Greta Thunberg, climate change activist, wins Time Person of the Year
Going from a solitary teenage protester in front of the Swedish parliament to a global icon in little more than a year certainly merits a distinction.
- Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, has been named Time's Person of the Year.
- The award is given to "the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse."
- Considering the magnitude of directly inspired protest movements and real-world impacts she has had, the award seems to be merited, although not everybody is pleased about this.
In August 2018, Greta Thunberg skipped school on a Friday afternoon to stand outside Swedish parliament with a sign reading Skolstrejk for Klimatet, Swedish for "School Strike for Climate."
A year later, she spoke at the recent 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference and the United Nations Climate Action Summit, inspired a four million–person protest, and now, she's won Time magazine's Person of the Year Award. Her meteoric rise at the age of only 16 has both earned her praise as a "Joan of Arc" and scorn as a "puppet," "mentally ill," a "little brat," and "a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future."
She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see! https://t.co/1tQG6QcVKO— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2019
The "Greta effect"
In part, Thunberg was awarded the Person of the Year due to the so-called "Greta Effect"; her activism has had tangible impacts on organizations and governmental policy and has resulted in a large protest movement largely composed of young people.
For example, Thunberg's refusal to fly in airplanes has resulted in a new term in Sweden: flygskam, or "flight-shame." As a result, domestic flights dropped by 8 percent from January to April of 2019 compared to a 3 percent drop for the whole of 2018. Correspondingly, rail travel saw an 8 percent bump over the last year.
Rather than fly, the activist has traveled by rail or a carbon-neutral yacht. Though the term "yacht," inspired accusations of hypocrisy, it should be noted that the seacraft had no shower or toilet, which doesn't entirely mesh with the wasteful pleasure cruises typically associated with yachts.
By August 2019, sales of children's books related to climate change had doubled, which publishers attributed to the Greta effect. While sharing the stage with Thunberg, the President of the European Commission vowed to dedicate one in every four euros of the EU budget to be dedicated toward mitigating climate change. Crediting the activities of Thunberg in part, U.S. philanthropists established the Climate Emergency Fund, committing half a million pounds (a bit more than $650,000) with tens of millions more promised to fund climate strikes like Extinction Rebellion, the school strike, and other climate-related protest movements.
A youth-led protest movement
Most importantly, however, protest movements directly motivated by Thunberg's own activism have involved young people in the millions.
Thunberg herself was inspired by the school strikes organized by teenage activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the aftermath of a school shooting at the same high school, students organized the March for our Lives in support of greater gun control.
Thunberg's own protest started out as a solitary one. "I tried to bring people with me," Thunberg told Democracy Now!, "but no one was really interested, so I had to do it alone." But another person showed up on the second day. Over time, more and more people joined her protest, until thousands were camped out in front of Sweden's Parliament.
The fact that the protest movement is mostly composed of young people is critical. "You say you love your children above all else," said Thunberg at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. "And yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes." Many of the most successful protests have been driven by young people: the Velvet Revolution, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Greensboro sit-ins, and countless others.
Extinction Rebellion climate protesters listen to Greta Thunberg speak at an April 2019 protest in London.
Ollie Millington/Getty Images
A long road ahead
Many criticize Thunberg and the climate change protest movement as being overly dramatic. However, dramatic rhetoric appears to be merited. In an article for New York Magazine, journalist David Wallace-Wells described a conversation he had with energy expert Vaclav Smil when he asked about the planet's chances of staying below the Paris Agreement's threshold of two degrees Celsius of warming.
When I put the question of two degrees to him, he literally laughed: "To make that happen, you are talking about billions and billions of tons of everything. We are mining now more than 7 billion tons of coal. So you want to lower the coal consumption by half, you have to cut down close to 4 billion tons of coal. You have to get rid of more than 2 billion tons of oil. These are transformations on a billion-ton scale globally. They cannot be done by next Monday."
Emissions are still at an all-time high, though their growth is slowing. Ultimately, only government policies will be able to reverse a trend of this magnitude. But governments respond to public opinion and protest. Given that the Person of the Year is selected based on "who most affected the news and our lives… for better or for worse," the fact that they are a teenage climate activist should be cause for celebration.
- The 'Greta effect': Can Thunberg's activism actually change policy ... ›
- Report: Atmospheric CO2 levels hit all-time high in 2017 ›
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- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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