Maxime Bernier wants us to think he is sorry. The leader of the extremist People’s Party of Canada had tweeted that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is “clearly mentally unstable. Not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive, eating disorder, depression, and lethargy, and she lives in a constant state of fear. She wants us to feel the same.”
Facing a ferocious backlash, he has since backpedaled, calling the 16-year-old “a brave young woman” who unfortunately is a “pawn” of the climate movement.
Thunberg is nobody’s pawn. I have rarely met anyone — child or adult — who better knows their own mind. And this is not despite her autism; it may well be because of it. In fact, a big part of what has made Thunberg such an inspiring figure, is the fact that she is living proof that diversity — in her case neurodiversity — is absolutely key to the survival of our species.
Every person with autism is different, but there are some traits that many with the diagnosis share in common. As Thunberg has said, people with her type of autism tend to be extremely literal and often have trouble coping with cognitive dissonance, those gaps between what we know and what we do.
Many people on the autism spectrum are also less prone to imitating the social behaviors of people around them and instead forge their own unique paths. This can make them intensely vulnerable to bullying.
“For those of us who are on the spectrum,” Thunberg says, “almost everything is black or white. We aren’t very good at lying, and we usually don’t enjoy participating in this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of.”
Many people on the spectrum also have a powerful capacity to focus on a particular area and to not be distracted. This is often a gift, but it can also be painful, as it was in Thunberg’s case. She turned her laser-like focus on the climate crisis, including the failure of politicians to do what is required to protect a habitable planet. The fact that other people around her seemed relatively unconcerned about the urgent need for transformative action did not send her reassuring social signals, as such signals do for children who are more socially connected. The lack of concern terrified her even more.
According to Thunberg, the only way she was able to cope was to find ways to reduce the cognitive dissonance between what she had learned about the climate crisis and how she lived her life. If she desperately wanted powerful politicians to put our societies on emergency footing to fight climate change, then she needed to reflect that state of emergency in her own life.
So, at age 15, she decided to stop doing the one thing all kids are supposed to do when everything is normal: go to school. Every Friday, she skipped class and stationed herself outside of Sweden’s parliament with a handmade sign that said simply: “School Strike For the Climate.”
“Why,” Thunberg wondered, “should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future?”
The rest is history — the speeches at United Nations conferences, at the European Union, at TEDx Stockholm, at the Vatican, at the British Parliament.
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To the rich and mighty at the annual World Economic Summit in Davos she said: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
Videos of her went viral. It was as if by yelling “Fire!” on our warming planet, she had given others the confidence to believe their own senses and smell the smoke coming in under all those tightly closed doors. And so, children around the world began taking their cues from her — the girl who takes social cues from no one — and started organizing student strikes of their own every Friday. (They have now called on people of all ages to join them, starting on Sept. 20.)
Thunberg’s voyage from “invisible girl,” as she described herself, to global voice of conscience is an extraordinary one, and it has a lot to teach us. In a way, she is asking those of us whose mental wiring is more typical — less prone to extraordinary focus and more capable of living with moral contradictions — to be more like her. And she has a point.
During normal, non-emergency times, the capacity of the human mind to rationalize, compartmentalize, and be distracted are important coping mechanisms. It’s also extremely helpful to unconsciously look to our peers and role models to figure out how to feel and act — those social cues are how we form friendships and build cohesive communities.
When it comes to rising to the existential threat of climate breakdown, however, these traits are proving our collective undoing. They are reassuring us when we should not be reassured. They are distracting us when we should not be distracted. And they are easing our consciences when they should not be eased.
In part this is because pretty much every aspect of our economy would have to change if we were to decide to take climate change seriously, and there are many powerful interests that like things as they are. Not least the fossil fuel corporations, which have funded a decades-long machine of disinformation, obfuscation and straight-up lies about the reality of climate change.
As a result, when most of us look around for social confirmation about climate disruption, we are confronted with all kinds of contradictory signals: Don’t worry about that; it’s an exaggeration; there are countless more important problems; there are no alternatives; you’ll never make a difference, and so on. And it certainly doesn’t help that we are trying to navigate this civilizational crisis at a moment when some of the most brilliant minds of our time are devoting vast energies to figuring out ever more ingenious tools to keep us running around in digital circles in search of the next dopamine hit online.
This may explain the odd space that the climate crisis occupies in the public imagination, even among those of us who are actively terrified of climate collapse. One minute we’re sharing articles about insect apocalypse and viral videos of walruses falling off cliffs because sea ice loss has destroyed their habitat. The next we’re online shopping and willfully turning our minds into Swiss cheese by scrolling through Twitter or Instagram.
“I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange,” Thunberg has said, adding that it helps not to be easily distracted or reassured with rationalizations.
“Because if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me, that is black or white.”