The pitfalls of climate icon culture

The climate movement should be about Greta's facts, not her face.

Shana Tova and welcome to HEATED, a daily newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.

It’s Monday and you know what that means: Time to eat a banana, drink a glass of water, and read something that might make you kind of uncomfortable.

Sign up to receive daily emails below if you haven’t yet, and let’s get to it!

The icon issue

This video of Greta Thunberg’s now-famous “I dare you” speech at the United Nations remixed as a Swedish death metal song went viral over the weekend. And I freakin’ love it.

I love it because it makes Greta’s metal speech even more metal; her rage even more rageful. It also takes the decidedly not-fun things she’s talking about and makes them fun. And I think we all needed something fun after last week.

But I also love this video because it has Greta. And the world can’t get enough Greta.

Right?


Almost every time I want to share something or write something about Greta Thunberg, I hesitate a little.

I go and share or write it anyway, for the most part—because when Greta talks, people listen. And that’s a special ability when it comes to climate change, an issue that until recently has been treated by most people like a low smoke alarm battery beep.

But I hesitate to share Greta content sometimes because I see the sixteen-year-old quickly becoming an icon: a singular hero of the climate movement, its most prominent symbol of courage in the face of terrible odds.

And I worry about that—not because I don’t think Greta deserves to be an icon, but because I know that she doesn’t want to be.


This must seem like a pretty rich comment coming from someone who has dedicated several newsletter issues to Greta over the last few weeks, including an interview with her.

But one thing I learned about her from our interview is that she wishes we would all just talk to someone else—namely, climate scientists and other youth activists, particularly youth activists of color.

This is why Greta insisted on organizing a panel of climate scientists and climate justice activists instead of just giving a speech to Congress while she was in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago. It’s also why she told The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, “It’s hard to be the center of attention; I don’t like that. I have to tell myself it’s for a good cause.” 

Youth activists of color wish we would all pay attention to them, too. But for some reason, we’re all fixated on this young white woman, whose community is not disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, who has only been on the climate activism scene for a year.

Why do you think that is?


For many activists in frontline communities, Greta’s rapid rise to the status of climate movement icon feels frustrating, alienating, and entirely commonplace.

“There are a slate of indigenous black and brown youth organizers who have been doing this work for years, and they’ve never gotten a fist bump from Barack Obama,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, the policy coordinator for the Climate Justice Alliance, which works with more than 70 climate justice groups. (Related: Here are 4 youth activists of color leading the climate fight.)

“That’s not on Greta, though,” he added. “That has to do with us.”

The mainstream environmental movement has long struggled to adequately work on behalf of people of color—that is, the people most affected by environmental problems. Tensions first blew out into the open in 1990, when civil rights groups sent a letter to the nation’s largest green groups accusing them of racism in their hiring practices. And things aren’t much better thirty years later. There is still, as Yale Environment 360 puts it, “a troubling lack of racial diversity in major U.S. environmental organizations and government agencies.”

Thus there’s still a major divide between the big moneyed white-led environmental groups and the smaller POC-led grassroots climate justice groups. And the main thing keeping that divide open is distrust—distrust from non-white activists that the mainstream environmental movement will never work on behalf of their communities.

So in many ways, Rogers-Wright said, the rise of a white woman as the environmental movement’s savior was expected. “This is not a new phenomenon,” he said. “But it’s hurting the formation of a broad, coalesced movement.”


This topic always seems to rile people up. People seem to think that examining and even criticizing Greta’s celebrity is akin to criticizing Greta herself, or dismissing how effective and meaningful she’s been.

This is not my intention, nor is it Rogers-Wright’s. “We can appreciate and celebrate all of Greta’s efforts, and talk about the pitfalls of icon culture as it pertains to the erasure of frontline youth and keeping us fighting amongst ourselves,” he said. “We can do both.”

The problem is not Greta. The problem is our culture’s desire to make one person representative of an entire movement. “How many times have we done that, and then the icon is discredited, lets us down, or is removed by assassination,” Rogers-Wright said. “And when that person is removed or destroyed, all the momentum associated with them also gets destroyed.”

That’s why the right is far more effective when it goes after individuals—because it is easier to discredit a person than it is to discredit an entire movement. Especially when the movement is so reliant on one person.

For the climate movement to become united, Rogers-Wright said, it has to coalesce around a specific set of facts and issues, and not a person—because people are never as perfect as the issues they stand behind. “It’s just not a strategic methodology to exalt one person as an icon, especially when we’re talking about something like climate,” he added. “It’s not going to be one person or 10 leaders who gets us out of this mess. It’s going to be everyone.”

Dismantling icon culture doesn’t mean shutting Greta out. It just means choosing to repeat her fact more often than her face. It also means making deliberate choices to lift up the diverse voices around her, too.

If not for her sake, then for everyone else’s.

HOT ACTION: Embrace the sob

Before we go, I wanted to share this e-mail from reader Lance Olsen. He sent it in response to Thursday’s newsletter about the IPCC oceans report—specifically, the part where I cited people who were crying over its very scary findings. He suggested that the grief was a positive sign, and I liked how he put it (Plus, he mentioned Greta, which, relevant):

If we're not responding emotionally, we're still in denial.

We might have accepted that the problem exists, but are keeping it at the intellectual level to protect ourselves from perfectly legitimate but unpleasant, unwanted emotions. That includes the feeling of despair that many fear will demobilize us. 

Thunberg fell into a pronounced depression. She was, in a word, demobilized.

Look at her now.

Got any ideas for actions people can take to fight the climate crisis? Email them to action@heated.world.

That’s all for today—thanks so much for reading HEATED.

If you liked it, forward it to a friend or three. If you’ve been forwarded this, you can sign up to receive daily Monday-Thursday emails below.

As always, if you have questions or comments on anything you read in this issue, or want to pitch me a story idea, my inbox is open: emily@heated.world.

See you tomorrow.