By now, you’ve all heard of her: A teenage girl who has moved a generation to become involved in perhaps the most contentious, most difficult social issue in human history.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” ~Greta Thunberg UN speech, September 2019
At a United Nations summit on climate change held on September 23, 2019, Greta Thunberg delivered an impassioned rebuke to world leaders over their failure to put forth any effective measures to avoid the impending climate crisis. Her angry “How dare you!” has been heard around the world, and demonstrates Thunberg’s unique position in the global discussion.
Thunberg first hit the public stage when she decided to spend her Friday’s sitting outside the Parliament building of her native Sweden, holding a sign that read “School Strike for Climate”. Her actions have since sparked Friday walkouts at schools and businesses around the world.
An environmental powerhouse.
A student strike organized in March 2019 claimed over one million participants. By September, strike participation had jumped to four million, and then six million just a week later.
Naysayers have argued that the numbers are inflated and that participants are simply interested in having a long weekend. But student involvement in the environment isn’t limited to just school strikes.
From the University of Washington to Columbia University and everything in between, student organizations are forming or re-energizing themselves to join the battle against environmental destruction. Even that tradition-laden institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts has a few different student groups which focus on environmental concerns.
High school and even elementary students aren’t being left out either. School environmental clubs are starting up, tackling everything from paper recycling to planting pollinator gardens on school grounds.
National organizations like the Student Conservation Association, 350 Org, and many others are seeing their membership numbers explode as more and more students realize the greater impact they have as a unified voice, rather than as individuals.
Young people are getting involved in climate action like never before — and that activity can be largely traced back to Greta Thunberg. Her passion and ability to communicate clearly and simply can be held up as a model for how all of us can improve our effectiveness — no matter what our ultimate goals are.
The Rules of Passion
Here are the big lessons we can take away from Greta Thunberg’s achievements:
1. No Fear
“Many people say that Sweden is just a small country, and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned that you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.” ~Greta Thunberg, UN speech December 2018
Ms Thunberg didn’t waste time wondering whether what she was doing was effective, she just did it. True, her youth is a big advantage to her: she doesn’t have to worry about making a living or whether her actions will adversely impact her ability to do that. She is young enough to not have suffered from life’s defeats — and naive enough to still believe that one person can make a difference.
But there’s a lot to be said for just plunging ahead with something instead of trying to plan for every possible obstacle. Some of the best solutions are conceived on the fly, in the heat of the moment when we just have to make a decision right now without overthinking it.
Passion is a thing that waxes and wanes; sometimes we work joyfully, easily on our project and sometimes we have to kick our own butts to do the things we need to do to succeed. If we’re lucky, the highs are more frequent than the lows.
2. Act NOW.
“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.” ~Thunberg, UN speech September 2019
Another advantage of youth is their innate familiarity with technology. The school strikes and other environmental demonstrations in the past year were organized easily and organically via social media. Many corporations, however, are severely hampered by a business structure that doesn’t allow for quick implementation of trends and ideas. They are entrenched in “the way we’ve always done it” thinking and layers of management that slow innovation to a crawl.
The problem with trends is that they move fast. This doesn’t have to be a barrier for business. In fact, lots of start-ups succeed specifically because they are able to fill an immediate need that no one foresaw.
There are other ways to be innovative than technology, of course, but sometimes the adept utilization of existing resources is more effective than creating new solutions.
3. Get Real.
“You are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.” ~Thunberg, UN speech September 2019
Authentic concerns expressed with genuine emotion is what has propelled the recent student demonstrations to such prominence. In a world grown weary of fake news and unconscionable lies, earnestness and conviction are refreshing.
Facts have been twisted, manipulated, and mauled to the point where they are no longer recognizable in political, corporate, and private arenas.
We use the word “transparency” when we mean “stop hiding the truth” and “falsehood” when we mean “lie”. Reality is so distorted now that many of us have thrown up our hands in exasperation, believing the situation hopeless.
But not Greta, nor others like her. The plainspeak that some traditionalists decry as not “nice” has been embraced as an effective tool to bring attention to important issues.
4. Keep pushing.
“Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.” ~Thunberg, UN speech December 2018
The word “impossible” doesn’t exist for the current crop of student demonstrators. They proceed with the presumption of success, not failure. They assume they will be taken seriously, and they refuse to accept the attempts of others to dismiss them.
The promotion of these kids’ ideals is relentless; the powers-that-be find them unsettling or even obnoxious, but all waves of change are preceded by resistance from the status quo. Change comes painfully to people— but it does come. To all of us.
5. Suck it up.
“When you’ve resorted to a teenage puppet for your public policy argument… you’ve lost. Climate bedwetters… the world laughs at this Greta charade.” ~Steve Milloy (@junkscience), self-described “climate contrarian” and Trump EPA administrator, on Twitter.
“If [the climate movement] were about science, it would be led by scientists rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.” ~Michael Knowles, political commentator and podcast host, on Fox News’ The Story.
These and other personal attacks on Ms Thunberg’s personality and intelligence recently have been vigorously condemned — not by Greta, but by her supporters. Ms Thunberg herself doesn’t pay attention to what other people think of her, nor does she bother wasting time and energy on complaining about how she’s treated.
Instead, she persists in the face of her detractors, demonstrating her own maturity though still a child, while adults around her act like schoolyard bullies. If anything, their rage merely serves to make her will stronger, her purpose clearer. She rises above.
“Climate delayers want to shift the focus from the climate crisis to something else. I won’t worry about that. I’ll do what I need.” ~Thunberg at press conference before setting sail to UN in a solar-powered yacht.
Our passion is intimately connected to our purpose. One can’t survive without the other. Ms Thunberg and the student activists of today can teach us all how to channel our passion effectively — if we let them.