Greta Thunberg’s Meaning Crisis

Greta Thunberg’s Meaning Crisis September 20, 2019

Today marked the beginning of a week-long Global Climate Strike. Per the official website, this international youth-galvanized effort is being orchestrated “to demand an end to the age of fossil fuels and climate justice for everyone.” The reader may be forgiven for wondering whose sin is to be punished by the meting out of said justice, and precisely how much penance is required to satisfy it. As you scroll down, a video thumbnail presents itself with the hope of further clarification. Abruptly, you are staring into the moon-like, waifish face of this movement’s anointed prophet: Greta Thunberg.

In slightly halting but clear English, the teen addresses the camera that “we are all in the same boat” when it comes to the climate crisis, and everyone should be concerned. Everyone should do something. For her and her like-minded young friends, “something” is taking the form of skipping school to take the streets with signs. What do they want? “Justice!” When do they want it? “Now!” It feels like the stuff of which satire is made. But Thunberg is in deadly earnest.

The pint-sized sensation has been the toast of the American nation in recent weeks, making various press appearances ahead of her testimony to Congress. She arrived from her native Sweden on a zero-emissions boat. Her awkwardly blunt description of the “smell” of New York City upon arrival has become one of her biggest applause lines. As journalists and talk-show hosts yield her the floor, almost every other response she gives to their questions elicits fevered audience cheers. Sarah Silverman tweeted out that “If Jesus came back, it would look like this, and y’all wouldn’t even see it.” (Ironic, given her previous comic opinings about what she’d like to do to baby Jesus. Twitter justice was swift, terrible, and rather wonderful.)

Some responses have been less than favorable, however. On FOX News, Buck Sexton expressed deep skepticism about having a 16-year-old testify to Congress about a non-existent “crisis.” This provoked an instant backlash from the other hosts, who scolded Sexton not to “pick on a kid.” Other cautionary voices have experienced similar censure. While Thunberg has drawn the sort of trolling that should rightly be quashed, few people seem willing to address her unhealthily frenzied catapult into the limelight. They are especially unwilling to address how it might be troublingly informed by her self-admitted struggles with depression and Asperger’s syndrome.

Of course, Thunberg regards her Asperger’s tunnel vision as an asset. It’s the thing that set her apart from other peers who were raised on the same stream of kiddie climate propaganda about polar bears and plastic bags: While their attention wandered to something else, hers was seized, held, and laser-focused. Slowly, a new center to her world began to take shape. A new mechanism around which she could construct her reality. A sense-making mechanism.

One fateful day, she made her first activist gesture, skipping her special-needs classes for a solitary strike. The rest is history.

Her Twitter feed is a carefully curated potpourri of inspirational thoughts and posed photos. But one tweet thread from last month stands out as particularly poignant. Greta writes, “Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder. All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people.”

“All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning.” In a single tweet, Greta Thunberg has summed up a crisis that hangs over all other crises of her generation’s day, real or imagined—a crisis of meaning.

A memoir co-written by Greta’s family offers the public’s most intimate window into her world. It paints a picture of loving but indulgent parents, raising two sisters whose combined mood swings, paranoia, OCD and autistic fixations imposed almost tyrannical demands. (Greta has successfully moved both father and mother to a vegan diet. She has also famously badgered her mother, a professional opera soprano, into giving up flight travel.) Absent from discussion of the memoir, or other profiles of the family: any mention of religion.

Yet Thunberg’s speech is saturated with religious grammar. Her actions are those of a believer committed to a sacred cause. She invites us to join her while there is still time. “The money is there,” she urges. All it takes is “the social will, the good will” to make change happen. “If we can save the banks, then we can save the world.” She’s been to the mountain and returned with new sight. Her hero’s journey can yet be ours, if only we will listen. The meaning she has found, she now holds out to the world.

And the world is answering, in the form of countless children like Greta who have also gone through the waters of public school baptism and been born again as leftist ideologues. Children who perhaps had also found themselves sitting at home alone, with no energy, no friends, and no meaning.

It is, of course, not the children’s fault that they have been thus deprived. It is not Greta Thunberg’s fault that adults who would regard a Bible as an alien artifact have trained her up in their holy Scriptures of choice. Gone now are the sacraments of the Body and the Blood, those arcane symbols of a barbaric bronze age. Here now are the new tokens, the new rituals, the new signs of the new elect.

People tell her to have hope, she says. “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

The cause of Christ once bade men come and die. But the cause of “climate justice” cannot bear the weight of one young girl’s soul.

In a much-shared video clip, Greta takes a microphone and says a few words in front of a crowd. The crowd erupts as she hands it off. It triggers a series of facial tics, her eyes darting, her mouth working and pulling awkwardly at the corners. Another video finds her giving an interview to a fawning woman from The Intercept, the audience hanging on every word. Again, the little spasm passes over mouth, nose, eyes.

For some orphans of the meaning crisis, a refuge may yet be found. But for Greta Thunberg, it is too late. The god of 2019 has provided its lamb.

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