At the recent United Nations Global Climate Conference, delegates received an apocalyptic scolding from an unexpected source: 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who said: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
She continued her jeremiad: “If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”
The response from climate change deniers was harsh and uncompromising. The Week, which scans the press for interesting articles, reprinted two.
Rich Lowry, a writer for National Review.com, labeled Greta “a pawn,” while declaring “there’s a reason why we don’t look to teenagers” for guidance on public policy.
Piling on, Nita Lowry in WashingtonExaminer.com dismissed the young Swede who has suffered from depression and eating disorders and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It’s true that teenagers are bothersome, self-righteous, often uncompromising. They often reject or choose to ignore the world’s political and economic realities. They tend to be impervious to the “conventional wisdom” that guides more mature grown-ups.
As a result, they are maddening little twits who concern themselves with morality, ethics and virtue rather than practicality.
Often the powers-that-be reject teens as delusional or just plain nuts. The rural French teenager who entertained visions that directed her to meet a pretender to the French throne provides an egregious example of premature overreach.
Ignoring the fact that an Englishman occupied the crown and held the loyalty of much of the French nobility, she dressed as a boy and rode her horse to encourage young Charles to assume his rightful position. She was barely 17 but rallied Charles’ troops, who drove out the English.
Her reward in the short run was being burnt at the stake for cross-dressing. In the long run, she was vindicated and celebrated as one of France’s patron saints.
Joan of Arc was a teenager who commanded thousands of soldiers and the loyalty of her nation and seems to have been effective in achieving a goal despite her immaturity.
Another teenager who offered inspired leadership and changed the course of history was Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. He was discounted by many because he suffered from leprosy, but nonetheless rallied his soldiers to repel an attack by the great warrior Saladin.
Despite his malady and youth (he was 16), he accomplished what his elders could not – prevailing against the seemingly unstoppable Islamic general.
More recently, a young Pakistani girl took positions that angered the ruling Taliban in her homeland. She was 15 at the time, foolishly believing that the Taliban wouldn’t attack a child.
She was wrong; a would-be assassin boarded her school bus and shot her in the head. She survived. Eventually Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Continuing her uncompromising, perhaps irrational, crusade for the education of girls, Malala said: “The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens ... Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”
Paying heed to teenage outrage often endangers the status quo. It can dismantle long-held beliefs and structures and upset our deepest beliefs.
Teenagers lack the experience of suffering disappointment and rejection. They don’t know any better than to seek progress and change. In their innocence, the unmask their elders’ hypocrisy.
I remember enough of my youthful idealism to respond positively to the Gretas, Joans and Malalas of the world. They have a clear-headedness that distinguishes right from wrong and the passion and courage to state their beliefs.
Given the choice between following the beliefs of the Koch family who made their billions from petroleum and the youthful millions who demonstrated against them, I will place my support on the side of youthful exuberance.
Stuart Grover is a Tacoma resident and former News Tribune reader columnist. He holds a doctorate in history and has spent a lifetime tilting at windmills. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org