I am Greta: the person behind the protests

True self: Thunberg says her Asperger syndrome allows her to “see through the static”. © AP

Is authenticity the secret of charisma? A Swedish teenager became an overnight sensation after launching a lone climate protest. Now, a new film sheds light on her extraordinary popularity.

In the middle of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, the sky is beginning to darken. Hundreds of miles from the shore, a single boat is battling against the towering waves.

Inside the yacht, a huddled figure clings on in desperation. As the waves continue to pummel the tiny vessel, Greta Thunberg starts to sob: “It’s too much for me.”

This is a scene from “I am Greta”, a new documentary released today, revealing the remarkable story of the teenage climate activist. It includes her epic carbon-neutral journey across the Atlantic to a summit in New York.

In 2018, novice filmmaker Nathan Grossman heard about a 15-year-old girl from Sweden who was refusing to go to school. Instead, she was sitting outside the country’s parliament with a homemade sign and a simple message: “Skolstrejk för klimatet.

A few days later, he started filming. Grossman did not bother to shoot in high definition: they would be lucky, he thought, if the grainy footage of a lonely teenager sitting on the grey streets of Stockholm, ignored by passersby, made it to the local news.

But within weeks, Thunberg had started a revolution. Arnold Schwarzenegger had retweeted her, and other children had joined her, with their own signs in their own languages. It was no longer a solitary-child’s campaign.

By September 2019, Greta was leading four million people in 150 countries for the Global Climate Strike, thought to be the biggest environmental protest in history.

In just over a year, the teenager had transformed from unknown schoolgirl to global superstar. It was a meteoric rise that left many people wondering: what is so special about Greta Thunberg?

Thunberg herself believes that Asperger syndrome plays a major part in her success. “I don’t fall for lies as easily as regular people,” she told the BBC last year.

Grossman’s film casts a light on her authenticity: she is not driven by fame or popularity but because she feels she has no choice. “Once the climate crisis has got your attention, you can’t look away,” she explains.

Indeed, the documentary shows Greta at her highs, speaking in front of 30,000 at a UN conference – and at her lows, struggling to cope with the idea that her rising fame may be eclipsing her message.

Although Greta may be campaigning to save the world, she herself has already benefited from one aspect of her campaign. In the years before her school strike, she suffered from profound depression, at times refusing to eat or speak. Now, the campaign provides a goal for her “laser focus”.

Indifferent to social pressures and norms, she has faced the ire of world leaders with apparent ease: the Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro called her a “brat” while Donald Trump suggested she had anger management issues.

Thunberg laughs off the criticism, but she does not respond to plaudits either. When an American congressman hailed her “superpower”, she replied: “Please save your praise. We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it.”

So, is authenticity the secret of charisma?

Behind the scenes

No, say some. Charisma is based on self-belief, not authenticity. In today’s celebrity culture, many of the people we admire are not that genuine at all. From the Kardashians to career politicians, most high-profile A-listers are self-manufactured creations. They present a highly curated image of themselves in the press or on social media, rather than their “real” or authentic selves.

Yes, say others. It is Greta’s willingness to expose her vulnerabilities and tell the truth that makes her so powerful. The old idea of charisma, especially in politics, is based on smooth charm – but many now prefer brutal honesty. From Thunberg herself to the rise of populist politicians, who forgo conventions, it is clear that authenticity is indeed the secret of charisma.

You Decide

  1. Do you always follow your moral convictions, even if doing so inconveniences you?
  2. Has Greta Thunberg had a big impact on the world because she is authentic, or in spite of it?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are attending a climate change protest. Design your own placard to take with you.
  2. Write a speech calling for your classmates to join you on a climate strike. How will you persuade them that you really believe what you are saying?

Some People Say...

“In such a big crisis like this one, we need people who think outside the box and who aren’t like everyone else.”

Greta Thunberg, Swedish climate activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that what society considers to be real and authentic has changed considerably over time. Freud argued that human behaviour is driven by desires and fears locked in the “unconscious” and that it is only civilisation and psychoanalysis that control our authentic selves. But 18th-century philosopher Rousseau believed authenticity was our blissful state in nature, before society corrupted us.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate among scholars surrounds whether or not it is possible to be “authentic” at all. “To thine own self be true,” says Polonius in the classic Shakespeare play Hamlet. But not everybody agrees with the idea that a “true, authentic self” lies underneath their outer socialised persona. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that he “had no true self”, but rather that his self was “an empty palace of mirrors”.

Word Watch

Pummel
To strike repeatedly.
Carbon-neutral
Instead of going by plane, Thunberg travelled to New York during hurricane season on a zero-carbon yacht, powered solely by wind, sun and hydro-power.
Arnold Schwarzenegger
An Austrian-American actor who was governor of the state of California between 2003 and 2011.
UN
United Nations. An intergovernmental organisation based in New York that aims to maintain international peace and security.
Ire
Anger. Thunberg has been attacked by politicians and media figures. The American television network Fox News was forced to apologise after a guest called her a “mentally ill Swedish child”.
Congressman
Thunberg told American Democrats: “I know you’re trying…but just not hard enough. Sorry.”
Skolstrejk för klimatet
Meaning “School strike for climate”, now the watchword for an international movement of children who skip schoool on Fridays to protest about climate change.
Asperger syndrome
Now considered part of the autism spectrum, Asperger syndrome is named after Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger who described some of its characteristics. They include difficulties with social interaction and non-verbal communication.

Subjects

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