Blog

Greta Thunberg Versus the Trolls: How a Depressed Teenager Became an Environmental Rock Star

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
November 18, 2019

Greta Thunberg is my new hero – but not for the reason you might think.

The Swedish teenager made international headlines in September when she chastised world leaders in a fiery speech at the opening of the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg’s solitary protest outside the Swedish parliament has exploded into a global youth movement for climate change. (Photo: Anders Hellberg / CC BY-SA 4.0)

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she scolded as tears welled in her eyes. “How dare you?”

Immediately following Thunberg’s speech, world leaders unanimously agreed to ban single use plastics, reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent, take fewer showers, and stop driving cars.

Oh wait … no. Maybe things like that happen on other planets. Here on Earth, Internet trolls came out of the woodwork like cockroaches on a pile of discarded pizzas.

The trolls:

  • Berated Ms. Thunberg for reading her speech from a piece of paper.
  • Suggested her parents and handlers were controlling her behind the scenes.
  • Blathered that she cast blame without offering solutions.
  • Screeched that she was a hypocrite for flying between Stockholm and New York.
  • Compared her to Adolf Hitler.
  • Called her “mentally ill.”

Even Donald Trump, America’s Cyberbully-in-Chief, couldn’t resist poking at the 16-year-old powerhouse. Mocking Thunberg’s tearful delivery, Trump tweeted, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

I’ll get to the reason Ms. Thunberg became my new hero in a moment, but first, let’s do something one generally shouldn’t do, and respond to the grumblings of her Instagram trolls.

She just read her whole speech! Why did she need notes?! Someone must have written that speech for her!

Oh trolls, if you think your favorite world leaders never use notes or teleprompters, if you think they don’t have a team of speech writers working for them, you are adorably naïve. That said, here’s how she addressed critics earlier this year on Facebook:

“ … Yes, I write my own speeches. But since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood….”

“So that I don’t spread incorrect facts.”

Interesting concept, huh trolls?

Yeah, well she’s clearly being controlled by her parents and handlers.

To reiterate: Greta Thunberg is 16 years old. Of course she has adult role-models and mentors in her world. (I’m 51, and so do I.)

Thunberg’s age aside, “handlers” is a loaded term, trolls. Let me just say this: There’s no way in hell I could accomplish as much as she’s doing without some skilled “handlers” helping me behind the scenes. Seriously, I would love to have handlers of my own. But are her parents “controlling her?”

Actually, she explained in a Facebook post last February that, on the contrary, her parents discouraged her activism until she educated them on the extent to which humans are damaging the planet. She has convinced her mother to give up air travel and her father to become vegetarian. Sounds to me like she’s influencing them, not the other way around.

It’s easy to look at ambitious and successful teenager and jump to the conclusion that her successes aren’t her own. You know what that’s called, trolls?

Jealousy.

All she did was complain. She offered no solutions.

Erm … trolls? Did you actually watch her speech at the UN Climate Action Summit or was four-and-a-half minutes too much for your attention span?

There was a lot more to the speech than the “How dare you?” sound bite that pervaded the evening news. (I’ll post the full video below.) She provided detailed statistics, and arguments as to why she believes the “popular idea of cutting our emissions in half” in the next decade isn’t enough.

She then challenged world leaders to start prioritizing our planet over the bank accounts of billionaires, and urged them to pass specific laws to more vigorously reduce carbon emissions than what’s currently being done.

Could she have been more specific in parts of her speech? Maybe, but she packed a lot into her allocated five minutes. Also, to re-reiterate, Greta Thunberg is 16 years old. I don’t know how many people have perfectly honed their life-mission statement by age 16, but I sure as hell hadn’t. (At 51, I still haven’t.)

And … hey trolls … JUST BECAUSE YOU TYPE IN ALL-CAPS DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE EITHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

She flew from Stockholm to New York! Air travel is bad for the environment!

Greta Thunberg sailed from Stockholm to New York on a zero-emissions sailboat.

