There's a huge media focus and public debate on Greta Thunberg. Not surprising, for me, because she is an extraordinarily articulate interpreter of the environmental challenge. And she is both highly impassioned and very funny.
But what is the correct response, at least for those sympathetic to her message - that not enough is being done by politicians about climate and environmental issues?
I have experienced quiet unease among some people who agree in principle that more needs to be done about climate change - let's explore that a bit. Here's thoughts on why some sympathetic feel uncomfortable after hearing Greta's message.
Moral response: For some, there's a sense of moral indigestion on experiencing such raw moral indignation. She is directly scolding the leaders of the world for their irresponsibility. But who is she to scold in such anyone in such a manner?
Realism: A common criticism, sometimes meant in a kindly way, is that Greta is not realistic. She wants and expects huge mobilizations of resources, regulation and attention that have not happened to date, without particularly explicit notes on how this is all supposed to happen. Changing things is hard, some people quietly remind themselves and each other.
Leadership: Perhaps a sum of the previous point, but maybe also its own problem, some people perhaps wonder what kind of leader Greta represents. To scold other leaders, and to demand action, are often the actions of an executive leader offering a better way. But Greta is not really offering that: she reminds everyone she is a schoolgirl who wants to finish her education.
Are this concerns the reason Greta makes some people feel quietly uncomfortable? I think maybe they explain some exasperation, especially among those who have seen a lot of political movements come and go, but I'm feel there's something more.
What Greta's stance reveals to many, I believe, is their own unresolved relationship to the morality of climate and sustainability, and to their political leadership's lack focus on it. It wakes up the uncomfortable sense among modern citizens that their world is built on foundations they don't want to look at, but now have to. Greta Discomfort Syndrome, in other words, is the politest form of wanting to shoot the messenger: "the messenger is unworthy" implying that the message is unworthy.
Sounding the alarm during a crisis isn't actually an invitation to solve or even understand the underlying problem - as annoying and as impractical as that might be. But that's not, and cannot be the point. If I tell you there's a fire in the building and how much time you have to put it out before it becomes lethal, and you ask me … 'well what caused the fire? how can we prevent such fires in the future?' as the fire is still burning, who's the annoying one here?
The truth maybe that, as dramatic even melodramatic Greta Thunberg is, she has a no more or less a role as a classic messenger. It's more than likely Cassandra wasn't just blandly disbelieved about Troy - she actively annoyed people.
If you know people with Greta Discomfort Syndrome you can investigate how they really feel about the issues, instead of asking them to consider Greta or her ideas further. How will climate change be addressed, at scale, fast, fairly? What should politicians do, despite so many other priorities? If just that much - a new opening to grand concerns - is achieved, Greta will have accomplished more than nothing.
There's one thing though about which I agree with people with Greta Discomfort Syndrome: it's about whether we should be okay listening to kids or expecting them to lead. We shouldn't. Some Greta enthusiasts seem, to be, to be suffering from Youth Heroism Syndrome: an outlook where current leaders and institutions have failed, so now we need to focus on 'the youth'.
This is particularly current in complex institutions like the UN or the EU, that love talking about the 'next generation', mainly it seems because of sense of disempowerment about their own daily realities. This is conferring on Greta a kind of mythic leadership - one with no roles or responsibilities, other than to justify one's own sense of weakness.
That's not acceptable. It's as bad and irresponsible to see Greta as the solution modern instituions can't find, as it is to ignore her warnings of inaction because they make you feel uncomfortable. Whether Greta makes you cry, or laugh, or sigh, solving climate change is not down to her (she's got school) - it's down to us.