Fionola Meredith: Teenage eco activist Greta Thunberg is suffering - so why are we applauding?
Apocalyptic fears about world climate change are paralysing, not empowering, some young people, says Fionola Meredith
Did you see Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, addressing the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations this week? It was a shocking sight and sound.
The diminutive figure in the pink shirt and the long plait confronted the gathering with great passion. She lambasted the powerful attendees, telling them that they had "stolen her childhood".
"You come to us young people for hope - how dare you?" she quavered.
"People are suffering, people are dying, whole ecosystems are collapsing, we are in the beginning of a mass extinction."
The emotional impact of Greta's words was undeniable. Equally, the existential threat that climate change poses to humanity cannot be ignored.
But I found it difficult to concentrate on the content of what she was saying, because all I could see was a terrified child, hopelessly alone and cast adrift in apocalyptic dread. And that cannot be right.
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There is no cause on Earth that can justify a child - for that's what Greta is - being left to drown in her own terrible fears.
It is unconscionable. How could the adults around her allow it? How could they smile and applaud this distressed, vulnerable young person as she trembled before them?
Greta herself, whose mental health struggles have been intimately documented in a book published by her parents, has made it clear how she feels.
"I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day," she previously told world leaders when she addressed them in Davos.
"I shouldn't be up here," she informed the UN. "I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean." Yes, that's exactly where she should be, because that's where she might find some measure of normality, reassurance and peace from which to launch into the challenges of adulthood.
The extraordinarily complex problem of climate change is far too heavy a burden for a pair of young, troubled shoulders. The Pope famously told her to "keep doing what you're doing". But at what cost to Greta?
I'm not saying that it's wrong for Greta to be a passionate advocate for the environment. She's an extraordinarily articulate girl who obviously cares deeply about the fate of the world. Her words resonate strongly with other young activists. But quite clearly, and by her own admission, she is suffering.
Unfortunately, terror about climate change is spreading among a whole generation of young people. Rising numbers of children are being treated for "eco-anxiety" fuelled by the recent fires in the Amazon, the Extinction Rebellion protests - and the nihilistic warnings of Thunberg herself.
Fear can be incredibly contagious, and once it gets a grip - especially on sensitive children, already inclined to worry - it's hard to shift.
The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a group of psychologists working with the University of Bath, says that they have been receiving an escalating number of enquiries from concerned teachers, doctors and therapists. Apparently some children complaining of eco-anxiety have even been given psychiatric drugs.
The CPA is campaigning for anxiety specifically caused by fear for the future of the planet to be officially recognised as a psychological phenomenon. Here's the kicker, though: it's been reported that the CPA psychologists don't want "eco-anxiety" to be classed as a mental illness because the cause of the worry - environmental doom - is "rational".
Surely these esteemed psychologists know that there's nothing rational about extreme, debilitating fear. In fact, it's the opposite of rational.
Fear is a primitive survival mechanism designed to mobilise us in the face of dire threat. When these basic defence strategies activate the higher, the more evolved parts of the brain - the bits which govern complex thought, logic and reason - go offline.
And when that fear isn't discharged it remains stuck within us, causing all sorts of physical and mental maladies. We become quite literally seized up with terror. To me, that's what's happening with these eco-terrorised kids, obsessed with morbid fantasies about the end of civilisation. They are scared stiff.
Are we just going to tell them it's "rational" to fear climate apocalypse and leave them immobilised and helpless in their fears?
Or are we going to reassure, comfort and empower them so that they can fight - if they choose - for a healthier planet?
It's true that we live in unpredictable times, full of uncertainty and threat. But what all parents owe their children is a basic sense of safety. We need to feel safe in order to function in the world.
Without that, we really are doomed.