Greta Thunberg: the climate striking catalyst

12 minutes to read
Article
Juliette Berndsen
06/10/2020

Climate striking seems to have become a weekly occurrence among much school-going youth. It was Greta Thunberg who started this when she decided to skip school one Friday to try and get awareness for the climate. How did Greta Thunberg become the catalyst for the global Fridays for Future movement, and how did the movement go global? What was the role of digital media in all this? Adopting a digital ethnographic approach, this article will attempt to answer these questions, analysing Thunberg’s and the Fridays for Future movement’s political actions.

Climate striking for her future

Greta Thunberg has become a household name since she started skipping school to start climate striking in August 2018. She says she was inspired by the Parkland students in the United States, who started national school walkouts to protest against the government’s inaction on gun violence (Beckett, 2019). Her demands are simple: politicians should follow the Paris agreement and, if she has to have any other demands, these would be to declare an international climate emergency (Vice, 2019). On Fridays, Thunberg would skip school and go sit in front of the Swedish parliament with a sign simply saying "skolstrejk för klimatet" (“school strike for climate” in Swedish). She quickly became well-known for her striking and inspired the School Strike for Climate movement, also known as Fridays for Future.

Four screenshots of Instagram posts made by Greta Thunberg about her school strike from October 2018, September 2019, November 2019 and January 2020.

Every Friday, Thunberg would post a photo on Twitter and Instagram with a caption explaining what week of School Strike she is on. This hybrid of offline and online climate awareness is typical for the so-called hybrid media system. This term highlights that different types of media not only co-exist but form a system that evolves through mutual (inter)actions among older and newer media logics (Chadwick, Dennis, & Smith, 2016). There is no single dominant medium, but multiple media co-operating and simultaneously being in a constant power battle. As Chadwick and colleagues (2016) describe, campaign content discussed online can be classified as hybrid, initially beginning its life offline, e.g. on television or in the press, which then goes on to online media via campaign promotion and/or citizen discussion. This also goes for Thunberg. Her campaign content started with her offline striking, which then moved online because of the media reporting on it as well as citizen discussion, and later as a sort of campaign promotion to get others to join her in her climate striking. The term hybrid media system is useful in this context because we cannot simply speak of old or new media only; all forms have contributed to the Greta Thunberg's popularity and the fact that Fridays for Future has spread all over the world.

Greta Thunberg’s digital presence

A politician’s message is a central item in politics. According to Silverstein (2003), when message is employed in a successful manner, a person comes to inhabit their message in the act of communicating. A message is a consequence of marketing and can be seen as something similar to a brand. A politician can be "on message" and "off-message". When someone is on message, they communicate a specific aura, a certain "realness" that appeals to the targeted audience. Silverstein (2003) writes that being on message “contributes to a consistent, cumulative, and consequential image that a public person has among his or her addressed audience.” Message strategically uses style to create image in a consequential way (Silverstein, 2003). This image that Silverstein writes about is not necessarily visual; it is an abstract portrait of identity. Good communicators forge an image of themselves that aligns with their message and the spirit of the times (Silverstein, 2003).

Thunberg’s message and image revolve around climate change and the fact that she wants politicians to act now. However, the biggest hurdle that Thunberg has to overcome when it comes to her image is her age. She is currently seventeen years old (fifteen when she first started striking), which generally causes people to not take her seriously and to patronize her. Jeremy Clarkson, the 59-year-old Top Gear presenter, is a recent example of this. In an interview, he said that Thunberg is an "idiot" and went on to say “so be a good girl, shut up and let them get on with it. And no. You cannot stay out past 10. And you cannot go out in a skirt that short” (Radford, 2019). Besides the fact that he calls her an idiot and tells her to stay out of it, he also focusses on her age by acting like he is disciplining her like a father would his daughter.

