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Greta Thunberg for person of the year



Towards the end of each year columnists such as myself find ourselves handing out our best of the year awards. We do it partly because rating people is our stock in trade, and partly because for writers distracted by the thought of a seaside holiday best-of pieces are relatively undemanding. So readers are presented with namings of the best sportspersons, the most significant public figures, writers, actors and even people in the street.

Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg (front) stands with British professional yachtswoman Nicola Henderson and yacht owners Elayna Carausu and Riley Whitelum at Santo Amaro Recreation dock in Lisbon, Portugal, on 3 December 2019. Thunberg sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, USA on the catamaran La Vagabonde on her way to attend COP25 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images)This exercise is of interest less for the people who are chosen than for the criteria by which they are chosen. For some commentators the deciding factor is clearly how much money the chosen ones have earned or have made for their promoters. Understandably the bankers, business moguls and property holders of this world feature regularly.

For other publications the criterion is the size of the effect, good or bad, that the person chosen has had on the world. Pope Francis might win the award one year, Donald Trump the next. Sometimes, too, the standard of judgment is which person represents the cultural spirit of the year. One year might be assigned to Pauline Hansen, and another to Jacinda Ardern.

The people chosen by these criteria rarely surprise. They may delight, horrify or bore, but once we understand why they were chosen they become fairly predictable. The criteria match the expectations of society.

The exercise becomes much more interesting however, if the criterion is how far candidates behave in ways that cut against conventional wisdom. Preference then is given to people who are direct and not diplomatic, avoid weasel words when speaking of their principles, prize being good over looking good, do not tolerate a large gap between professed ideals and way of living, and are consumed by a cause that matters deeply for society. People who meet those criteria will certainly provoke dissent, and perhaps even lively conversation.

From that countercultural perspective the stand-out person during 2019 was surely Greta Thunberg. The cause she represents is the most pressing for the future of the world as we know it, namely the need to take seriously the reality of climate change and to respond to it with corresponding seriousness

The ways she addresses this issue are simple. She speaks uncompromisingly about it, mobilises young people of her own age to take it equally seriously and to organise in support of their convictions, addresses political leaders and world gatherings with stern judgment and not flattery. In carrying out this program she has been extraordinarily successful.


"The power of her message derives largely from her integrity. Such integrity often makes her seem the only adult in a room full of politicians and of her critics."


Her work is striking particularly because it so flouts conventional wisdom and practice. She does not deploy charm and deference but lectures world leaders, cutting through the abstractions and ambiguous language used to hide inaction in dealing with climate change. Like Joan of Arc she is the voice of conscience calling to conversion.

The power of her message derives largely from her integrity: the tight fit between what she believes and how she acts. Most strikingly her commitment to reducing emissions leads her to avoid travel by air. She travelled by ship to a climate conference in Chile and, when it was transferred to Spain, hitched a ride on a yacht to arrive in time. She is willing to bear the discomfort of her convictions. Such integrity often makes her seem the only adult in a room full of politicians and of her critics.

To nominate Greta Thunberg the most significant person of 2019 is not to canonise her, still less to say that her way of pressing for action to address climate change is the only way. She has her own life to grow into and her own battleground to struggle on. If climate change is to be addressed it will also require persuasion, negotiation, concessions and personal trust between national leaders.

These more urbane qualities, however, are too often the false smile on the face of the political decision to place votes over the national good, and the corporate determination to continue to profit from exploiting the environment. Thunberg's intransigence and her single-minded focus on the urgency of addressing climate change are needed to mobilise the support necessary to make politicians act responsibly.

As a young woman Thunberg will have to live in the world older generations have left her. If she seems serious and weighed down with care, the state of the world that she and her contemporaries will inherit is more than sufficient reason.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (front) stands with British professional yachtswoman Nicola Henderson and yacht owners Elayna Carausu and Riley Whitelum at Santo Amaro Recreation dock in Lisbon, Portugal, on 3 December 2019. Thunberg sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, USA on the catamaran La Vagabonde on her way to attend COP25 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Greta Thunberg, Jacinda Ardern, Pauline Hanson, climate change, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

I second Miss Thunberg for Person of the Year. Greta is a young person of serious demeanour, a resolute spirit and an impassioned way of putting her case. She is unafraid to cry and to put her feelings out there. Intransigence is a quality often derided however climate change is such a serious issue there can be no room for jolly diplomacy. Mr Donald Trump, and others of similar ilk, can have no better role model!

Pam | 10 December 2019  

Exceptional as young Greta may be and deserving of "something" I don't know that condemning her to be recipient of such is fair. Then she, like so many before her, has a lifetime to live up to the recognition and not become a target for the "tall poppy" scythes waiting in the wings. Hardly a teenager now, will she and we continue to be so gracious in later years...or does she get the Aung San Suu Kyi treatment? God help her if she chose to get a driver's license in anything but a zero emissions vehicle. Due respect to Ms Thunberg but the media circus following her burns up more fuel than she'd want; the scrum of photographers and reporters have no interest in the cause, just the clicks... So this award, Andrew...is it delivered to her carbon footprint free or does she need to hitch another yacht ride to a ceremony to appease newshounds who fly there on assignment? Just say "thank you".

