Almost Everything Is Black and White

Declaration of Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion. Parliament Square, London, October 31, 2018


As an eight-year-old, Thunberg was surprised to learn that human beings are capable of changing the earth’s climate. If this were so, she though, the topic should dominate the news and daily conversation, just as if the world were at war. She has Asperger’s syndrome, she says. To her, almost everything is black and white. Thunberg has a hard time understanding “normal” people’s response: “they just carry on like before. ...There are no headlines, no emergency meetings, no breaking news. Even most green politicians and climate scientists go on flying around the world.” The climate change problem has been solved, Thunberg says, in the sense that we know what must be done. “Countries like Sweden and the UK need to start reducing emissions by at least 15 percent every year,” to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. Keeping the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius would be better yet, and “rich countries need to get down to zero emissions,” so that poorer countries can build better infrastructure. However, none of that is happening. Thunberg, and her children and grandchildren, will pay the price for inaction. That is why she protests outside the Swedish Parliament. “It is time to rebel.”


One strategy Thunberg frequently employs is to frame a personal trait that others view as a weakness—in this case, her autism—as an advantage. By openly and unapologetically talking about her autism, Thunberg makes it impossible for opponents to dismiss her arguments on the basis that she is autistic. Instead, she uses her autism to her advantage. The conventional argument that a situation cannot be viewed in “black and white” terms because it is too complex and nuanced is usually used to imply that the opposition is naïve or uninformed. Thunberg turns this potential weakness into her strength. Because her mind interprets the world in black and white terms, she implies that she can see the crisis more clearly than those who insist on viewing it in “shades of gray.” She is therefore able to identify the inconsistencies in most people’s thinking and behavior regarding climate change. She uses logical propositions in the form “if this, then that” to make a strong case for rapid change. Her straightforward argument, unlike the arguments used against her, is consistent and clear.