Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Shall Lead Them (2003)

Dec 12, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


“I want you to panic.”

           A Victorian adage states, “Children should be seen and not heard.” The nineteenth century more does not apply to a Swedish teen who has made it her mission to both be seen and heard, not for self-aggrandizement, but to ensure the well-being of the planet.

       While females are mostly associated with pink, the one associated with green is Greta, born in Stockholm to mother Malena Ernman, Sweden’s leading opera singer, and father, Svante Thunberg. After dating Svante for six months, Malena became pregnant with Greta; as she made more money, Svante became a self-described “housewife” who raised Greta and later, her sister, Beata. Their life was a nomadic odyssey across Europe for opera concerts.

      As a child, Greta had memorized the capitals of every country and the names of cities- both forward and backward. Over her bed hung a copy of the periodic table of elements that she likewise committed to memory. Although home was a happy place, at school bullies made life miserable, and recesses were spent hiding in the bathroom. She never received invitations to parties, and she was always the outsider. 

       At age eight, Greta first discovered the problem of climate change when a teacher showed the documentary the Great Pacific Garbage Patch about the melting Arctic, marine animals bloated with plastic. Thunberg wept as she watched. The other students brushed off the film, something Greta could not do. In solidarity the family became vegan, though Greta has caught her mother sneaking cheese in the middle of the night. 

   At age eleven, Greta suffered from interminable crying jags, stopped speaking with anyone other than her family, and barely ate, a self-starvation that stunted her growth. The first panic attack occurred when Greta refused to eat freshly baked cinnamon buns; concerned about her loss of appetite, her parents’ knee jerk reaction was voice raised in anger.  The response from their frantic daughter was “an abysmal howl that lasted for over forty minutes.” The doctors finally came up with a diagnosis: Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism, coupled with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

      The Thunberg class wrote a memoir of their family crisis, Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. The memoir was a chronicle of the challenges of raising Greta and Beata who had her own issues. Beata went through a stage where every attempt at conversation ending with her screaming, “Shut up, you fucking idiot!” Doctors diagnosed her with elements of Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

      In 2018, the fifteen-year-old realized something that many with gray hair never do: action succeeds more than grousing. She wrote an essay denouncing climate change, picked up by a Swedish newspaper. Encouraged, Greta urged local activists to take the same path as the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who had organized school strikes to protest gun violence after it suffered from a mass shooting. They declined the suggestion as too radical that made her realize she had to become a one-person conscientious objector. Greta informed her parents that she was going to go on strike to urge the government to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, and she would return to her classes after the election. Malena and Svante were not on board with her plan, and this did not have to do with their daughter being AWOL from her classes. Their concern stemmed from Greta becoming a target of attention when she had finally begun to have her life back on track. They suggested she come up with an alternative; the five-foot dynamo was immovable.

     Thunberg’s first order of business was a flyer that stated: My name is Greta. I am in ninth grade, and I am school-striking for the climate. Wearing a blue hoodie, the teenager stood in front of the parliament building holding a sign painted in black letters on a white background: Skolstrejk for kimatet: School Strike for Climate. The following day a stranger joined her; a few days later a few more activists joined in, including a member of Greenpeace. As their daughter’s grass-root movement spread, tension mounted in the Thunberg household. Svante and Malena received condemnation that they were conspiracy theorists permitting their child’s truancy to further their own agenda. They contended the Thunbergs were subjecting their child to brainwashing. Locals shoved excrement into the family mailbox. Her parents grew increasingly anxious that the authorities would remove Greta from their home. Malena wrote, “The price of being heard is hate. The price of being seen is hate.”

         The protest that had started off with a lone figure grew to include hundreds. After the election, the teen titian of climate control announced she would continue with her strike every Friday which led to the initiation of The Fridays for Future. Thousands of students across the world began skipping school on Fridays in solidarity. The newspapers carried the images of strikers in New York City marching in Battery Park, in London in the shadow of Big Ben, and in Germany flooding the Brandenburg Gate. “Make the World Greta Again” became a rallying cry. Crowds chanted, “Greta, Greta, Greta…” much to her chagrin. Her onus is on the cause, not on self. Hundreds of thousands of “Gretas” have been truant due to climate strikes across the globe. Activist-actress Jane Fonda, another Greta convert, was so inspired by Thunberg’s actions that she hosted her own Fire Drill Fridays. Regarding the diminutive dynamo she stated, “I was just filled with depression and hopelessness, and then I started reading about Greta. She inspired me to get out there and do more.” In contrast, Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet condemned school walkouts as it “wastes lessons time.” Greta-who has almost 2,000,000 million Twitter followers, retaliated, “But, then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.” Signature Greta: sarcastic; unabashed.

