When Radical Activist Turned Establishment Darling

By Henrietta Flodell


A comic strip is shared on social media across the world – a group of figures are standing in the left-hand corner, drawn in a thin line of ink. Above them hangs a speech bubble with the words: ‘You fucked up!’. In the right corner of that same picture is a group of fewer and larger figures. Above them hangs the retort: ‘So inspiring’. 


A little over a year ago, a teenager had had enough. 


One Friday morning a few weeks before the general election, in the quivering climax of political campaigning, she sat down outside of the Swedish parliament.


Through a hand-painted cardboard sign she declared herself on a school strike for the climate every Friday until the election, reasoning: ‘why should I care about what school can teach me when politicians do not even care about scientific facts?’.  


Like the child who points out what the adults are pretending not to see, in the H.C. Andersen novel ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, the then fifteen-year old Greta Thunberg forced the gaze of the political elite to the elephant that has entered the democratic room: that the election promises no longer exist which legitimately can be delivered without recognition of the great, unavoidable, and uncomfortable truth that they all are overshadowed – and will be affected – by the looming and fast approaching impacts of climate change. 


The most remarkable thing about Thunberg is not the speed at which the school strikes went from a one-woman fight to a global mass movement, nor is it her outstanding ability to make complicated climate research understandable with her trademark rhetorical clarity. What is remarkable about Thunberg is how the radical has become mainstream.


Thunberg was the spark that ignited the greatest climate movement in history, but understanding its future calls for an exploration of how it came to be that the political establishment so eagerly has welcomed her critique - the critique of a system that they themselves constitute. 


The road to the worldwide movement with which we now associate Thunberg has been a long one. After the Swedish general election, she decided to continue striking until the politics of the government were aligned with the targets of the Paris Agreement. While global adoration of Thunberg began to take on a life of its own, the people in her own land were still split over the appropriateness of striking at the cost of one’s own education. ‘No one is a prophet in their own land’, said Jesus to the people of Nazareth, a maxim which still rang true in Sweden during the autumn of 2018. 


Thunberg had become Sweden’s equivalent of Brexit or Trump — a topic so polarizing that family dinners and interactions with strangers began to feel impossible without an initial navigation around the question: ‘Are you for or against Greta?’. Thunberg divided the country, and many of her critics argued that forgoing her free education was the wrong way to approach solving the climate crisis. 


But in December 2018, when she spoke to the COP 24 summit in Katowice, Poland, Thunberg turned global. The voices of her past and present critics drowned in the global embrace of her message and the sheer magnitude of the school strikes. 


Fast forward to August 2019. Thunberg is standing on the prow of a sailing boat, g