Similarly to Clarkson, Donald Trump has tweeted about Thunberg being Time’s person of the year by writing “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” Thunberg responded to this by changing her Twitter bio to “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.” This is not the first time Thunberg changed her Twitter bio as a jab towards Trump’s tweets about her. In response to a tweet about Thunberg’s speech at the UN on September 23, 2019, Trump sarcastically wrote: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Thunberg had expressed anger and resentment towards the leaders gathered to hear her speech. This time, she changed her Twitter bio to “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”

Another important part of her message is her green image. When your image revolves around climate change, you come across as a hypocrite if you do not follow your own advice. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Thunberg says that she is on a shop stop, eats vegan, and has stopped flying. A shop stop, as Thunberg called it, is when you decide to not buy anything besides necessities (Democracy Now!, 2019). This phenomenon, often called a no-buy challenge by influencers, can have different rules for everyone but the principles stay the same. You do not buy anything you do not need. Most people make exceptions for replacing products they need when they run out or when they do not function anymore, but besides that, one is not allowed to buy anything. Thunberg and her family are also all vegan. The environmental benefits from not eating meat and dairy are huge as proven by various studies (Carrington, 2018; Harrabin, 2019).

Even though many praise her when she posts or talks about her alternatives to flying, some people still criticise her for her behaviour.

The fact that Thunberg has decided against flying might be the change Thunberg made for the benefit of the environment that has caused the most polarization. Instead of flying to the various climate summits she has attended, Thunberg opted for an electric car, the train, or a sailboat. She has travelled to various events by boat, but when visiting a different city in Europe, she usually takes the train. Even though many praise her when she posts or talks about her alternatives to flying, some people still criticise her for her behaviour. Thunberg posted a photo of herself sitting on the floor of a train while she was travelling back home after the UN climate conference in Madrid in December 2019. Deutsche Bahn, the train company she travelled with in Germany, called Thunberg out for the fact that she did not disclose the fact that she was offered a first-class seat (Connolly, 2019). She disputed this argument quickly by responding in a tweet that she could sit for the last two hours of journey after spending four hours on the floor. “This is no problem of course and I never said it was. Overcrowded trains is a great sign because it means the demand for train travel is high!

The final aspect of Thunberg’s image is that she is a teenager from Sweden who travels the world to spread climate awareness. This means that she needs to change her main communication language from Swedish to English. In the very beginning, Thunberg’s tweets were all written in Swedish. Some responses to other tweets were in English to ensure that the targeted readers would understand. From mid-September 2018 on, practically all of her tweets were written in English. She would only tweet in Swedish if she was responding to a Swedish tweet. The most obvious reason for this shift is that Thunberg started to get more (media) attention from all over the world, so changing her main form of communication from Swedish to English to be able to reach more people made perfect sense. 

An online and offline climate movement

Greta Thunberg inspired a global movement by striking by herself in Stockholm. There are currently thirty countries that have their own Fridays for Future initiative. According to the statistics page of #FridaysForFuture, the strike with the most participants worldwide was on 15 March 2019. In 2,418 cities across 137 countries, a total of 2,289,650 people participated. This event was not held by one person or one group but instead by the whole collective of Fridays for Future nationwide. The Vice documentary called Make the World Greta Again shows this process. Different groups of Fridays for Future work individually to make sure that protesters in their country gather in different cities, or in one specific city, but these groups also communicate with one another to, for example, exchange tips and information.

Fridays for Future can be seen as a hybrid mobilisation movement. This type of movement “could not work without the Internet because the technologies set up complex interactions between the online and offline environment” (Chadwick, 2007). In addition, these movements could not function without the complex spatial and temporal reconfiguring of political life that has been enabled by digital communication (Chadwick & Dennis, 2017).

One of the strengths of Fridays for Future is that it has moved from online to offline in a very successful manner. This movement could have very easily become a form of slacktivism, which is defined by Morozov as feel-good activism that has no political or social impact but instead creates an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group (Gerbaudo, 2012). However, this movement is clearly not an example of slacktivism as it allowed the movement to grow on a global scale, it made climate change into a key topic in politics worldwide and something for teens to become involved in all over the world. Instead of having word of mouth as its main form of communication, information about the movement was shared mostly through social media. As described by Luisa Neubauer, a climate activist in Germany, the small group that was willing to start striking there started texting everyone they could reach and organized their first climate strike via WhatsApp (Ted.com, 2019).

