I wish I had never heard of Greta Thunberg. A world where I’ve never heard of Greta Thunberg is a sane world. She gets to go be a regular teenager in Sweden, we get to live on a planet that isn’t falling apart from climate change, and everyone wins. Unfortunately, we live in a world where Thunberg sees no option but to get on the frontlines in the fight for a better planet. Some may find her fight heroic and uplifting, but watching Nathan Grossman’s documentary I Am Greta, I see a tragedy. I see a stolen childhood, not by her parents or left-wing forces as Thunberg’s detractors claim, but stolen by a world where, to paraphrase Thunberg, adults claim one thing, and then do another. This hypocrisy has brought the planet to the brink of destruction, and Thunberg feels obligated to fight for her generation. The tragedy is that her real grievance is rendered into nothing more than a bit, an act of righteous fury that allows the rest of us to feel better as we fail to grasp not only the stakes of the battle over climate change, but the very battleground itself. Watching I Am Greta, you can see why she’s so angry—she’s being set up to fail.
Thunberg made headlines around the world in 2018 and 2019 through her climate activism. Grossman follows Greta from the start of her journey as she sets up a school strike in front of Sweden’s parliament to force action on climate change. Greta, with help from her father Svante Thunberg uses that attention to get into rooms with powerful people and make unapologetic, forceful statements on the need for immediate action on climate change. They shake her hand, tell her she’s amazing, maybe take a selfie with her, and then nothing changes. Through all this Greta persists and rallies other young activists to her cause, but the documentary takes time to remind us she’s also a 16-year-old teenager carrying the weight of the world, and while being on the autism spectrum allows her immense focus, she’s not immune to hitting a breaking point.
I admire Grossman for not trying to make I Am Greta one long celebration because as even Thunberg would admit, there’s nothing here worth celebrating. She doesn’t want to be doing this; she feels obligated to protest because her generation may not have a future if our political leaders don’t act now. The story of I Am Greta isn’t about one heroic teenager beating the odds; it’s about one heroic teenager confronting a broken system and fighting on anyway. That’s inspiring, but also infuriating. She knows the science better than the politicians and it literally does not matter. Those politicians will pay lip service to her issue and then go on supporting legislation that pollutes the planet.
Watching I Am Greta, you also can’t help but feel like she’s fighting with one hand tied behind her back. She’s arguing about science because that’s the battlefield the oil lobby wants her to fight on. If we’re still stuck “debating” the science (even though the science has been agreed upon by 99% of the scientific community), then polluters can go on polluting (for more on this, watch the 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt). If we’re left to believe that action on climate change amounts to personal responsibility (for example, Thunberg chooses to sail across the Atlantic Ocean rather than fly because of fuel consumption and plane emissions) rather than acknowledging that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, then the onus falls on the individual rather than those companies. Thunberg isn’t misguided; she’s fighting the fight that environmental activists have been fighting for decades because that’s where the corporate interests want them to be—a cute sideshow but removed from the corridors of power.
In this context, I Am Greta becomes an odd sort of tragedy. It’s a coming-of-age story at the end of the world with Thunberg picking up the fight from those that came before and running into the same walls but at a younger age. She’s a great outlet for our rage; I too have enjoyed watching videos on Twitter as she excoriates world leaders for their failure on climate change, but that’s just an emotional outlet for my own frustration. Thankfully, Grossman always humanizes Greta, making her more than just a climate activist. She’s ultimately a teenager struggling with an enormous burden she never should have had to carry in the first place.
If there’s any hope in I Am Greta, it’s that we see Thunberg is not the only young climate activist out there. Perhaps there’s finally a serious push and real political force from people who haven’t bought into corporate-friendly environmental messaging; young people who desire serious change and will vote out the politicians who fail to provide it. Maybe Thunberg yelling at politicians alone won’t change anything, but inspiring countless other young people will. Maybe a young person will watch I Am Greta and see that they too can have the power to inspire positive change. It’s nice to hope for that, if even for a moment.