Greta Thunberg sailed from Stockholm to New York on a zero-emissions sailboat. (Instagram.com/gretathunberg)

That’s nice that you care about the environment, trolls. I’m sure you’re doing great things for it yourselves. But actually, Ms. Thunberg sailed from Sweden to the United States – on a zero-emissions boat with no shower or toilet, so that no chemicals would be dumped into the ocean.

Thunberg avoids flying to international conferences whenever possible and has campaigned vocally in the last couple of years against unnecessary air travel because of the environmental damage it causes.

After she launched a campaign urging other Swedes to do the same, Swedish Railways reported last June that the number of Swedes taking the train on domestic journeys instead of flying on increased by eight percent over the previous year.

Now … yes, after her UN speech, Thunberg did fly back to Europe.

Hypocrisy?

Oh, please.

It’s true: Air travel is not good for the environment, but sometimes its benefits outweigh the carbon footprint it creates. For example, when you fly across an ocean (one way) to address hundreds of world leaders and millions of other humans about a climate emergency.

Hey trolls! What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve made for the environment lately?

(Munching Doritos from one family-sized bag rather than lots of small bags, whilst you cower behind the anonymity of your laptop screen, does not count.)

She reminds me of Hitler!

Oh, come on, trolls. You can do better than that, can’t you? Comparing anybody to one of history’s most evil people is trolling at its laziest. It lacks creativity.

But yes, trolls, a few of you did make that pathetic comparison on Thunberg’s Instagram feed. You said her impassioned oratory skills reminded you of Hitler’s speeches. (You did not, however, use the term, “impassioned oratory skills.”)

Okay, sure, trolls. Adolf Hitler was pure evil, and he was a charismatic speaker. That’s one of the things that propelled him to power.

Ms. Thunberg is also a charismatic speaker, so perhaps that is something the two have in common. But trotting out a lame Hitler analogy is like comparing me to Osama Bin Laden because when he was alive, we shared the common skill of knowing how to tie our shoes.

(I haven’t confirmed that Bin Laden could do this but I think it’s a fair assumption.)

Other than that, hmmm … Hitler was on a mission to exterminate segments of the human race. Greta Thunberg is on a mission to save us all from extinction.

Shut up trolls.

She’s mentally ill!

Well, trolls, you’re right on this one, though I question your sneering use of a stigmatizing term. (I also question your own mental stability.)

When she was younger, Ms. Thunberg suffered at times from severe depression. She also has Asperger’s Syndrome (also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder). Both conditions are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) – the most internationally recognized directory of what we commonly call “mental illnesses.”

Instead of categorizing these conditions as illnesses, however, let’s look at how they’ve benefitted Greta Thunberg.

She spoke openly about her depression in a recent interview with CNN correspondent Bill Weir.

“When I was 11, I became very depressed,” she told Weir. “I stopped eating, I stopped talking, and I stopped going to school. It had a lot to do with the climate and the environment.”

Then, she saw news reports of American students walking out of classes to protest their nation’s gun laws. Inspired, she launched her own “school strike.”

“An explosion of young climate activism.” Protesters in Germany fill the streets. (Photo: Marco Verch / CC BY 2.0)

On day one – August 20, 2018 – she sat by herself in front of the Swedish parliament building. On day two, other students started joining her. Word spread on social media, sparking, what Weir, in his CNN report, called “an explosion of young climate activism.”

Thirteen months later, several million people, including more than a million students, participated in a global “climate strike,” which Thunberg inspired and helped organize.

Greta Thunberg identified the environment as a root cause of her depression and decided to do something about it. After becoming so depressed that she stopped talking (a condition known as “selective mutism”), she regained her voice and began speaking again.

Loudly.

To world leaders at the UN.

To all of us.

 

Greta Thunberg’s Superpower

As far as Asperger’s Syndrome goes, Thunberg has learned how to rock what is commonly perceived as a disability. That is why she is my new hero.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a cognitive condition that creates difficulties in reading non-verbal communications, such as facial expressions. Another common symptom is an unusually strong sensitivity to loud noises, bright lights, flavors, smells, and other sensations. Things like this can make social interactions challenging.