But there are many other platforms that have been used by climate activists besides WhatsApp. Facebook has many groups of Fridays for Future for practically every country involved, and some cities have their own group as well. The biggest group is the one called Fridays For Future #ClimateStrike with over 26,000 followers (as of January 2020), and Greta Thunberg herself as the group's administrator. These groups include posts of examples of climate change, initiatives from members, and photos of climate strikes. Instagram is similar to Facebook in that every Fridays For Future group has their own Instagram account with photos of strikes and information about the upcoming strikes in their particular country. The official Instagram account of the movement, which is not specific to a country, has 452,000 followers (as of January 2020).

Gerbaudo (2012) explains this phenomenon as a choreography of assembly, which can be understood as “a process of symbolic construction of public space, which revolves around an emotional ‘scene-setting’ and ‘scripting’ of participants’ physical assembling”. He divides this choreography of assembly in two different phases: the symbolic condensation of people around a common identity and their material precipitation in public space (Gerbaudo, 2012).

The first phase, condensation of people, means that a group is formed through a construction of common identities into a common subjectivity with the capacity to act as a unified subject with control over their own action. Gerbaudo (2012) clarifies that this is not simply about the sharing of information, but there has to be "emotional investment" on the participants' part. This is explained by Luisa Neubauer in the Vice documentary when she talks about how Fridays for Future in Germany has weekly meetings. She says that they used to communicate through phone calls but they quickly realised that it was important for people to have a personal connection to the strikes because otherwise they do not feel committed to it. “You need people to come together and, like, actually get to know each other. So, we introduced like meetings every week” (Vice, 2019).

The second phase, that of material precipitation, is explained by Gerbaudo (2012) through the example of a radio. A radio created a symbolic community for the Algerians who were fighting against the French colonizers, but it is also facilitated the physical gathering of people in a public space because they would listen together to the radio. This is similar to Fridays for Future because the internet has created a symbolic community for them but in the case of Luisa Neubauer, she quickly realised that just communicating through the internet or phone calls was not enough, so she organised weekly meetings. As stressed by Gerbaudo (2012), social media has to be understood as complementing existing forms of face-to-face gatherings and not as substituting for them.

Thunberg has started the conversation by striking in Stockholm, but it has grown through social media and the cause has been taken up by various climate activists in different countries across the world.

Does this mean that we cannot identify a leader for Fridays for Future? Many people see Greta Thunberg as the inspiration for this nationwide movement. This sentiment is expressed by many as they see Thunberg as the first person who opened up this conversation and inspired other young activists. Anuna de Wever, climate activist in Belgium, has said that “before Greta started this, nobody talked about it. Ever” (Vice, 2019). Later in the documentary, she describes meeting Thunberg as “amazing because she was my inspiration to start this. Now together with all the other countries we have started a revolution.” Another girl appearing in the beginning of the Vice documentary says that Thunberg was the catalyst of this movement.

Even though Thunberg started all of this, she is not necessarily seen as "the leader". Thunberg describes herself as “only a messenger”. She never imagined that this movement was going to be this big. All of this points to the fact that Thunberg can be seen as a reluctant leader, who did not want to be seen as a leader in the first place but whose scene-setting and scripting work has been decisive in bringing a degree of coherence to people’s spontaneous and creative participation in the protest movements (Gerbaudo, 2012).

Gerbaudo (2012) describes that social media have not caused a situation of absolute "leaderlessness", but rather facilitated the rise of complex and "liquid" forms of leadership which exploit the interactive and participatory character of the new communication technologies. Thunberg has started the conversation by striking in Stockholm, but it has grown through social media and has been taken up by various climate activists in different countries across the world, like Luisa Neubauer in Germany and Anuna de Wever in Belgium.

Digital media and climate striking go hand in hand

The simple answer to how Greta Thunberg caused such a global movement to rise up is digital media. The world got to know her through the many news articles dedicated to her striking and speeches made across the world and through her Instagram and Twitter posts. Thunberg’s demand that politicians should follow the Paris agreement, resonated with youth across the globe, who saw her as an example and started striking themselves. All the Fridays for Future organizations across the globe managed to gather over 2 million people in the streets to fight for our environment. This was only possible because digital media spread the idea far and wide and because people felt a personal connection and responsibility to the case. Thunberg is still striking which inspires people but does not mean she is their leader. She was the catalyst which caused other activists to rise around the globe.

 

References

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