Ray | 11 December 2019  

Father Andrew Hamilton, in awarding his Person of the Year award to Greta Thunberg,implies that very few, if any, public figures in the last twelve months, have matched her uncompromising style and her peer leadership. On his own admission she has also been judgmental. She champions a popular cause that does not demand her to perform in an unfriendly environment. This suggests she is not as counter cultural as Andrew maintains. Her campaign elicited the silliest comment on record about climate change. Adam Bandt repeatedly asserted to a national audience, on the day the youngsters took their message to Melbourne's CBD, that she and her followers needed no expert scientific knowledge to justify their disturbance of a major city. The concept involved, he opined, was so scientifically"simple" that the average primary school child could and did grasp it. Both sides of the climate debate have little in common. One point they do agree on is that climate change is not a simple phenomena. This superficiality makes it difficult to take the Greens' climate spokesman seriously whenever he expresses himself on this serious topic. As for Greta, I suppose she cannot be held responsible for the superficial, self indulgence of ignorant politicians who wish to exploit her ingenuousness.

Grebo | 11 December 2019  

I endorse Andy's nomination! Humbly, Greta doesn't even ask people to focus on or listen to her - but 'to listen to the science.' She doesn't draw energy and attention to herself but slips in and out of press conferences like a nymph. She uses words with simple power (even in her second language!). Like a true prophet she points to truths greater than herself. Greta's ease with her Aspergers condition is also refreshing; calling her to deep reflection, solitude, introspection, felt pain and focussed purpose. She highlights that neurotypical engagement with the education system, media and world around us has led humanity down a path of frightening conformity, cynicism and dulled compliance. I claim Greta as a true Advent person and welcome her continued sting, challenge and hope.

Anne Muirhead | 11 December 2019  

Greta embarrasses the wealthy power brokers of the world. It is thus highly unlikely that they will bestow any honours on her head,

john frawley | 11 December 2019  

Thank you for the integrity of your words and of your choice. Planet Earth is in desperate need of people who lead by courageous example to protect and defend the health of this planet and its creatures and life-forms - which is to say, our global survival - and Greta Thunberg is such a one.

Jena Woodhouse | 11 December 2019  

Hear, hear Andrew! Joan d'Arc's act of conscience had "local" (French national) impact. Greta Thunberg's act of conscience is on behalf of all living things on planet Earth.

Reg Tydell | 11 December 2019  

My vote is with Greta

Dan Dean | 11 December 2019  

i also agree that Greta Thunberg should be given every award available she certainly tells it as it is.

maryellen flynn | 12 December 2019  

It seems Time agrees with you, Andrew. During the Vietnam war we used comment on the bellicose attitudes of that publisher, by saying Time was for people who couldn't think, and Life , now defunct, for those who couldn't read. Given the astonishingly hostile attitudes Greta uncovered in tired old right wing males, I now agree with Time, and hope the Australian person of the year for 2019 is indeed her. That would be a small national restitution for such unnecessary hostility towards her and her generation, even sadly from down under.

Anonymous | 12 December 2019  

Spitting the dummy is not helpful, our own climate change expert Walter Jehne CSIRO, demonstrates the challenge lies in better land management that sets up the best landscape structure for the soil biota to function. The links too him give us constructive options.

Neville Hunt | 12 December 2019  

Climate Science in detail is very complex, but in essence is easy to understand if your vision is not clouded by all the smoke clouds put up by politicians. Greta sees through it all and is a remarkable advocate. The climate is changing much faster than can be explained by any natural processes. We must do something - now. It's no wonder she gets annoyed with politicians who have refused to see what she sees so clearly. Time Magazine rightfully have made her person of the year.

Stephen | 13 December 2019  

Dear Father Andrew, BRAVO,BRAVO. Note Trump's idiotic comment!

Gavin | 13 December 2019  

I'm surprised and delighted to find that there appears to be a dearth of power brokers working behind the scenes at Time!

john frawley | 13 December 2019  

All for it

Norman Keegel | 14 December 2019  

I am another person who supports Fr Andrew. Greta Thunberg has gained great appeal from the young and old alike because of her tenacity, knowledge and her ability to rouse people to action about the most important crisis facing humankind. The very wealthy and very powerful around the world hate her because she is influencing others to demand action on climate change - an issue that they want people to ignore. Donald Trump's attempt to silence her because of her autism was deplorable, but then he has spent most of his life being in very powerful positions and is unaccustomed to people daring to contradict his stance on most issues. Young people see Greta Thunberg as a role model because she has the ability to demand urgent action on global pollution that is adversely affecting us all. And she continues to do this despite the verbal slings and arrows from people like the US President.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 15 December 2019  

You were spot on Andy. 'Time' magazine did, in fact, name Greta as Person of the Year. It's quite interesting because, even though she is not overtly religious, she does have the same feeling for the Earth that St Francis of Assisi had. She seems very much her own person. As far as I am aware, no one else is pulling her strings. She is intellectually honest and lacks the hubris of some adult conservationists of sorts, like Bob Brown and his gas guzzling Caravan of Doom, which did lose the election for Labor. More power to her!

Edward Fido | 15 December 2019  

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