"To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing." - Raymond Williams

An idea for Greta Thunberg – how to leverage your power

by Shaun Chamberlin on April 12th, 2020

Greta Thunberg at the UN

I woke this morning with a thought.

It always makes me uncomfortable when I see Greta Thunberg tell a powerful audience – like the UN, above – how ashamed they should be of what they have wrought on our planet, and be met with their rapturous applause.

Do they all imagine she is speaking to someone else in the room? Perhaps they even applaud specifically to make that fact clear to others, or to themselves?

After all, who would be willing to perceive themselves as responsible?  To stand in defence of our omnicidal economic system?

But if that’s the case, it gives Greta a powerful opportunity to set a new social norm in the room. If everyone there wants to be seen (and to see themselves) as being on her side, then she has the power to make an ask – to request a demonstration of whether they truly are or not.

'Put Up or Shut Up'

What that ask would be is up to her, of course. I could offer some ideas, but her colleague Kevin Anderson probably has better ones.  In Davos this year she demanded an immediate end to fossil fuel subsidies and investments in fossil exploration and extraction, and total divestment from fossil fuels.

But I write here to offer the tool, not to tell her what to do with it. So imagine, as the applause for her words rings out again among a room of the powerful, that she says…

“And we have an opportunity, in this room, today, to change this.”

“All of you applauding share my desire for a future. But maybe you don’t know how to change our course. Maybe you think that your influence is insufficient, that others here would never act in support, or that your competitors would take advantage.”

“So today – now – we change the norm. We do it together and we commit to supporting each other to carry it forward. We do not want the future to die. And we are going to prove it.”

“So right here, right now, I am calling on everyone in this room to commit to X. This is the moment. Some of us will lose money, or influence, or opportunities.  But the opportunity for a future is so much bigger than all that.

We do this together, and we defend it together. And anyone who is unwilling, I never want to hear your applause again.”

'Great Moral Excuses' cartoon by Polyp

Then she brings her speech to a close in typically compelling fashion, and we see how much of the applause endures. 

If some choose not to resume their applause, we can certainly ask them why.

And if those who do clap later make all kinds of excuses and justifications to not act immediately, or to argue that it’s the wrong approach, or whatever, we can ask why then they applauded.

If nothing else it might at least end the painful hypocrisy of hollow applause, and just maybe it could indeed be the needed trigger to shift the norm.


Of course not even the most powerful rooms in the world are able to change everything. And yet, the response to the coronavirus pandemic has at least shown us how powerful new cultural norms can be.  Hundreds of millions of people who would have had ‘non-negotiable’ reasons to make journeys are suddenly opening negotiations with a larger reality

Norms are far more powerful than rules, which is why political leaders come out to address the nation, rather than just drafting a law to regulate behaviour.  It’s also why those leaders caught out breaking the norms they call for are so disdainedThe people in some of the rooms Greta addresses – political leaders included – have the power to shape those norms, and she may just have the power to shape theirs. 

It may be a tool that she can only use once. So it would be important to choose the right room, the right occasion, and the right ask.  But the potential may be there for radical, rapid change from some of the most powerful people on Earth, who are lending her their ears.

As the Simpol proposal understands, there are a lot of things that people, governments and corporations are willing to do only if everyone else does it too. And Greta’s audiences’ desire to see themselves as being on her side – on the side of our collective future – perhaps gives an opportunity to say, “ok, prove it” and instantly shift that momentum.


As mentioned, this thought emerged from my dreams, and since my conscious brain hasn’t shown me an obvious flaw in the past few hours, I thought I’d share it.

I’ve only met Greta Thunberg once, at the Declaration of Rebellion in Parliament Square in 2018, but if this idea is worth something, I’m sure it will reach her.

  1.  JasonM says:
    12 April, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    Thanks you. Good stuff as ever, Shaun. An alternative might be to open up the floor, ask someone in the audience to offer up an action that they’d take straight away and could ask everyone there to get behind. Not a pledge, not a target or ideal, but an act. Hold them hostage in their own conference!

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