People with Asperger’s sometimes fixate on a particular topic. They go into what’s known as “hyperfocus” mode, shutting out external stimuli and obsessing on one specific thing.

Thunberg has harnessed this symptom and turned into something powerful.

During their CNN interview, Weir said to Thunberg, “You have been open – your mom has been open – about the way your brain is wired, that your Asperger’s may have a lot to do with your focus on this issue. Do you think that is your sort of superpower when it comes to this?

Thunberg’s response: “I mean, to be different is your strength. My diagnosis definitely helped me keep this focus on this, because when you’re interested about something, you just continue [to] read about it and you get super focused.”

 

My Superpower

Miss Thunberg and I share something in common here (in addition to the shoe-tying skills I assume she also possesses). I was diagnosed at age 40 with ADHD – a condition that shares a few similarities with Asperger’s Syndrome, such as difficulty regulating attention. (There are also some key differences between the two.)

I go into hyperfocus mode in ways that can be helpful or detrimental to my productivity. In some situations, I can be easily distracted. I’ve been known to take on more projects at a time than is sensible. When I was younger, I was often late to appointments because I could never find my keys.

Over the years, I’ve learned strategies to minimize these challenges and, in some situations, even use them to my advantage.

I could ramble on about the struggles that come with having ADHD (people with ADHD like to ramble on about things) but I’m not going to do that. If you gave me the option of being “cured,” I would not say yes to that. ADHD comes with benefits as well as frustrations, which I would never give up.

When we learn how to challenge our negative thinking, we can transform our greatest personal challenges into our most potent strengths.People with ADHD grow easily bored. What’s the benefit of that? We are constantly seeking out new things. Our minds sometimes leap from thought to thought, which, yes, can be frustrating as hell, but when channeled in the right direction, it can also spark creativity and innovative thinking.

In my case, my curiosity and thirst for novelty led me to become a world traveler who loves to go far from of his cultural comfort zones. My tendency to leap from thought to thought spawns unexpected, sometimes weird, often funny thoughts.

I’ve intersected these things into my career as a professional travel and humor writer. (A disproportionate number of professional humorists have ADHD. I explained in an article a few years ago why the ADHD brain is wired for humor.) My daily, almost subconscious quest for newness sometimes makes me restless, but it also leads me into big adventures. Those adventures provide fodder for my writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I have moments every day when my easily distracted brain drives me crazy, but I’ve grown to understand and appreciate the way my mind works. It’s a daily challenge that I’ve turned into my superpower.

 

Your Superpower

Many of us have things we have partial or no control over, things that set us apart from the mainstream in one way or another. These challenges aren’t always mental. They might, for example, pertain who we are physically, or to things we’ve experienced that have changed the way we think.

Often, however, these perceived shortcomings come with hidden benefits. We just have to look for them.

Is there something about you that you perceive as a flaw? Where does your story about that “flaw” come from? Have you ever tried questioning it? Have you ever tried to uncover its hidden benefits, or to find ways around your perceived limitations?

Sit with that question for a little while and see what you come up with.

When we learn how to challenge our negative thinking, we can transform our greatest personal challenges into our most potent strengths.

Step one is making peace with our perceived shortcomings – accepting them and looking for ways we can use them to our advantage.

Asperger’s Syndrome? It’s not an easy condition to live with – in part because we live in a world that shuns people who think differently from the mainstream. But Greta Thunberg has turned it into her superpower.

The trolls of the world will beat up on her. Don’t listen to them. Let Greta Thunberg inspire you – to be kinder to Planet Earth … and to dig deep into your perceived “weaknesses” and discover their hidden magic.

 

Harnessing your perceived weaknesses and turning them into superpowers isn’t always easy to do on your own. I can help. Sign up for an introductory coaching session and uncover the hidden strengths within your so-called “flaws.”

 


Greta Thunberg’s Speech at the United Nations

 

Greta Thunberg’s CNN Interview with Bill Weir

(Plays after a short commercial.)

 

Humor: ABC News Australia Trolls the Trolls

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has posted this hilarious public service announcement to help Thunberg’s trolls feel better.

 

Published on Monday, November 18, 2019

Leave a Reply