"This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!" Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, said to world leaders and adults around the globe at the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23. in New York City. "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!"
Thunberg's speech — a powerful reprimand of those in positions of power who have sat idly by as the world deteriorates, shoving the problem of climate change and global catastrophe on the shoulders of future generations — was periodically broken up by applause from the crowd. But those happily clapping along as Thunberg's voice broke, her anger rising, were the very people she was chastising for turning to her and other youth activists to fix a problem thrust upon them.
While Thunberg was telling the supposed grown-ups in the room, "Stop looking to me and young people like me to fill you with hope," the grown-ups responded, "Wow, this is such a hopeful moment. Bravo."
How dare we, indeed.
We did what Thunberg specifically asked us not to do: look to her to give us the hope we need to wake up in the morning and pretend the world isn't dying.
Instead, the room — the world — should have been silenced by the overwhelming shame of our undeniable failure. As adults who have prioritized wealth and convenience over our children's quality of life and the preservation of the planet, we should have been so burdened by this miscarriage of accountability that even raising our hands to clap or scream "Yaaas queen" or tweet out how much we "stan" would have been physically impossible.
Thunberg rightfully reprimanded us all for our hallow words, our disastrous and willful inaction, and all we did in response was offer her verbal praise.
We did what Thunberg specifically asked us not to do: look to her to give us the hope we need to wake up in the morning and pretend the world isn't dying and we aren't demanding our children emerge from their post-apocalyptic bunkers to deliver its eulogy.
Of course, Thunberg isn't the only child we have relied on to make us feel better about our inadequacies as stewards of the world and the children we have brought into it. Whether it be Emma González or David Hogg or Amariyanna "Mari" Copeny or Gavin Grimm, the prevailing notion of "the children will save us" has sufficiently shielded far too many of us from our responsibility of making sure our children not only live, but have quality of life.
We'll happily drive to Target in our oversized SUVs to purchase wall art with the inspirational quote "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away," to hang in our living rooms, urging our children to not just live but experience life — unapologetically, fully, flamboyantly, freely — only to do nothing to ensure they can learn in their classrooms without being shot, go to the bathroom without being bullied, drink water from the tap without being poisoned, or simply take a breath of clean, fresh, sustainable air.
We must find the courage this young person has been forced to discover inside herself, and take her place on that stage.
Of course, Thunberg's speech was met with predictable ire from the conservative media, pundits, and politicians, From Laura Ingram comparing Thunberg to Children of the Corn, to the president of the United States sending an ironic tweet meant to make fun of Thunberg's impassioned plea, those claiming to be a "voice for the voiceless" as they position themselves as protectors of children and stewards of "family values" have once against revealed themselves to be hypocrites enraged by the notion that a voiceless fetus will one day grow into an actual person with the ability to speak for themselves. In this case, a person willing to use their voice to fight for equity, safety, justice, and a future for the planet, knowing full well she will be targeted by right-wing bullies who pretend to value "all life."
But for the rest of us who do not live our lives under the banner of "family values" while kids are locked in cages and pregnant people die as the result of inadequate health care and the world's largest rainforest goes up in flames, we must get up from the cheering section and admit that we have, once again, failed to heed Thunberg's call. We must find the courage this young person has been forced to discover inside herself, and take her place on that stage so that she can rest. So that she can be a child. So that she can live.
Thunberg is not asking to be a martyr for the planet, a silver lining in a endless sea of distressing news cycles, or a guiding light that promises to see us through the haze of pollution she stands to inherit.
She is asking for us to do the work so that she, and others like her, don't have to. She is demanding that we do our jobs, so she can go back to school and learn and grow and care about her friends and crushes and the plights of puberty.
And all we have to offer her is applause.
How dare we.