Time's Person of the Year is a strong voice for the entire planet

Time's Person of the Year is a strong voice for the entire planet
© Getty Images

By naming Greta Thunberg its 2019 Person of the Year, Time Magazine moved away from its usual politicians and celebrities and chose a true visionary who is changing societies worldwide. She is empowering a new generation around the world to speak out on behalf of our endangered planet. 

In times of great crisis, great leaders emerge. 

Greta Thunberg’s journey to global prominence began in August of 2018 with a solitary protest outside the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) carrying a picket sign stating “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” (School Strike for the Climate). 

ADVERTISEMENT

Her protests attracted attention and momentum. The Extinction Rebellion movement and “flight shaming” swept Europe, discouraging carbon-heavy air travel. 

The Sunrise Movement, inspired to take stronger actions by Thunberg, rose up in the United States around an international climate strike. It seemingly motivated congressional leaders to propose a Green New Deal.  

Millions followed with rapt attention as Thunberg boarded a sailing vessel traveling to North America. She brought her message that climate solutions are needed now to the biggest carbon polluting nation on Earth.

Thunberg’s ascent as a global leader marks a generational shift. The greatest generation rebuilt the world economy from the ashes of World War II. But this explosive growth came at extreme cost: fertile bottomlands buried in strip malls and suburban sprawl, accelerated deforestation, extinctions of native species, smoggy air and poisoned waters, and not least putting carbon combustion on overdrive.

 

ADVERTISEMENT

The baby boomers rose up in protest during the 1960s and 70s — spawning a welter of visionary environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and more. It then sank into complacency during the greed-is-good Reagan era. For generations, the economic engines of “progress” churned onward, belching out climate-disrupting tonnages of carbon-dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. 

Enter the voice of a new generation, Greta Thunberg. 

Her plainspoken delivery of the unvarnished truth is like a smack in the face with a cold fish, fresh from the Baltic Sea. Addressing the collected world monarchs, depots, emissaries and elected leaders at the United Nations, Thunberg famously intoned, “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 stolen my dreams, 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 fairytales of eternal economic growth!”

This is not the endless palaver and compromise of international summits, where nation-states jockey for individual advantage. This is not the collaborative committee set up to guarantee that the voices of industry will dominate. This is not the cap-and-trade compromise that fossil-fuel-dependent corporations can live with, condemning the planet (and every creature on it) to the vortex of destabilizing climate shifts. 

Thunberg speaks truth to power, demanding the kind of uncompromising resolve and decisive action that will be necessary to stave off the worst effects of the world’s growing environmental catastrophe.

In the face of the global environmental calamity, we must embrace big environmental ideas as the antidote to the environmental incrementalism that got us into this pickle in the first place. Following the advice of E.O. Wilson, the world’s leading ecologist, we should dedicate half the Earth to nature

As far as our global addiction to fossil fuel of all kinds — coal, oil, natural gas, tar sands — we should keep it in the ground, starting with federal legislation to prevent the extraction of publicly-owned fossil fuels both onshore and offshore. 

We should invest in environmentally-responsible types of renewable energy, starting with distributed renewables (like rooftop solar) that empower local communities and do minimal harm to sensitive wildlife habitats. 

We should reduce the livestock industry’s massive methane emissions on feedlots, and reverse its conversion of native habitats to annual weeds, bankrupting carbon reserves in deserts, shrub-steppes, and grasslands. We should do all we can to reverse deforestation for the same reason. 

The United States is an ambulance culture, which impairs our ability to lead. Our tendency is to sit idly by while small problems grow into unmanageable crises, then swing into action to save the day. We admire heroics. 

Quietly developing the solutions that address problems while they are small, and preventing them from reaching critical mass, just isn’t dramatic enough to capture our imagination. At the same time, the corporate interests causing the problem are deploying armies of lobbyists and billions of dollars for advertising campaigns to stymie the solutions that reduce their profits, and to convince the public to go back to sleep.

Thunberg provides the wake-up call and the leadership that this moment demands. She shuns accolades and wisely calls for us to listen to the voices from the global south. She also wants the voices of populations on the front lines of the unfolding climate disaster. However, they have been long silenced by the powerful forces that drive climate change. Thunberg's awards, from Person of the Year to Nobel Prize nominee, are richly deserved. Earth’s inhabitants should heed her call to action.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as executive director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group that works to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife throughout the American West.