As societies in certain parts of the world begin loosening up pandemic restrictions and life begins to resemble normal again, the sense of optimism is tangible. Much-needed vacations are being booked, shopping malls are re-opening, and many can look forward to concerts and hopefully a good movie at the cinema.
Of course, for Greta Thunberg and the rest of the Fridays For Future (FFF) movement, “normal” also happens to imply the worst-case-scenario for the planet. Which is why, when asked about her summer holiday plans, Thunberg’s priorities are clear. “I plan on being here on Fridays all summer long,” she says, before explaining why she believes this state of crisis is far from over. “The pandemic and climate crisis are, in every possible way, highly interlinked.”
School strike number 147 — attended a couple of weeks ago by Thunberg and her peers in Stockholm — is modest by pre-pandemic standards when up to 14 million people would turn up each Friday worldwide. Corona restrictions still limit public gatherings to 30 here in Sweden, which is why Thunberg’s return was completely unannounced. No crowds, no media. Just half a dozen or so youth sitting outside the Swedish Parliament seeking shade from a warm early summer sun. Occasionally, someone ventures out to lift a protest sign blown over by the wind.
One of these is fellow striker Isabelle Axelsson, who had just finished another year studying towards her master’s degree at Stockholm University. A face mask hides her smile, but she is clearly happy to be striking again.
“It feels very nostalgic being back here,” she says, observing the small reunion around her. “This is a bit like how it was in the very beginning.”
When asked how she felt being back, Thunberg says, “Well, I wouldn’t say we’re back, because we were never really gone. We just went digital.”
Like most everybody else during the pandemic, much of Thunberg’s life and the Fridays For Future movement this last year went from “in real life” to online. Some commentators have considered the transition to be a devastating blow for a movement whose key strength rested in its ability to rally incredible numbers into the streets. Without the attention of global media and unable to meet with the public during its mass demonstrations, FFF’s message was largely confined to social media’s echo chambers.
Yet with 11.5 million followers, Thunberg’s message is not exactly falling on deaf ears — an average post from her accounts will receive as many likes as one from President Joe Biden. From her bedroom, Thunberg has hosted livestream demonstrations joined by millions, and participated in everything from World Health Organization briefings to US Congressional hearings.
Globally, the physical movement has not been entirely idle either. Organizers have put together clever “shift” demonstrations on the streets of Mexico, Namibia, Korea, and Switzerland to get their message out while keeping group sizes below restrictions. And though the movement may not have grown since the pandemic first began, some organizers believe it has now become better integrated and coordinated. It has also broadened its reach, incorporating social justice and global health issues as well.
For Thunberg, any lessons FFF may have learned from the past year of going virtual are far outweighed by the human costs of the pandemic. Axelsson, however, acknowledges that there is one lesson in particular that stands out: “If we’d focused on climate when the warnings first came out, we wouldn’t be in this situation. The pandemic has shown that we can act when necessary, so the issue is not if we have the power to change, but how highly we prioritize the threat.”
The question of whether world leaders have taken this lesson to heart may be answered this fall. Last year was meant to be pivotal for international climate action with the UN COP26 conference scheduled in Scotland. Much of the international climate agenda was put on hold due to the pandemic, however, and the conference is now rescheduled for this November. But even as Covid-19 restrictions loosen worldwide and optimism continues to grow, the future of the Fridays For Future movement remains uncertain.
“It’s just impossible to say right now,” says Thunberg, pointing to continued group size limitations across the world. “Attending the COP26 conference this fall also depends on international travel restrictions, of course.”
A group of celebrating high school graduates pass by and cheer their support. A foreign diplomat exits the parliament buildings to welcome the youth back. A mother thanks Thunberg for her efforts, which helped inspire her and her children to choose a vegan diet to reduce their carbon footprint. Whether online, at the front of a crowd numbering in millions, or simply one-on-one, Thunberg bears the same message to anyone who will listen: “We need to treat this like the crisis it is. We must act based on the science.”
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