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Analysis: Greta Thunberg as A Social Product of Sweden

Helen Beltrame Linné

In the past weeks, a question has popped up in conservative circles around the world: who (or what) is behind Greta Thunberg? The Swedish girl’s detractors claim it’s impossible that a 16-year old would have started a global cruisade without a hidden agenda. Apparently, to want to save the world is not reason enough.

Thunberg has been described as Bill and Melinda Gates’s puppet; accused of being financed by (U2 lead singer) Bono’s ONE non-profit organization; and even pinpointed as George Soros’s secret grandchild. Falsities. Is she, then, as some raging conservatives yell, a modern Jesus Christ conducting an apocalyptic cult?

Climate change teen activist Greta Thunberg speaks before joining a climate strike march in Montreal, Quebec, Canada September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Andrej Ivanov - REUTERS

The truth is: Greta Thunberg is no miraculous Messiah. Without taking her personal merit for granted, everything indicates that Thunberg is the social product of a country where money talks, but not as loudly as in other parts of the world.

Sweden is a parliamentary monarchy that follows the Nordic social welfare system (alongside Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland). It’s based on universal healthcare and tertiary education, gender equality, protection of civil liberties and human development, all financed by a taxation policy that widely promotes income equality. In addition, Sweden is a secular state strongly commited to social cohesion, offering protection to vulnerable groups and individuals while simultaneously boosting public participation in social decision making.

However, as we know too well, all men are not equal simply because an official paper says so. The effectiveness of the Swedish system relies on a wide social fabric that advocates equality and social solidarity, and sustains the acceptance and fulfillment of the laws.

That culture is noticeable in Swedish news that startle the world: a supermarket chain stops selling Brazilian produce in protest against the politics of president Jair Bolsonaro; a newspaper refuses advertisement from fossil fuel-based goods and services. Such actions, that put values above economic interest, are not limited to small enterprises. Five years ago, an automaker used a traditional Swedish poem to promote an automobile in a television ad. The Swedish Academy (responsible for granting Nobel prizes) considered it a violation of a national cultural symbol that distorted its original message. The company (which had been granted authorization of use by the poet’s successors) took the campaign of the air.

The building of such a strong social capital relies on one key instrument: education. And that’s where the mystery of Greta Thunberg’s success starts to unveil.

Thunberg is not the first child activist: many countries have produced young leaders in the environmental battle. Historically, children who get involved in political issues mimic adult behavior, establishing NGOs or filing lawsuits against the authorities. They do so fueled by the widespread understanding that children have no power in the world we live in. Therefore, the only way to move forward is to replicate the initiatives of previous generations.

Not for Greta Thunberg. She grew up in a society where a child has, at least in some areas of her life, as much power as the adults. It’s common in Swedish preschools to offer 2 year olds their meals buffet-style, so each child gets to choose what to eat. Every toddler learns to raise their arm with a spread hand and say “stopp, min kropp” (stop, my body), preventing anyone to get close to their body if they don’t feel comfortable. Incidentally, Sweden was the first country in the world to ban corporal punishment in children.

(It is also worth mentioning that in Swedish law the sexual consent needs to be express: silence doesn’t mean permission.)

The Swedish child is taught very early that above all things are her moral and physical integrity. Ergo, nothing more natural than rebelling against a system that threatens her own existence. And zero weirdness in Thunberg’s option to practice an unusual activism, which for a long time consisted in sitting alone outside the Swedish Parliament holding a cardboard sign. In her Swedish mentality, there was no need to act like an adult: the voice of a child also counts.

As much as the Swedish educational system estimulates the perception of each child as a free speaking and self standing individual, it equaly builds a strong sense of collectivity. It’s common for nursery children to gather in “assembly” to democratically decide which will be the week’s special activity. Exercises of solidarity and collective thinking are also frequent. In the outdoor walks, many preschools instruct their children to walk in a single line holding a rope, so that if one stops, all are forced to do so and their attention is turned to the one who interupted the walk: does he need help? Last week I received a photo from my 4-year old daughter’s preschool. The teacher had put a hula-hoop on the floor and asked the children how many could stand inside simultaneously. Seven, showed the picture. Despite the small space occupied by their feet, the children held each other tight, preventing any from falling.

In Greta Thunberg’s case, the role of Swedish education is even more important. At 11, after watching a video about plastic pollution in the oceans, Thunberg got increasingly worried about environmental destruction and global warming. Her concern turned into anxiety and a strong depression, and the girl was then diagnosed with Asperger syndrom (a form of autism that usually manifests in limited interests and repetitive behavior), obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism.

Thanks to a principle of accomodation of differences by the Swedish system, Thunberg was referred to a special school that allowed her to go on strike every Friday to protest against the climate crisis before the parliament –which ended up earning her international fame.

Of course the system is not flawless and Thunberg’s family has publicly complained about the time it took for Greta to be diagnosed and settled in a special school. But the bottom line is that a State policy of respect and accomodation of differences created the conditions for an autistic child to badmouth the pursuit of infinite economical growth before the UN.

It was a heresy in the eyes of world capitalism, which Greta Thunberg allowed herself without blushing. Because she was taught that there is something above economic growth. Because she learned that her voice is worth as much as the others’s. Because there is room for everyone inside the hula-hoop, if we hold each other tight.