When Thunberg addressed panels at the United Nations and lectured European parliaments, the inversion of roles was striking. The child—she looks younger than 16—has assumed the authoritative posture of the adult. But she’s not an understanding New Age parent, trained in the Dr. Spock school of bighearted moms and dads. Thunberg is a severe and unforgiving moralist. “You can’t just sit around waiting for hope to come. You’re acting like spoiled irresponsible children,” she told the European Economic and Social Committee. She ordered her audience to do its homework, chastising it for failing to read a United Nations report.
On the eve of Thunberg’s arrival in the United States, I bought a collection of her speeches—No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference—recently published by Penguin. They rank among the most bracing rhetorical pieces of our time. Yet there’s not a single soaring sentence in the anthology. It’s a bit like reading a Barack Obama speech turned inside out. Politicians sprinkle addresses with the aspirational, and usually phony, pronouns us and we. Thunberg relies on the accusatory second person. “You say nothing in life is black or white but that is a lie, a very dangerous lie.” Or “I don’t believe for one second that you will rise to that challenge.” Where politicians and preachers hug the audience, she slaps it. What makes her style so effective and unnerving is that it comes from another age. Her vision of apocalypse is biblical, and so is her moral framework.
In her telling, she cannot help but speak in such unvarnished tones. Her biographical explanation for her raw truth-telling has the trappings of myth. At the age of 11, she fell into the dark hole of depression. “I stopped talking and I stopped eating. In two months I lost about 10 kilos of weight.” She was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and selective mutism. “That basically means I only speak when I think it is necessary,” she says. “Now is one of those moments.”
Beyond biology, what prodded her to begin her Friday school strikes were the students who survived the Parkland massacre, suggesting a pattern that is both inspiring and depressing. Where adult politicians have failed to provide moral leadership, children have been impressed into service. (See also: Malala Yousafzai.) They struggle against the charge that they are someone else’s puppets, the suspicion that in the distance a grayhead pulls the strings. But that cynical charge is both cruel and wildly unpersuasive in Thunberg’s case, given that her planned addresses so unmistakably track the rhythms of her conversational speech.
My 14-year-old daughter has been inspired by Thunberg to strike today, skipping classes to head to protests in downtown Washington, D.C. She has also suffered bouts of anxiety, and I long to build a seawall that can protect her from her fears. But her example, and Thunberg’s doomsaying, have made me realize that my parental desire to calm is the stuff of childish fantasy; anxiety is the mature response. To protect our children, we need to embrace their despair.