       Despite her one girl crusade, Greta retains aspects of a typical teen. She shares matching bracelets with her sister, and dotes on Moses, her golden retriever, Roxy, her black Labrador, and Freyja, her Icelandic horse. While learning about the specter of climate change had triggered her depression, fighting against it alleviated its symptoms. As she put it, “I don’t have time to be depressed anymore.” With her limited amount of time, she published a book, a collection of her lectures: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. A positive aspect of 2020 was filmmakers, intrigued by the teen who transformed angst into action, released I am Greta, a 97-minute documentary that follows the activist on her trips around the world, a crusader raising awareness of Earth’s fragility.

       The reasons why Thunberg’s time is a scarce commodity is because she is an international speaker who had audiences with heads of state and the Pope. At the Vatican, swelling crowds chanted, “Go Greta, save the planet!” At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, she stated, “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” Although Greta told the adults that they are fools and their plans are lame and short-sighted, they nevertheless awarded her with a standing ovation. Afterwards, they retreated to the luxury cars and private planes that belched diesel, leaving dark streaks against the blue of the Alpine sky.

       Thunberg, who only travels on solar powered boats, eschews air travel and helped Sweden coin the phrase flygskam “flight shame.” She sailed to the United States from England to testify before Congress and garnered praise from former President Barack Obama who called her “one of our planet’s greatest advocates.” Addressing the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland, she told the spectators, “You say you love your children above all else. And yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” The address went viral. Speaking to the heads of state during the U.N. General Assembly, the world’s most powerful body, the pint-sized teen with the gargantuan commitment pulled no punches, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!!” David had taken on Goliath.

.        The image of Greta in her trademark braids proliferated on the Internet, Halloween costumes, and the cover of Rolling Stone and Time Magazine. In 2019, the latter publication made her the youngest Person of the Year; her photograph on its cover depicts her on the shores of Lisbon, Portugal; the caption: GRETA THUNBERG The Power of Youth. She received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize though she did not make the cut. 

      There have also been detractors who wanted to put a stake into the heart of the rebel rouser who threatens big business. In Alberta, the heart of Canada’s oil industry, a sticker distributed by a Canadian oil company depicted her as the victim of a sexual assault. Fox News issued an apology after Michael Knowles called her “a mentally ill Swedish child.” Andrew Bolt wrote in the Melbourne Herald Sun “I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.” President Trump tweeted, “Greta Thunberg needs to work on her anger management.  Chill! Greta, Chill!” Eleven months later, when Trump was lashing out against voter fraud, Greta tweeted, “Donald needs to work on his anger management problem. Chill! Donald, chill!” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro described her with an insulting word that translated to “little brat” after Greta tweeted about the slaughter of indigenous people in his country. In a very below the belt comment, the day before Greta spoke at the U.N. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative commentator, likened her image to ones the Nazis had used in their propaganda campaigns. D’Souza posted a picture of her on Twitter next to an illustration of a young woman with a similar appearance standing in front of a flag emblazoned with a swastika. The accompanying caption: An old Goebbels technique! Another Fox News host, Laura Ingraham, ran a segment on her show with a clip from Children of the Corn, the 1984 Stephen King movie in which evil children in a farm town murder adults. Due to death threats, the Thunbergs need police protection when they travel.

        While most teen media darlings wear attire reminiscent of the Emperor’s new clothes, Greta shops at second-hand stores; recycle is her mantra. Although some have mocked Greta for her Velcro running shoes and oversized clothing, she has become a fashion icon. During a Pitti Bimbo fashion show-the semi-annual children’s trade show in Florence-a recording of Thunberg’s United Nation speech played as a backdrop, “How dare you?” Munchkin models paraded down the runway holding posters: “Cool Kids Saving a Hot Planet” and “There is no planet B.” The show concluded in a shower of green confetti.

        Greta Thunberg is the contemporary Joan of Arc, albeit she wears hand-me-downs instead of white armor, and her voice comes from the Earth rather than saints. Given the impact she has made in making the environment sustainable, an applicable biblical quotation: “And a little child shall lead them.”