Green Or Gone

What Greta Thunberg Reminds Us About The Limits Of Adulthood

Now 18 and officially an adult, the climate activist's message isn't changing. And what about our own grownup rationalizations?

Greta Thunberg turned 18 last January
Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's 2021, and that means Greta Thunberg can lawfully grab a beer in her hometown pub. Of course, to someone who's started a global movement, dressed down heads of state and fronted Time Magazine as Person of the Year, obtaining Swedish drinking rights may not seem like a big deal.

And yet in her unlikely rise from 15-year-old school protester to global icon, Greta's reaching official adulthood is noteworthy. She made global headlines on her 18th birthday back in January, taking the opportunity to troll her critics: "Tonight you will find me down at the local pub exposing all the dark secrets behind the climate- and school strike conspiracy," Greta tweeted.

In Sweden, right-wing media was quick to fire back, with social media posts and publications pointing out that Greta could from now on be safely criticized, without anyone being accused of attacking a "child."

Is it a good thing if her pessimistic brand of activism has run its course?

Of course, pre-adult Greta wasn't exactly exempt from bashing, having been called everything from ignorant to naive to mentally ill over the last three years. But the question now is what growing up means to someone whose youth was her superpower with a message that began and ended with: "We children ..." The pigtailed, stern-faced kid who skipped school to tell adults they've stolen her childhood and are ruining her future is now one of us.

Greta herself, we know by now, would say "it doesn't matter," if her time representing the voices of the young has run out — it's not about her. And yet there she is, slapping ministers around and half-or-not smiling in photos and being an overall total pain in the collective rear of the Davos establishment. A week ago, following a digital climate meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Greta dismissed him as yet another politician in denial about the true urgency of the climate crisis. And what did he expect? Lofven might be an outspoken supporter of Greta and leader of one of Europe's top-ranked countries for climate action, but Greta is Greta, and that doesn't include supporting this or that — politicians are hypocrites and international climate summits are empty words and greenwashing.

Indeed, by now it strains you to imagine the type of climate action Greta would endorse, and it begs the question: Is it a good thing if her pessimistic brand of activism has run its course?

A Greta Thunberg mural in Dublin, Ireland — Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Last December, back in Sweden after a long period abroad, I was curious to hear the thoughts of mine and Greta's compatriots. Zigzagging through a rainy Stockholm, what did my taxi driver think of our country's most recognizable face?

- "I guess she means well…."

- "But?"

- "That's all." Then, after a few pulls and drags: "Well, her ideas seem a bit unrealistic. She's very young, after all."

What Greta calls denial is in fact a wager to keep the economy going.

This turned out to be a general opinion. Throughout my month-long stay, most people answered that Greta was necessary but impossible. Last year, after she scolded the EU Commission for setting mid-century objectives rather than taking immediate action, Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans made the same point, acknowledging Greta as a force driving the proposal forward, but added that "we're more optimistic than she is about new technologies that can help us accelerate the process."

So what Greta calls denial is in fact a wager to keep the economy going. World leaders are of course aware of current carbon reduction being insufficient to limit the warming of the planet, but are betting on reaching a tipping point where clean-energy technologies become scalable enough to change the equation. From that standpoint, Greta's brand of activism, which she has acknowledged to be driven by "moral superiority" and "shaming," is counterproductive.

From where I stand, somewhere between Greta and Timmermans, I still remember my own teens of bulletproof convictions and misguided indignation. But I also remember, before the self-generated fog of adult rationalization took over, those moments of real clarity where my future appeared as it was, not what someone promised me it would be.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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