality, we are shaming ourselves, through the medium of Greta, in a masochistic sort of way. And there is nothing we love to do more than inflict shame on ourselves, it seems. ‘We’ are collectively responsible for global warming. And yet who is this ‘we’ and how does mass collective guilt actually contribute to solving the problem of global warming exactly? Usually, panic is not the best solution to complex problems.
Greta is a medium and a meme, a fiction in a way; she represents the appealing archetype of a ‘children’s crusade’. Her message is: since the adults have abandoned us, the children will now save the world. And yet what traditional culture would ever allow its elders to be lectured by a sixteen year old? People are literally fawning over her—it’s like some weird maternal orgy. This is a total symbolic inversion, proof that we don’t respect human development and its long arc. We are seeing an upside down pyramid of values, where the child is king and queen, and the old are put out to pasture.
Certainly, teenagers like Greta can do amazing things, but they can’t be fully responsible for their actions and views. Rimbaud, for instance, may have invented modernist poetry at age 16, but one gets the sense that he was a medium—furthermore, the weight of his visions destroyed him in the end. Wisdom should develop naturally in a young person and over time. A concerned adult might also wonder the role Greta has taken will effect her in her later development? One can only hope for the best and fear the worst. It may be too much for a child to bear the full weight and responsibility of this saviour archetype.
Perhaps we do need to to deal with climate issues in a radical way. But this essay is not a commentary on global warming; what interests me is the symbolic and metaphysical import of the phenomena named Greta Thunberg and her children’s crusade. It would be good to remember that societies which worshiped youth have historically degenerated into the worst kind of tyrannies possible—for example, in the cultural revolution children were forced to murder their parents, a revolution which was very much inspired by Rousseau.
Of course, we aren’t at that point yet. Greta is only shaming and blaming the older generation, who seem to be enjoying the metaphorical spanking. But let’s hope the kids become more and more immune—that we have reached maximum toxicity in marketing bullshit. Let’s hope we can have a real conversation rather than listening to sermons by teenagers tell us what we already believe about ourselves: that we have the capacity for profound evil. I suspect future generations will be able to see through this sort of faux virtue and scripted marketed emotional mass manipulation. Instrumentalising of young people—and human beings in general—to sell ideas, no matter how virtuous, stinks in the end.
Lastly, we can also make the comparison between Greta and Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate. Regardless of whether you think Malala should have won the Nobel Prize, she did risk gunfire on a daily basis to promote school for girls and got shot as a consequence. Greta, on the other hand, decided to skip school Fridays and sit on the steps of the Swedish parliament. One is advocating girl’s education in a cruel and misogynist theocracy, the other is advocating dropping out in a pretty cushy one. The difference in terms of bravery and act is significant, to understate the case.
Certainly Greta seems like a great kid. She is also someone who, incidentally, has Asperger syndrome or autism. The heart can only go out to her. I get the adulation, the quasi-religious worship of her pure message. People are going nuts in the void of religion perhaps, and they need new saints and saviours. However, the adulation of the teenager, the cult of youth and its intrinsic purity, may have gotten us into the mess of over-consumption and planetary hot air in the first place.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits