In August 2018, a 15-year-old girl sat down before the Swedish Parliament to strike for the climate instead of going to school. Greta Thunberg’s action prompted one of the most important social movements in history and the biggest in terms of children’s participation. On 15 March 2019, an estimated 1.6 million people in 2000 locations took to the streets, followed by many other protests. In a year, innumerable pupils went on one-day school strikes, 4 million alone on the eve of the UN Summit for Climate Action in September 2019. How could Greta Thunberg have such agency? This is the question that is addressed in this article.
Dominant accounts of agency broadly define it as the capacity to make a difference. Under this light, the agency of Greta Thunberg is impressive. In two years, she has moved from the status of an unknown girl to a prominent interlocutor in climate politics; one of the latest instances is her meeting with Angela Merkel as President of the Council of the EU, on 20 August 2020. This journey began two years before with “Fridays for Future” that have been suspended only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, probably just a temporary break in this social movement. It took a pandemic to stop the justice for climate marches. Personal attacks against Greta accusing her of being manipulated by specific lobbies and being instrumental for them did not halt her, although many other children of her age, placed in the same conditions, would feel intimidated. The pressure is tremendous because these suspicions are symptoms of a regime of truth [1
] that naturalizes the neo-liberal ideology of the responsible self: someone must be responsible, and many people still doubt that teenagers like Greta are able to speak on their own. A child having political agency is an oxymoron to many, and this contributes to presenting Greta Thunberg as either a “leader” or a “puppet”, a framing that is not doing justice to the millions of climate strikers depicted as “followers” instead of social actors shaping the movement. Typically, the climate crisis re-emerges in the media almost only when Greta Thunberg says something.
The analysis of ecological movements started long ago, but the analysis of the impressive success of a single child in these movements only started recently, logically following the emergence of Greta Thunberg on the political scene, starting in 2018 with her first school strike for climate and attracting unprecedented media coverage. According to Yearley [2
], Beck and Giddens have pointed out “that risks and nature worries in contemporary societies come not principally from uncontrolled natural events but from the unintended consequences of human interventions in nature” (p. 199). Two decades later, the general awareness of the adverse effects of human interventions has dramatically grown thanks notably to social movements such as climate justice and Extinction Rebellion, and to the scientific evidence of global warming that gained media attention through these movements. In 2019, Holmberg and Alvinius noted that “there is very little research on children’s resistance in relation to global issues” [3
] (p. 2). In 2020, still “few academic analyses have addressed the mobilization of youth in global climate politics” [4
] (p. 1). Current analyses focus on the formal features of the climate social movement, the types of activism and forms of dissent [5
], the type of claims and counterclaims that are made, and the use social media [3
], or the different narratives specific to the global North/South [6
]. Holmberg and Alvinius [3
] conducted a thematic analysis of Greta Thunberg’s speeches. They showed that the main message is resistance against the “laissez-faire” attitude prevalent in politics and identified two themes, namely (1) a need for political and social change focusing on the climate emergency, and (2) resistance targets including political leaders, capitalist ideologies, and older generations. They call the case of Greta Thunberg “abstract progressive resistance” [3
] (p. 1), which, according to them, illustrates the power of children expressing themselves in this way. They consider that through the use of rapid social media, “children have managed to create opinion and equalise hierarchies between decision-makers, world leaders and the public worldwide” [3
] (p. 11).
The perspective developed in this paper is also based on an analysis of Greta Thunberg’s speeches, but it differs from the one done by Holmberg and Alvinius [3
] both in scope and aim. The present analysis is based on 16 speeches now available, instead of the 5 published in 2019 that Holmberg and Alvinius [3
] could use as the material for their analysis, and it aims at identifying the reflexive operations beneath the claims that are made. For this analysis, the concept of “transactional horizons” [7
] is used. Transactional horizons are symbolic landscapes channeling social interactions. As is shown, they form a system that functions as a socio-cognitive interface allowing actors to verbally connect objects. The study case of Greta Thunberg along transactional horizons brings important developments in the understanding of agency, a central issue not only for childhood studies but for social sciences at large. It shows that agency is deployed not within
structure. These theoretical developments, in turn, allow understanding the “starification” of Greta Thunberg as a social process that can be explained by the very “twisting movement” identified thanks to this case study: the translation from the simultaneity of sensory experience into a hierarchized mediatic discourse about this “lone girl” exemplifies the theory. Her rise on the political scene is an “interactional accomplishment” [8
], echoing in her own subjective (re)constructions of reality. This is why these reconstructions of reality, expressed in her published discourses [9
], are taken as the empirical material magnifying not just climate marches but more generally social dynamics. That is to say that the many replications of climate marches are indicative of the structural properties of social dynamics.
The paper is structured with the following sections: the problem statement and the theoretical framework (Section 2
) are presented first, as they determine the choice of materials and methods (Section 3
). The findings (Section 4
) are followed by a discussion that is developed around two topics: the exercise of agency through structure (Section 5.1
), and power as the naturalization of cultural pertinences (Section 5.2
). The limits of the paper are presented along suggested directions for further research (Section 6
). The conclusion (Section 7
) finally situates the possible implications of the emerging theory on practices.
2. Problem Statement and Theoretical Framework
Dominant accounts of agency implicitly convey the idealized figure of the hero liberating from oppression, or at least arranging one’s life despite adverse conditions. Applied to children, the narrative of the weak superseding the strong is very powerful. Nevertheless, during the last decade, a growing number of scholars in childhood studies have underlined the collective dimension and relational nature of agency [10
]. They suggest that agency is not a property of individuals but a relational issue that can be viewed as an interactional accomplishment [8
]. The case of climate activist Greta Thunberg illustrates the importance of relationality. As she is one of the most influential children (according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child is any person under the age of 18) ever in history, the “peoplization” of politics in mass media turns her into a demiurgic icon. Avoiding this trap, sociologists unveil the “myth of the individual child” [10
] by which agency is considered as a property of the self: the arrangements of reality any individual can make are always social.
Meanwhile, the “plethora of small-scale micro studies based on illustrating children’s subjective active, meaning-making everyday activities” [11
] (p. 129) face the growing crisis of social constructionism [13
]. This probably stems from a one-sided reading of the foundational Thomasian “theorem”: “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” [14
] (p. 571). The impact of human projections on things cannot be fully understood if one ignores the very construction of the objects that are defined as real: one should also look at how forms are extracted on a background and how their collocations become “situations”. Social constructionists tend to make a kind of “social Gestaltism” as they situate the forms (Gestalt) located by individuals as a result of human institutional arrangements of the words and concepts they are currently using. They usually overlook the cognitive structures and material grounding of such arrangements. Nonetheless, power relations are not independent of cognition and material conditions. The perspectives of children, therefore, are not only concerned with relationality but also with materiality. Agency and structure, the pair of concepts transversal to childhood studies, although articulated differently in competing theories, must be re-grounded in logics that overflow empowering and capacitation approaches focusing only on human factors. While the agency–structure dichotomy has been critically assessed [12
], exploring and understanding the articulations between human and non-human is the next challenge [15
]. It is also a challenge for humanity: making sense of how subjective experience and material environment are intertwined, and acting accordingly, is required to reduce the threat of continuous global warming. Therefore, the problem that is addressed in this article is the material grounding of the interdependence between agency and structure. This problem is approached through analysis of the discourses held by climate activist Greta Thunberg.
The importance of relationality does not imply that an individual child cannot be the focus of a study: Norbert Elias developed a great analysis of configurations when he looked at another very famous child, Mozart [17
]. This is a major work because he put the case in the context of the changes happening in the social status of the composer between the generation of Mozart (1756–1791) who was still viewed as an artisan, and that of Beethoven (1770–1827) who was already considered an artist. Elias underlined the interrelations between individuals and the social configurations they were experiencing, and more or less influencing. Therefore, the centration on individual children is relevant, as long as empirical demonstrations are not “restricted to examples of children making a difference to a micro relationship or set of micro relationships, with much less attention given to their impact on the wider macro generational order” [11
] (p. 129).
The analytical framework used is the actor’s system [18
], composed of “transactional horizons” and their corresponding “modes of action” [7
], as shown in Figure 1
Transactional horizons are symbolic landscapes channeling social interactions. These symbolic landscapes are more general than “sensitizing concepts” or “directions to look at” [19
] (p. 148): whereas the latter are open to being defined by the respondents, transactional horizons are not usually discussed, they are “taken for granted”. The symbolic landscapes that are recurrently implied in accounts appear to be activities, relations, values, images of self and motivations: whatever the topic discussed in interviews with respondents, the items mentioned have something to do with them [18
]. These symbolic landscapes harboring a diversity of experiences are taken for granted, most of the time not even mentioned, as they “go without saying”. They are the “taken-for-granted highways” transporting items of experience. Mentioning them would even sound strange: asked whether working is an activity, respondents would stare at the inquirer. This question would be as “stupid” as asking whether one drives on a road. Metaphorically, transactional horizons are the implicit roads taken by social actors and on which they situate the stages of their journey.
Transactional horizons can therefore be seen as kinds of frames, but they differ from frame analysis [25
] by the fact that transactional horizons are not a syntax determining human conduct, but means through which they negotiate meanings and displace the borders of inclusion and exclusion of items. The aim in the use of the notion of transactional horizons is, comparatively to Goffman’s critical turn to structuralism [26
], to understand agency as not determined by a structure but as being structure in a fluid state. Transactional horizons convey the idea that there is no opposition between structure and agency, but two sides of the same coin [20
], a continuum between two states: structure as sedimentation of past agency, and agency as structure in the making.
Thus, whereas Goffman’s frames [25
] are grammatical structures underlying perception and categorization of human action, transactional horizons do not imply a turn toward structural determinism. In the present perspective, institutions are not “social structures” but instantiations of a “structure of action”, conceived as “a virtual order of transformative relations” [27
] (p. 17). Transactional horizons do not determine social orders: they simultaneously constrain and habilitate the social ordering of things along context-specific prioritizations. Transactional horizons are sedimenting “modes of actions” that can be defined as “typical ways of acting according to dominant thinking horizons that link together concrete items of perceived reality” [20
] (p. 561). Consequently, there are five modes of action deriving from the predominance of one transactional horizon over the others: entrepreneurial (activities), relational (relations), moral (values), identitary (images of self) and motivational (motivations).
Transactional horizons are actively used by actors to frame the course of their interaction. They are structural means for their actions, whereas constraints derive only from the constructions made with them. In sum, transactional horizons can do and undo the frames of experience [25
]. A modification in the elements contained in any of these five “containers” of experience affects the whole configuration. The actor’s system framework [18
] was used notably to analyze accounts of children about their well-being [7
]. With the intuition that children’s narratives formed a system came the idea that agency itself has a structure: the view of structure within agency considers “the permanence of structural arrangements (lying) in the permanence of their representations in people’s minds” [22
] (p. 49). This is coherent with the constitution of the Self [28
]. Hence, children’s accounts reflect socialized subjectivities; they are reflections of the generalized other [28
This solution of continuity between the organization of individual experience and the social organization [29
] (pp. 23–24) leads to the perspective of “agency through
structure” that is developed in the present paper. This opens a passage to exit the dead-end of a reified social structure [30
] in the agency–structure dichotomy [12
]. The link between the organization of individual experience and social organization is mediated by language: identification of factors impeding children’s freely expressed views shows that language itself is a conversion factor in the child’s right and capability to be heard [21
]. Consequently, the structuration of ongoing subjective processes involves language, which is here considered as a translation of the sensatory experience into intelligible categories by means of transactional horizons:
“(These) symbolic landscapes which channel social interactions are framed pragmatically through standardized questions such as “what do you do?”, “who do you know?”, “what do you think?”, “who are you?”, “what do you want?” that are asked universally. These questions are currently used in social interactions because they are pragmatic tools to situate the other and hence reduce margins of error in one’s own interpretations of the situation. They are pragmatic questions for inquiry (Dewey, 1938) through which actors and observers can interpret transactions. These questions in turn construct discursive categories
like activities, relations, values, images of self, and motivations (or similar concepts) serving as common transactional horizons” [7
]. It is taken for granted that anyone currently speaks about activities, relations, values, images of self and motivations. Communication breaches [25
] are mostly bound to the failed indexation of what is being said, or implied by gestures, to one or several transactional horizons. This obliges the inquirer [31
] to resort to these pragmatic questions. They are felt intrusive in normal conditions when discursive strategies lead to a consistent presentation of self [28
]. Discursive strategies in the presentation of self can only shrink in intimate relations and in relations with children who are not yet fully mastering discursive strategies, situations where cultural artifacts are less engaged in the inquirer’s reflexivity on sensatory experience.
Transactional horizons are linked together and form a system that functions as a socio-cognitive interface allowing actors to verbally connect objects. Therefore, transactional horizons are the symbolic vehicles of social interaction, socially interpreted as indicators of behavior, used to situate the intentions of others. They are pragmatic means used by actors to reduce the uncertainty and potential anxiety in face of other ones’ behaviors. Used to interpret behavior, these practical tools preside over the course of interactions. Transactional horizons are the aspects
of behavior that are taken into account in Max Weber’s seminal definition of social action: “Action is social insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course” [32
] (p. 4). Thus, “behavior” is apprehended through specific aspects of perpetrated acts. Moreover, behavior is more than an “act”, it is a combination of acts. For Mead, “the unit of existence is the act” [33
] (p. 4), and reflective consciousness is implied by the succession of acts: “Selves, minds, and our knowledge about matters of fact all emerge from acts that are experienced. Mind cannot be separated from action. There can be no self apart from action, more specifically, from social action” (Ibid.). By using the plural form (acts), Mead [28
] implies that an act can only make sense when related to another act, as much as a “unit” cannot stand outside of a series that forms the context or the background on which this unit is extracted. In fact, there cannot be something like an isolated social act having no connection to any other intended act. Interpretation of behavior implies extractions of forms (Gestalt
) and connections among them. Behavior, then, is interpreted by connections made among acts (observed or supposed, visible or intended). Behavior is a combination of acts, a course or a flow of interrelated acts. Weber’s analysis of action follows a methodological process whereby the motives behind acting are analyzed through their constituent parts, namely the ideal types of social action. This analytical process allows understanding behavior as combinations of these constituents. Weber identifies four types of motives:
“1. Rational action: individuals have expectations about the behaviour of others and act to take account of these expectations in order to attain their own rationally chosen outcomes.
2. Evaluative action: individuals take account of absolute values (beliefs, ethics, aesthetics or other form of behaviour) entirely for their own sake and independently of any prospects of external benefit or success.
3. Emotional actions: action based on feelings and emotions of the individual and other actors.
4. Traditional actions: actions that are based on long-established and habitually practiced traditional expectations” [34
These are “ideal types” as they hardly exist in their pure form and as real behavior is made of their diverse combinations. Nonetheless, the combinations of (ideal typical) acts must be grounded on something different in nature from the very acts, that, so to say, bind them together. You need a weft to make a carpet. This “weft” is closer to perceptual consciousness, the ultimate basis of social processes, overlooked in sociology as the organization of scientific disciplines inherited the Cartesian body–mind dualism. An interdisciplinary approach is required to understand the necessary interface between memory traces (sensory experiences) and language (discursive connections ordering the objects of experience) for an individual and collective agency to take place at all. This challenge is taken by starting with the notion of modes of action, as defined in a previous work: “The entrepreneurial mode of action focuses on activities that produce objects exterior to oneself (poiesis
) and strategies believed to be the most efficient to achieve one’s goals (corresponding to Weber’s “rationally-purposeful action”). The relational mode of action puts emphasis on relational configurations (it is close to Weber’s traditional social action
when it favours habits and routines that reproduce the social status and position of actors). The moral mode of action is based on the belief in the inherent worth of specific values (Weber’s value-rational action
). The identitary mode of action is based on the intersubjective definition of self (it partly corresponds to Weber’s affective social action
as drives also inform subjective identity). The motivational mode of action is the most complex one. It has no correspondence in Weber’s typology of social action, it is closer to inquiry (Dewey, 1938)” [35
] (p. 210). Symptomatically, it remains a blind spot in sociology as it was mainly left to psychology. One could say that affective social action is as close to the images of self as it is to the motivations: emotions are not only linked to drives but also to socially constructed objects and their varied meanings in different contexts. Global warming itself is objectified differently in different cultures, and hence, it motivates diverse types of reactions. Hence, modes of action offer a framework to approach the perceptual consciousness of global warming. As is shown, they allow specifying the notion of transactional horizons contributing to renewed understandings of agency.
The logic of presentation is not the logic of discovery. Presentation of all the phases involved in the iterative logic of discovery (synthesized in Section 3
) would be too long. The latter involves a recursivity that is impossible to fully describe, and this is why the reader shall consider that the presentation made here can only be an imperfect account of the discovery. The presentation of the findings is therefore limited to the presentation of codes and respective quotes engaged in axial coding. These codes are presented in italics hereunder. In selective coding, the codes were then expressed with verbs (written in bold italic) so as to situate the reflexive operations sustaining Greta’s speeches. These codes were finally attributed to the components (written in bold) of the theoretical framework (activities, relations, values, images of self, motivations) so as to see what new knowledge can be produced with it (Section 5
It was found that, in Greta Thunberg’s speeches, it was possible to attribute all codes and corresponding quotes to the different transactional horizons. This demonstrates that all modes of action are present in Greta’s speeches. While some codes may fall under several transactional horizons and their corresponding modes of actions, they were attached to the most obviously concerned. As many quotes could illustrate the same codes, saturation of data attribution has been reached. Only the most illustrative quotes have been selected to keep the length of this paper within reasonable limits. The codes and quotes are presented hereunder, following the different transactional horizons concerned. For the quotes taken from the same source [9
], only page numbers are indicated in parenthesis. For the quotes taken indirectly, from another source [3
], the reference is indicated as in the original work.
Entrepreneurial mode of action (Activities)
The continued illusion of material production and development:
“We live in strange world, where we think we can buy or build our way out of a crisis that has been created by buying and building things” (p. 40).
Indulgence versus or resistance toward laissez-faire behavior :
“Neither of us ever mention the greenhouse gases, already locked in the system, nor that air pollution is hiding the warming so when we stop burning the fossil fuels we have already an extra level of warming, perhaps the size of 0,5 to 1,1 degree Celsius” [38
“People keep doing what they do because the vast majority does not have a clue about actual consequences in our everyday life. They do not know that rapid change is required. We will think we know, we will think everybody knows but we don’t. Because how could we?” [38
“Business as usual”:
“Dear Mr. Modi, you need to take action now against the climate crisis not just talking about it, because if you keep on going like this, doing business as usual and just talking about and bragging about the little victories. You are going to fail. And if you fail, you are going to be seen as one of the worst villains in human history, in the future. And you don’t want that” [39
Silence of world leaders:
“You would think that media and everyone of our leaders would be talking nothing else. But they never even mentioned it” [38
Praising good doings:
“I dedicate this award to the people fighting to protect the Hambach forest. And to activists everywhere who are fighting to keep the fossil fuels in the ground” (p. 39).
Relational mode of action (Relations)
Denouncing relations of domination:
“We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few” (p. 13).
Portraying intergenerational relations as a betrayal:
“You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to” (p. 56–57).
Stressing intergenerational responsibility:
“What we do or do not do right now will affect my entire life, and lives of my children and grandchildren. What we do or do not do right now, me and my generation cannot undo in the future” [38
Moral mode of action (Values)
Affirming the superior interest of nature and civilization:
“Our house is on fire” (p. 17).
“We are at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilization and the entire biosphere must speak out. In clear language. No matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be” (p. 21).
Affirming the need to change rules:
“Today we use 100,000,000 barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we cannot save the world by playing by the rules, because rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change and it has to start today” [40
Setting aside selfish ways of living:
“When I was about 8 years old, I first heard about something called climate change and global warming. Apparently that was something humans had created by our way of living” [38
“Some people–some companies and some decision-makers in particular has known exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. (...) I want to challenge those companies and those decision makers into real and bold climate action. To set their economic goals aside and to safeguard the future living conditions for humankind” [41
“We live in a strange world, where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future” (p. 39).
Identitary mode of action (images of self)
Presenting children as unheard victims:
“And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are unheard” (p. 57).
Presenting children as climate activists:
“And I agree with you, I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue” (p. 31).
Presenting children as able and responsible agents:
“So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. [...] We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago” [40
Identifying with scientists:
“There is one other argument that I can’t do anything about. And that is the fact that I’m ‘just a child and we shouldn’t be listening to children’. But that is easily fixed–just start to listen to rock-solid science instead. Because if everyone listened to the scientists and the facts that I constantly refer to then no one would have to listen to me or any of the other hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren on strike for the climate across the world” (pp. 30–31).
“And just for quoting and acting on these numbers–the scientific facts–we receive unimaginable amounts of hate and threats” (p. 78).
Presenting herself as a child with Asperger syndrome:
“I have Asperger’s syndrome, and to me, almost everything is black or white, I think in many ways we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange” (p. 6).
“Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced. The main solution, however, is so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. And either we do that or we don’t. You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent a 1.5°C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control–or we don’t. Either we choose to on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black and white as it gets” (p. 19).
Presenting herself as a hated child:
“Recently I’ve seen many rumours circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate” (p. 23).
“(…) all the politicians that ridicule us on social media, and have named and shamed me so that people tell me that I’m retarded, a bitch and a terrorist, and many other things” (p. 3).
Presenting herself as an independent child:
“Some people mock me for my diagnosis. But Asperger is not a disease, it’s a gift. People also say that since I have Asperger I couldn’t possibly have put myself in this position. But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ‘normal’ and social I would have organized myself in an organization, or started an organization by myself. But since I am not good at socializing I did this instead” (p. 28)
Motivational mode of action (motivations)
Looking for alternatives:
“We live in a strange world, where no one dares to look beyond our current political systems even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found within the politics of today” (p. 40).
“And if solutions within this system are so impossible to find then maybe we should change the system itself?” (p. 14).
“We live in a strange world, where all the united science tells us that we are about eleven years away from setting off an irreversible chain reaction, way beyond human control, that will probably be the end of our civilization as we know it” (p. 39).
The recursive coding process revealed core reflexive operations that underpin Greta Thunberg’s speeches. The codes and respective quotes show that all transactional horizons are involved in Greta’s journey as a climate activist. With codes grouped in actions, it is possible to arrive at the level of the general reflexive operations that presides over Greta Thunberg’s transactional horizons. Transactional horizons form a system that is actualized by reflexive operations: objectify activities, personify relations, sanctify values, unify images of self, diversify motivations. These reflexive operations are considered as vectors of agency, represented in Figure 2
suggests that Greta’s ways of acting are tightly knit together. In her speeches, Greta Thunberg makes many links among these different dimensions. The following quotes illustrate some of these links.
Linking intergenerational relations, the value of knowledge and the motivation for strikes:
“We are facing an existential crisis. The biggest crisis mankind have ever faced! Yet, it has been ignored for decades by those who knew about it. You know who you are, you who have ignored it, you are the most guilty! And it ain’t us who stands here. We are young. We have not contributed to the crisis. We have just been born in this world and suddenly there was a crisis ahead of us that we are forced to live with. We, and our children and our grandchildren. And all future generations. We will not accept it. That’s why we strike. We strike because we want a future and we will continue” [42
Linking relations and motivations:
“(we live in a strange world…) Where a football game or a film gala gets more media attention than the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. Where celebrities, film and pop stars who have stood against all injustices will not stand up for our environment and for climate justice because that would inflict on their right to fly around the world visiting their favourite restaurants, beaches and yoga retreats” (p. 41).
Linking motivations and activities:
“Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ‘solve the climate crisis’. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change. And why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more, when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts within the school system when the most important facts given by the finest science of that same school system clearly mean nothing to our politicians and our society?” (p. 10).
It is not necessary to present more quotes for this demonstration: not only are all transactional horizons present in Greta’s speeches, but they are also tightly knit together. This has a very powerful effect, as shown by Greta Thunberg’s speech that received the greatest media coverage, the one she delivered before the UN General Assembly, in New York, on 23 September 2019: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing 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! You have taken away 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!” (p. 96). Greta Thunberg tightly knits the aspects of climate change in just a few sentences. She shows the consequences of the entrepreneurial mode of acting (“money” and “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”) on all other dimensions: relations among people and with nature (“you have taken away my dreams and my childhood with your empty words” “people are suffering”, “ecosystems are collapsing”), images of self (“I should be back in school”, “yet I’m one of the lucky ones”), values and motivations (“how dare you!”). It is the connection between the different dimensions of experience that makes her speech so powerful. The speech has influence not only because it takes place in a very prestigious place with a worldwide audience (many other speeches delivered at the UN fora actually had limited impact) but also because it conveys a vivid image of climate justice in a very concise speech. This concentration of all the aspects of climate justice in a vibrant speech invigorates Greta’s emotional tone. It may be suggested that this emotional tone stems from the obligation to “say it all” in the short time allocated to Greta at the UN General Assembly. Further interdisciplinary research on emotions [43
] would be needed here.
It appears that transactional horizons are central in the social negotiation for the definition of reality. They back Greta’s constant call for the respect of science. While a scientific consensus about the increase of temperatures caused by greenhouse gases has been reached in recent decades, it has turned into a “political” controversy as it is challenged by non-scientific organizations or individuals, mainly because of corporate interests. The latter use the media and especially social media to throw doubt on the scientific consensus. Greta is well aware of this as she portrays power relations and underlines responsibility: “During the last months millions of schoolchildren have been school-striking for the climate and creating lots of attention for the climate crisis. But we children are not leaders. Nor are the scientists, unfortunately. But many of you here today are. Presidents, celebrities, politicians, CEOs and journalists. People listen to you. And therefore you have an enormous responsibility. And let’s be honest. This is a responsibility that most of you have failed to take. You cannot rely on people reading between the lines or searching for the information themselves. To read through the latest IPCC report, track the Keeling Curve or keep tabs on the world’s rapidly disappearing carbon budget. You have to explain that to us, repeatedly. No matter how uncomfortable or unprofitable that may be” [9
] (pp. 69–70). The scientific consensus about global warming is encapsulated in a wider responsibility of explaining scientific facts, which Greta Thunberg depicts as “uncomfortable” and “unprofitable”. Hence, it takes more than scientific evidence to convince people: the reference to objective reality is gaining attention when transactional horizons, triggering emotions, are conveyed.
It appears that the more transactional horizons are involved in one’s discourse, the more chances it has to attract attention from a wider audience. It looks like knitting transactional horizons is attracting a larger audience than apologetic rhetoric displaying just one horizon and mode action. This can be exemplified by Greta’s reference to Martin Luther King in her speech before the US Congress in Washington on 18 September 2019: “I also have a dream. That governments, political parties and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and come together despite their differences–as you would in an emergency–and take the measures required to safeguard the conditions for a dignified life for everybody on earth” (p. 85). This speech is not portraying a radical program for power redistribution. On the contrary, it calls for measures beneficial for “everybody on earth”. Greta’s dream is not that of a completely different world; she rather wishes a return to “normal life” for the youth: “Because then we millions of school-striking youth could go back to school” (p. 85). By not challenging the social positioning of children, she is attracting sympathy from adults who would also like to see children “back in school”. If marching children would not just question the generational order [11
], but attempt to overthrow it, then the demographic basis of the climate justice movement might certainly shrink. By reassuring adults with regard to social positionings (“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school…”), Greta embraces a wide audience. This suggests that extremism is bound to shrink the use of transactional horizons to just one mode of action. The neo-liberal dogma, legitimizing the exploitation of natural resources, is one such extremism. The one that, precisely, leads to depletion of nature and consequently global warming. By seeing nature through all transactional horizons, Greta Thunberg is actually undoing this centration on only one mode of action (the entrepreneurial) and invites to consider the environment in relational, moral, identitary and motivational terms. The discussion below offers further insights into the dynamics of transactional horizons that contribute to renewed understandings not only of children’s agency in the climate justice movement but power in general.