Greta Thunberg is an international celebrity as well as a teenage wunderkind. Born in Sweden in 2003, Greta has emerged as a major voice of her generation and a staunch activist for climate change issues. She became famous around the world in 2018 when she made a speech in front of the United Nations when she was just 15 years old, and her activism hasn’t slowed down since. In 2019, Time Magazine named her their Person of the Year. Why do people resonate with her message, and how did she become a leader and role model in ecological activism? Here is the unknown truth of Greta Thunberg.
At age 11, Greta was so upset about climate change she stopped eating
According to Greta, she first learned about climate change in school when she was eight or nine years old. “My teachers taught me about it and we saw films and pictures of plastic in the ocean and extreme weather events,” she told Dazed. The footage literally moved her to tears. “Those pictures were just stuck in my head; I thought, there is no point in anything.”
By the time she was 11, she became deeply depressed and could barely eat or speak. “She cried at night when she should have been sleeping. She cried on her way to school. She cried in her classes,” her mother Malena Ernman wrote in their family memoir Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. Ernman speaks of how her daughter wasted away, losing 20 pounds.
“Since I stopped eating I almost starved to death, I had many doctors coming and saying to me that I need to eat, otherwise I will die,” Greta told Dazed.
Greta’s activism started at home
Greta decided to turn her sadness into action; if no one else would do anything to stop the warming of the earth, she would. “When I was depressed, I didn’t really see any point in living,” Greta told Dazed. “The best medicine against that concern and sadness is to do something about it, to try to make a change.
The first steps she took on her journey to activism began at home. She successfully convinced her parents to adopt a greener lifestyle, so that her father became vegan and her mom became “90% vegan.”
But it wasn’t easy to convince her parents at first. “I made them feel so guilty,” Thunberg told Plant Based News. “I kept telling them that they were stealing our future and they cannot stand up for human rights while living that lifestyle, so then they decided to make those changes.” She also convinced her parents to give up air travel for work trips and take the train instead.
Greta was inspired by Rosa Parks and the Parkland student boycott
Greta’s two biggest inspirations for her type of activism are completely different. Her first inspiration comes from civil rights icon Rosa Parks. When Greta learned that Rosa was also quiet, shy, and introverted, she found a kindred spirit. According to Rolling Stone, when Greta learned this, she thought, “It’s not just extroverts, we introverts can make our voices heard.”
Greta’s second inspiration is a more contemporary movement, the Parkland protesters. Taking her cue from their student boycott and walkout, she staged a one-person protest outside the Swedish parliament in 2018 and inspired others to join her. Her message was being heard by more people. Things would only grow from there.
Greta has sued five countries over climate goals
In 2019, Greta and a group of 15 other young people took the major step of suing France, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, and Germany. Their goal was not financial, but legislative; the suit would force those countries to set carbon emission reduction targets that would be legally binding. These countries, and many others, had signed the Paris Accords spelling out goals for reducing pollutants but were not meeting their agreed-upon goal. The group did not include the United States in their suit, not because the U.S. was meeting its reduction goals, but because the U.S. refused to be party to the original treaty.
Greta has given speeches to the United Nations and Congress
Greta has addressed the U.K. Parliament, the United Nations, and the Congress of the United States. Her speeches are precise and powerful; she does not mince words. She has told off billionaires for seeking personal wealth over the health of the planet. Strangely enough, people are beginning to listen to her. She has met with both Pope Francis and former president Barack Obama, both of whom reacted positively to her and her message.
Greta considers her Asperger’s syndrome a ‘superpower’
“I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm,” Greta tweeted in 2019. “And — given the right circumstances — being different is a superpower.”
Asperger’s syndrome is a mild form of autism that is marked by an inability to process social cues and signals. It also can cause single-minded interest bordering on obsession. Greta credits her condition with allowing her to keep focused on the subject, and her serious demeanor sometimes comes off as aloof. But she is very passionate about her chosen field.
“I know many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness,’ or something negative,” Greta tweeted, explaining why she made her diagnosis public. She’s also tweeted, “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!”
Greta has more than her share of critics worldwide
On the other hand, there are many who do not like her. Her age, gender, and Asperger’s syndrome have all been used against her by conservative pundits. They say that she is being controlled by her parents and is a mouthpiece for propaganda. More often than not, she is invited to “sit down and shut up” while the grownups are talking. But Greta seems to take all this negative attention in stride. She is too focused on her work to get distracted by words.
Greta Thunberg has a major ally in Congress — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Speaking truth to power includes those with whom you generally agree. In 2019 Greta met with New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced a platform of ecological reforms nicknamed the “Green New Deal.” Greta was not on board with the platform at first, urging politicians to heed scientific opinion and not political ones. Nevertheless, Greta thanked the congresswoman for “standing up and offering hope to so many people, even here in Sweden.”
Greta Thunberg also has a major detractor — President Donald Trump
Imagine being a 16-year-old climate activist suddenly pushed into the media spotlight not for what you said, but for what a powerful politician said about you. This is what Greta faced from none other than President Donald Trump.
After Greta had been named Time’s Person of the Year, President Trump tweeted that “Greta must work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend!” to which his presidential opponent Joe Biden replied, “What kind of president bullies a teenager? @realDonaldTrump, you could learn a few things from Greta on what it means to be a leader.”
Greta Thunberg says what she means and means what she says
Greta’s life runs around her ideas for a sustainable environment. She is a vegan, and like her mother, takes the train everywhere rather than flying. She has resolved to make her personal global footprint as small as possible. This extends to her activism as well; in August 2019, when she was to speak in North America, she did not take a flight. Instead she set sail on a solar powered yacht that boasted zero emissions. The trip took two weeks and again made headlines for her and her cause.
Greta may yet win the Nobel Peace Prize
Greta has been nominated twice for the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. If she were to win it she would join the ranks of youth activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize when she was 17. In the meantime, Greta was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2019. It is popularly known as the “Alternate Nobel Prize,” issued by the Right Livelihood Foundation, and comes with a cash prize of one million Swedish crowns (or $103,000). She accepted the award on behalf of “a global movement of school children, youth and adults of all ages who have decided to act in defense of our living planet.”