Hailed by many as a “climate change prophet”, Greta Thunberg stands at about five feet and wears her hair in long braids. She has a thing for Velcro shoes, is partial to hoodies and looks several years younger than her age of 17. It would be a stretch to call her charismatic and she does not abide small talk. When the Swedish teen does speak, she is uncomfortably blunt, coming straight to the point: Drastic action is essential to prevent further global warming that, left unchecked, will soon cause catastrophic, irreversible damage to the world.
Instead of flattering the powerful, Thunberg takes on even the most high-profile politicians. She has emerged as the most effective climate activist in history. On September 19, 2019, four million people around the world joined the largest climate demonstration ever, inspired largely by her example.
Thunberg’s words have a prophetic ring to them. Her messages are delivered in simple, stark prose: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she scolded world leaders at the UN General Assembly last year. “How dare you!”
In another compelling performance, Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland in December 2019. “You say you love your children above all else,” she said, “and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” The speech became a near-instant viral social media sensation.
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Thunberg is the urgency and the moral clarity she feels about fighting climate change. When, at the age of 11, her teachers showed her class images of starving polar bears, erratic weather and other signs of climate change, Thunberg was struck to the core. Unlike her classmates, she was haunted by what she learned and fell into a depression. She felt convicted she had to do something. Anything.
“I couldn’t understand how that could exist—that existential threat—and yet we didn’t prioritise it,” she said in a TIME magazine article in which the publication named her 2019’s Person Of The Year.
Less than two years ago, Thunberg skipped school and sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament to do her part. She stayed all day holding a sign that read “Skolstrejk för klimatet” or “School Strike for Climate”. Though she was alone that first day, a complete stranger joined her protest the next day and then more started joining. Her movement has since grown to the point where millions of people, both young and old, are captivated by the “Greta Effect”, convinced it is time they too spoke out to protect the environment.
“This moment does feel different,” said climate advocate and former United States vice president Al Gore, as he spoke about Thunberg to TIME. “Throughout history, many great morally based movements have gained traction at the very moment when young people decided to make that movement their cause.”
Another time, another girl
More than a century ago, another teenage girl was set to have an outsized impact on the planet. She too, was absorbed by a sense of urgency, a conviction that it was time to speak up, to raise the alarm. The American teen would become the voice of a movement, a cause that would change the world.
Ellen Harmon felt the awful pain that thousands in the United States and around the world experienced on October 22, 1844, in what was called The Great Disappointment. Her hopes that the second coming of Jesus would take place on that day were crushed. But rather than give up faith in God, Harmon joined a small group of believers who dug deeper in the Bible to see what they had missed. They were rewarded with the good news that, despite the error they had made in setting a date for Christ’s return, the second coming was imminent. And it was time to let the world know.
At the age of 17, Harmon had the first of approximately 2000 visions and dreams that millions would recognise as coming from God. She would speak and write about these visions over the course of her lifetime. Her writings covered religion, education, relationships, publishing, nutrition and more.
Known better by her married name, Ellen White (1827–1915) only received three years of formal schooling, yet she is the most translated female writer in history and the most translated American author of either gender. She was also a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a global movement that now has more than 21 million members.
Gift of prophecy
White is striking evidence that God sometimes blesses ordinary people with what the Bible calls the “gift of prophecy”. Her writings have a ring of prophetic authority to them, while she was at pains to point out that the Bible should always be the final authority. The Bible says in Numbers 12:6 that God speaks to prophets in visions and dreams. And Acts 2:14–21 makes clear that, as the end of the world comes closer, God will pour out His Spirit and “your sons and daughters will prophesy”.
The apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16,17 says the words of God are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” so that “the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. As a messenger of God, White shared special messages for her time—and often for ours, too—providing comfort, guidance, instruction and course-correction where needed.
Revelation 19:10 says that “it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus”. In a nutshell, this “testimony” is what White’s ministry was all about: it pointed to Jesus as our Best Friend and Saviour.
Strength in weakness
Thunberg has Asperger’s, a mild condition on the autism spectrum that many would consider a hindrance to inspiring people to make a positive change. But rather than letting it slow her down, Thunberg has embraced the intense focus the condition allows her; she is not distracted by a lot of the things that occupy the attention of her peers. Asperger’s has given her a tremendous sense of clarity about the sorry state of climate affairs and what needs to be done to save the environment.
For White, the physical repercussions of a childhood accident in which she was hit in the face with a stone meant that she suffered serious health problems for much of her life. But, like Thunberg, she didn’t let this challenge prevent her from what she was called to do. If anything, her fragile health focused her efforts and taught her perseverance in the face of adversity.
Thunberg’s message to the world is clear: We can’t keep on living like our choices don’t mean anything. We can’t act with a casual disregard for the future, for what tomorrow holds.
White’s message was similarly focused on the need for brave and principled people in uncertain times. Despite the gendered language of her day, her words continue to be a ringing call to integrity: “The greatest want of the world is . . . men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.”
Find out more about Ellen White’s life and writings at <ellenwhite.org.>.
Bjorn Karlman is a freelance writer who travels the world as a “digital nomad”, living in two to three countries per year with his wife and preschooler.