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Dismantling Climate Icon Culture: Make the Story ‘About Greta’s Facts, Not Her Face’

School Strike 4 Climate/Twitter

The “climate icon culture” surrounding #FridaysForFuture founder Greta Thunberg has Heated publisher Emily Atkin thinking the focus for the wider climate community “should be about Greta’s facts, not her face”.

That’s because turning one 16-year-old activist or anyone else into the singular face of a big, diverse, growing global movement is bad for that individual and a mistake for the movement, Atkin says [1]. Particularly because Thunberg herself has misgivings about the massive spotlight she’s receiving.

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

At the same time, though, “I hesitate to share Greta content sometimes, because I see the 16-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,” she continues. “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.”

That’s why Thunberg insisted on appearing as part of a panel of climate scientists and climate justice activists during her trip to Washington, DC, rather than just delivering her memorable speech to the U.S. Congress last month. Atkin says that attitude matches up well with what she’s hearing from U.S. youth climate activists of colour who “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.”

“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,” Climate Justice Alliance Policy Coordinator Anthony Rogers-Wright told Atkin. “That’s not on Greta, though,” he added. “That has to do with us.”

Atkin traces that comment back to a long-standing divide between “big, moneyed, white-led environmental groups” and grassroot climate justice groups led by people of colour. But neither Atkin nor Rogers-Wright is inclined to dismiss Thunberg, her contribution, or her impact.

“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 front-line youth and keeping us fighting amongst ourselves,” Rogers-Wright said. “We can do both.”

The problem, Atkin says, is with a culture intent on making anyone the personification 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.”

The solution is for the wider climate community to come together around a set of facts and issues, not an individual.

“Dismantling icon culture doesn’t mean shutting Greta out,” Atkin concludes. “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.”