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Greta the Disturber

Photograph Source: ulricaloeb – ulricaloeb

Greta Thunberg has become an international figure. The sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist has gone from a lonely student skipping school on Fridays to protest for more action on global warming to being nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Greta has become a global player. The New York City Board of Education officially excused over one million students from school if they participated in a Manhattan climate change protest with her. Students from around the world have joined her Friday protests.

Who is Greta Thunberg? She is not a representative of a government, yet she addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2018 and the 2019 United Nations Action Summit. She is not a member of a non-governmental organization like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or the World Wildlife Fund, yet she won the Webby Social Movement of the Year award for 2019. She is not a powerful businessperson, yet she addressed the annual 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos with a stern warning about their responsibility for the future of the planet:

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is,” the adolescent challenged the world’s business leaders, trying to get them to move beyond their money-oriented comfort zone.

Who is Greta Thunberg the Disturber? How has she been able, as an individual, to capture so much attention? International relations have traditionally been among states. The Preamble to the United Nations Charter begins with the ambiguous phrase: “We the Peoples of the United Nations…” The Charter was signed on June 26, 1945, in San Francisco by representatives of 50 of the original 51 member countries. The “We the Peoples” was originally supposed to be “The High Contracting Parties,” in other words, no peoples, just states. That is why the We the Peoples remains ambiguous. There has been little room for Peoples like Greta.

As opposed to a state-centric interpretation of We the Peoples, Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss have proposed a Global Peoples Assembly whose mission is “to establish a network of peoples of the world coming together with their developed  personal and community expertise particularly that which is motivated towards rendering war obsolete,  in order to offer global guidelines for humanity’s harmonious survival as custodian of the planet.” The legitimacy of that network/assembly has never been established and the proposal has gathered little traction.

Greta is an intriguing disturber to the traditional system. She has no official legitimacy. She is an individual, a Swedish teenager, who has been able to crystallize enormous attention and develop a considerable following. Never mind the conspiracy theories trying to cloud her sincerity. She has become the focal point of a movement. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2019.

Greta reflects her time. Like the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Yellow Vests in France or the example of workers organizing outside traditional unions such as Brandworkers that assists employees in the specialty food-making business, Greta is issue-specific with no organizational backing. She belongs to no organization, yet a multitude of organizations now use her as their model. She has been able to inspire institutional activities outside any formal structure.

A social media platform is all Greta and her followers need. Want to organize a march? Send out notices of time and place via the web. Need money for a worthy cause? Try crowdfunding; no need for endless bureaucratic meetings to determine who is in charge and who will do what. Got a good idea? Put it out there and see how many people agree and will work with you.

Beyond the media attention to Greta is a fundamental paradigm shift in activism. Outside the issue of climate change, beyond the written words like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate or Richard Falk’s This Endangered Planet, the sixteen-year-old has had a global reach through media technology. We see her performances on television, we follow her on social media. No more is needed.

How did Joan of Arc communicate with the French people? How was Attila the Hun able to command so many troops over such a large area? Neither of them had access to the tools we have at our disposal today. Greta has them all and uses them, or the people interested in her cause use them for her. Whatever the means, the message is clear, and a sixteen-year-old with fervent convictions has had a global impact that governments, non-governmental organizations and other legitimate institutions have been unable to capture.

That is why Greta Thunberg is such a disturber.

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Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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