The Rites of a Silent Spring
Greta Thunberg's effectiveness—and why it bothers some people.
Posted Sep 24, 2019
Few people can have missed young environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to the UN assembly, calling for immediate action on climate change. If you did miss that, you have probably noticed the effect of her championing of school strikes in 150 countries. (1) If you missed that, then her being made TIME's Person of the Year (update today) might have caught your attention.
Responses to Thunberg have varied from suggesting (with no grounds of which I have been made aware) that she is a paid shill, that she is mentally ill, is having a breakdown, is a witch, or that she is some sort of prophet. People who don’t like her message—which is, when you get right down to it, the rather conservative one that we should all have been paying closer attention in school—have tried a number of ways to discredit her. All without success. Why has her message been more effective than previously?
I’m not qualified to speak to the technical aspects of what should be done in response to climate change. I realize that most people who opine on the issues aren’t qualified to talk to the technical aspects either, but that this rarely stops them. However, climate science is not my role. I’m a psychologist, and I do have some thoughts on her effectiveness, and the ineffectiveness (or worse) of many of her critics.
It is worth starting with the observation that what Thunberg is saying and the way it is being said, is not especially new. Severn Cullis-Suzuki aka “The Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes,” then aged 12, said very similar things at the 1992 Rio Summit. Ecosystems are collapsing. We need to move away from fossil fuels. The world was silenced for five minutes and then proceeded to pump out more CO2 in the next 25 years than in all previous ones.
The world might have become a bit more educated about the realities of climate change in the quarter-century since Cullis-Suzuki, and there is something to be said for that. But not, I think, all. Logic and facts alone rarely carry the day. People respond to stories. Particularly to ancient stories. They respond on a bone level and are probably barely aware of why. Something about a young impassioned woman giving us this particular message now is stirring up passions--positive and negative. Maybe there is something a bit more end of times in the air, what with flood waters rising, countries on fire, city leveling hurricanes, and the sort of thing that is hard to deny the existence of? Signs and portents, and all that sort of thing. Maybe we are starting to believe that the end of the world might be a real thing, and our ears become attuned to particular types of people at that point?
There are characters—I'm tempted to call them archetypes—that crop up again and again in myth cycles across time and culture. When we see one, we have certain expectations and responses that come to the fore. These archetypal characters possibly represent particular ways in which, over evolved time, humans have engaged with threats and opportunities.
Obvious examples are the Warrior, Magus, and Trickster. They are all represented as gods or heroes in particular configurations that have common themes across time and space. Warriors solve their problems by combat. They fall into two types. The brainy and the brawny, Odysseus and Hercules. Iron-man, and Thor. The Magus is an ascetic outsider from normal society, who wins by knowing arcane facts that normal folks are not privy to. Doctor Who, Obi Wan, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Strange. The Trickster is fun as hell, reminds us of our absurdities, but can’t always be trusted: Loki. Joker. And, there is the Wise Girl.
I’ve written about her before in relation to horror stories. Throughout the whole of Bantu Africa, the mythological “Wise Girl” (such as G!kno/’amdima of the Jhosa) regularly saves the rest of the group from ogres and other monsters. In countless western horror films, she is immortalized as the Final Girl, of whom Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably the most mainstream version.
What are the Wise Girl's key characteristics? She is always a young, unmarried girl on the cusp of womanhood. She is brave and smart, like most heroes, but also pure, innocent—perhaps even to the point of being somewhat unworldly. Warning the tribe of impending danger, and frequently disbelieved, she is willing to accept martyrdom, even. Joan of Arc. Anne Frank. Malala Yousafzai.
Remind you of anyone else?
We grant Wise Girls special license to convey apocalyptic truths, and my suspicion is that we have done so for a very long time. This role is not necessarily to their personal benefit. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” caused a riot when it was released in 1913. This was partly for its plangent discordant tunes, and partly because it showcased the way that young girl martyrs can be chosen for pagan sacrifice. In the Stravinsky ballet, the girl is made to dance herself to death. South Park, of all things, picked up this theme in their episode about Britney Spears, and the almost pagan way we offer up youngsters for sacrifice.
But, if I am right, then the attacks on a Wise Girl by various people (a middle-aged man attacking the character of a young woman is rarely a good look) will just confirm her martyr status. Severn Cullis-Suzuki was not attacked, just ignored. But it’s too late to ignore Thunberg now. Just as its too late to ignore the fact that Australia is on fire. And Thunberg has inspired a following.
Incidentally, let there be no suggestion that I use the word “martyr” in any sneering sense. The etymology of the word "martyr" is “witness to the truth.” As Geoffrey Miller points out in his new book, the much-maligned term “virtue signaling” should be extended to include the signaling of real underlying virtues; otherwise, it’s not technically signaling at all. Not in a biological sense. Real virtues are hard to fake, desirable qualities.
And the more people try to bully her, the more that she appears as a Wise Girl in the eyes of others. And the more the bullies will start to look like part of the threat.
1) Some people are worried at the effects of a school strike. It may help such people to think of it as "proroguing school". Or, it may not.
2) Biesele, M.A. 1993. Women like Meat: The Folklore and Foraging Ideology of the Kalahari Ju/’hoan. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
Clover, C. J. (1993). Men, women, and chain saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton University Press. “Final Girl” was a term introduced by the feminist scholar Carol Clover in her (1993) book “Men, Women and Chainsaws” in which she dismantled the oft-repeated idea that females in horror films are always helpless sexualized victims.
4) Geoffrey Miller discusses virtue signalling--in a non perjorative sense--here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtDrn2ss_Is His book is available here https://www.primalpoly.com/virtue-signaling-2019 (Incidentally, none of this means he endorses what I have been saying in the blog)
5) I discuss archetypes in greater detail here https://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ebs/9/3/170.html?uid=2015-00535-001 King, R. (2015). A regiment of monstrous women: Female horror archetypes and life history theory. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 9(3), 170. This work was somewhat inspired by Tehrani, J. J. (2013). The phylogeny of little red riding hood. PloS one, 8(11), e78871.
6) Some people have suggested that we need to "stop listening to little girls, and start listening to experts". Here are some worth listening to: https://www.ecomodernism.org/