Meeting Greta Thunberg

Meeting a hero is moving and thought-provoking.

Image by Charlotte Lim

I couldn’t end my study abroad without trying to strike with Thunberg four hours north in the capital.

Arriving at Riksdaghuset (the Swedish Parliament) felt like announcing my respect-crush for the Swedish activist. I made my way through the labyrinth of paths and tunnels that surround the outer defence of Riksdaghuset before seeing a cluster of about 40 protesters with cardboard and calico banners. Meeting your hero is tricky business at best. It’s one thing to rock up to a climate strike in Sydney, but another when you fly halfway across the world to meet the person who single handedly made “flygskam” (flight shame) a thing. The irony.

I took photos and people-watched as I looked out for Thunberg. There were only about 50 people (mostly high schoolers) who stayed to strike throughout the day, a number in stark comparison to the hundreds who filter in throughout the day to find Thunberg, say hi, take a photo, and disappear. 

I made my way into the crowd and began chatting to other activists. They pointed out Thunberg and frogmarched me to her side. 

I started panicking again as soon as I opened my mouth. Thunberg’s gaze is intense. She pretty much wore the same expression as when she spoke at the UN Climate Change COP25 Conference, and had her eyes locked on mine throughout our entire interaction. I blathered out my own introduction…then we just stared at each other. When I get nervous in social interactions, I talk a lot, so I rambled on about how grateful I am that she started striking because as a fellow young person I also got depressed about the climate. She nodded, and we stared at each other some more.

She smiled when I said, “You know I really wanted to strike alongside you, rather than just in solidarity like I usually do,” before I asked for a photo.

Thunberg only said one word to me in our entire exchange – “yes,” when I asked if she was comfortable if I could post on social media and if I could put my arm around her. Other than that, she just nods or shakes her head.

Thunberg has spoken outwardly about her selective mutism before. I don’t know why I assumed that we would have a lively bubbling conversation when she only speaks when it is “necessary”. The media portrayal of Thunberg is somewhat deceptive. According to activists who are close to Thunberg, she often walks away and says “no,” or “not right now,” when the number of people asking for photos becomes overwhelming. She’s wiser than most of us, but it’s an unexpected way of interacting with, for lack of a better word, your fans.

This is what makes Thunberg so magnetic: she truly doesn’t care about being famous. Her demands are to listen to climate science, and act now. She doesn’t like being told she’s amazing, or being told that she’s an inspiration and beacon of hope. Striking isn’t about some abstract concept like hope. It’s about action. It’s a demand for action. 

I was frustrated though. I wanted to talk about so many things: veganism, activism, and self-care when you’re fighting a system that seems impossible to change. On reflection, our interaction felt so hollow.

On the train ride back to Lund, I began to think about the idolisation of Thunberg as the world’s spokesperson for change. When you separate her from the awards she’s won, the books she’s co-written, the speeches she’s given and the protests she’s led, she’s just a kid. She’s shorter than me and hasn’t finished high school. She shouldn’t have to carry this responsibility on her shoulders. But she started the ‘Friday’s for Future’ movement; and now has to be the one to step up to the pedestal.

I felt dirty, thinking about how this journey was all about me, and my desire to meet and strike with Thunberg. I went to Stockholm because I wanted to meet her. Just like all the other people who filter through the crowds to snap a photo before leaving.

Meeting Greta changed me. I’ve become a little more thoughtful, and I behave a little more cautiously in person and online around those I admire. I’m pensive, and definitely more reflective. I recognise I’m far more pessimistic and cynical of what could possibly make a future in the world more viable. 

There’s no magical green technology or scientific innovation that’s going to pull humanity out of the now hollow coal mines we’ve dug. That’s something each and every one of us – politicians, CEOs, students and Greta Thunberg – are going to have to do, all by ourselves.