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Me vs. Us, Part 2: Disagreeable Greta

Anders Hellberg stands motionless in the middle of the street, camera at his side. "This!" he says, as he stares at the scene in front of him. From time to time, he searches for a new angle and snaps a picture, but mostly he just stands there, looking. It's been hours.

Hellberg is a photographer for the Swedish environmental magazine Effekt. He's in his thirties, and after a decade struggling to get people to pay attention to climate change, he has a modest social media following. Today, he's come to Stockholm's Old Town because something strange is happening. A young student is being disagreeable - she's skipping school and standing in front of Parliament holding a sign that reads "School Strike for Climate." Her name is Greta Thunberg, she's 15 years old, and her Twitter and Instagram posts have just gone viral. The newspapers Dagens ETC and Aftonbladet are there, and a documentary crew has already started filming. Hellberg can't stop smiling. "This!" he repeats.

Welcome to the Turtle Tree Library. This is the second post in a two-part miniseries about a modern cultural crisis - a battle between individualism (prioritizing one's own needs/goals) and collectivism (prioritizing group needs/goals) - that has lead to some highly undesirable outcomes for the human race. In places like the United States, the individual is favored. In the previous post, I looked at some compelling evidence that that approach is failing, and that our species' best chance for survival lies with groups of individuals working together. But in this post, I'm going to look at the other side of that story. What happens when the group is wrong? And what does it take for an individual to stand up and lead the group another way?

The issue of climate change looks like this: Certain gases in the Earth's atmosphere hold in heat generated by the Sun, keeping our planet's surface warm enough for life to flourish. This is a natural process called the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Effect. The gases are carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and nitrous oxide. In naturally occurring amounts, they are beneficial. However, since the industrial revolution began in the late 18th century, humans have been increasing the amounts of these gases, so that ever more heat is being held within the Earth's atmosphere causing the average temperature of the Earth to rise. We've made a natural process pathological.

The rising temperature will likely affect most, if not all, natural systems on our planet, disrupting them and pushing them to extremes. We're in for extreme heat waves, severe weather and temperature fluctuations, more and bigger storms, longer droughts, growing desert lands, and more wildfires; not to mention increased infectious diseases, decreasing viable land for food, salinization of our drinking water (meaning less drinkable water), less biodiversity (meaning less valuable food), and drowned islands and coastal lands. Acclaimed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson says "Climate change will not make Earth uninhabitable. Climate change will make Earth a living hell."

The amount of carbon dioxide reached its atmospheric limit of 350 ppm (meaning any amount above it would affect Earth's temperature) in 1987, and since then we've only increased our emissions (65% since 1992). Atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 419.05 ppm in April of this year. The main source of GHG emissions is the burning of fossil fuels for energy consumption, with additional significant contributions from agriculture, deforestation, global shipping and air travel, and manufacturing.

On December 12th, 2015, 197 countries - nearly all countries on the Earth at the time - reached an agreement to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change. It's called The Paris Agreement. Amongst other things, the agreement set a goal to keep the global temperature rise this century below 2o C above pre-industrial levels, preferably below 1.5o C. Today, most participating countries are falling far short of that goal (we're on track for 3o C or more of warming this century).

There is a popular idea that we should cut our carbon dioxide emissions in half in the next 8 years. Climate activist Greta Thunberg is amongst those who believe that that target is not good enough as it gives us only a 50% chance of staying below 1.5o C. According to the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, if we'd like a 67% chance of staying below 1.5o C, we should assume that on January 1, 2018 the world had only 420 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide left to emit (our "carbon budget"). We emit about 42 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, so today our budget is already down to less than 300 gigatonnes. That will be gone in about 7 years. It's worth emphasizing that 67% is the best odds the IPCC gave us of avoiding catastrophic damage. Another report comes out this year.

On August 20, 2018, Greta began to protest in front of Swedish Parliament. Her plan was to sit during school hours for three weeks until the Swedish general election in September. It wasn't long before other students joined her, in Stockholm or in their own communities. After three weeks, the protest was continued once a week on Fridays under the name "Fridays for Future", and since that time there has been a student strike every week somewhere in the world. In December 2020, more than 20,000 students in 270 cities held protests. In 2019, a number of multi-city protests took place with millions of students each. For her influence - often described by the press as the "Greta effect" - Thunberg has received three consecutive nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Greta's message about climate change is simple: what's happening to the climate is a crisis and must be treated as such. "I want you to panic," she said in a speech to European Parliament in 2019. "I want you to act as if your house was on fire... when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground then that does require some level of panic." She points out that the climate crisis will have a disproportionate effect on young people. "Our future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money."

Greta is straightforward and often blunt. There's a model that psychologists use to assess human personality which includes five traits: extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and agreeableness. If a psychologist were to assess Greta's personality, I suspect that when it comes to that final trait, agreeableness, Greta would score pretty low. She's not very agreeable.

One of my favorite modern thinkers, Malcolm Gladwell - author of Blink, Outliers, David & Goliath - says having low agreeableness "is not the same as [being] obnoxious. It's rather the quality of not being dependent on or particularly interested in the approval of others." Gladwell writes about low agreeable - or disagreeable - people often, particularly those who overcame great odds by being disagreeable. His one rule for life is essentially to be disagreeable when necessary.

Greta Thunberg is disagreeable. She has publicly criticized business leaders and politicians for failing to tell the truth and take sufficient action on the climate crisis. As in 2018, when she was invited to speak to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, she famously told world leaders, "You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children. But I don't care about being popular, I care about climate justice and the living planet."

When Greta was 11 years old, she stopped eating. She stopped engaging in activities she loved, and soon the school started calling about her incessant crying. Greta cried a lot at home too. Her parents, Malena and Svante, took her to a local health clinic where doctors admitted something was horribly wrong but couldn't say what. "In the years that have passed since, we have often thought back to those hours. Although never in detail," Malena writes in the family's book, Scenes from the Heart. "Svante recalls his legs giving way in the corridor and I remember the heavy, boundless darkness that enveloped us and all of the other families waiting there, each in our own small consultation room. I only remember the little that I have chosen to remember. The rest I can't bear to think about."

When Greta was a child, Malena was a successful opera singer, well known to a niche audience of opera enthusiasts throughout Europe. She loved the work and dreamed of finding an opportunity to share it with a new, wider audience. In 2009, that chance finally came. She entered Melodifestivalen - the annual song competition in Sweden that served as a qualifier for the Eurovision Song Contest - and won in an upset. After that, she became a mainstream celebrity. Fans poured in to her performances. The Minister of Culture described what was happening as the "Malena effect." It was a once-in-a-career opportunity.

Then Greta stopped eating and disappeared into darkness, and nobody could say why. To make matters worse, Greta often had to miss school, and school administrators called frequently to protest and threaten action. Malena and Svante decided they would have to do the hard work of helping their daughter all alone.

So, despite protests from her colleagues and fans, Malena let her new audience and her once-in-a-career opportunity pass her by. While Svante attempted to feed Greta and attended to the needs of their younger daughter, Beata, Malena removed herself from the theatre, from the limelight, and spent endless hours cold-calling doctors, harassing health officials, and scouring the internet for answers. She found a teacher who would meet with Greta in secret to keep her caught up, despite threats of dismissal by school officials. So it went for nearly a year. This is how you raise a child to be disagreeable.

Greta was eventually diagnosed with Asperger's and obsessive compulsive disorder. A diagnosis can make all the difference in the world. It can open up access to information, treatments, social services, and support; and arm you with an explanation to give to teachers, other parents, and colleagues when they don't understand what's going on with your kid. But it's never the whole story.

One day in class, Greta's teacher had showed the students a video about how much trash there was in the oceans, and while others were able to let the information go once they left the classroom, Greta just couldn't. She was devastated. She continued to investigate the subject, and it wasn't long before she arrived at the problem of carbon emissions and climate change and became obsessed. She saw what was happening to the living planet, and couldn't stomach it. While the rest of us over-consumed, Greta couldn't eat.

It took four years for Greta's family to piece together the whole story of what was happening to her. In their book, Malena writes, "Greta has a diagnosis, but it doesn't rule out the fact that she's right and the rest of us have got it all wrong. Because however much she tried she could not work out that equation that all the rest of us had already solved, the equation that was the ticket to a functioning everyday life. She saw what the rest of us did not want to see."

Greta was also diagnosed with selective mutism, a childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child's inability to speak and communicate effectively in certain social settings. Today, she's often asked how she could put herself at the forefront of a worldwide movement, where she must address large crowds, speak truth to power, and suffer criticism and hate from those who don't want to change. But remember, Greta Thunberg doesn't care about being "popular". She cares about "climate justice and the living planet".

Once Greta stood up in front of Swedish Parliament, in front of powerful people, to advocate for her planet, she emerged from darkness. Children with selective mutism are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed. Greta was comfortable once she was standing up for what she loved.

She calls her diagnoses her superpowers. "Because if I had been 'normal' and social I would have organized myself in an organization, or started an organization by myself," she said in a 2019 speech from Facebook. "But since I'm not that good at socializing, I did this instead." When Greta was first considering the idea of a school strike for the climate, she had the encouragement of some climate activists, but she could not get other students to go along with the idea. So she did it by herself. The other students went to school like they were supposed to because they cared about consequences, criticism, and being popular. They're agreeable. Greta rode her bicycle to Old Town and stood in front of Parliament all alone in the beginning. She skipped school - a punishable offense in Sweden - without the safety of numbers. Because she's disagreeable.

Great movements - from U.S. civil rights and South African anti-apartheid to the movement within medicine to aggressively treat childhood leukemia - have always depended upon the actions of disagreeable individuals. To drive change is to reject the status quo, which cannot be done by anyone who strongly seeks the approval of the majority. This isn't to say that great movements always serve the greater good. Obviously it takes more than disagreeableness to do the right thing. A balance is needed, where one cares about humankind, but not for its approval.

There is a balance about Greta. We cannot be certain that humans will survive the climate crisis (carbon dioxide 419.73 ppm and counting), but if we do survive, our grandchildren and great grandchildren will say that it was because of a disagreeable young lady who cared about us and our planet enough to tell us we're wrong.


Cover photo by Anders Hellberg.


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