Turning Point: The teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg sails across the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht ahead of her arrival in New York on Aug. 28 for a tour of the Americas.
I have always had a deep connection with the natural world. Before I picked up a camera, I was first and foremost a student of Mother Nature. I spent summers during high school studying wildlife biology with the School for Field Studies, an environmental study-abroad program. As I learned about ungulates in Kenya and seals in Alaska, I developed a long-lasting fascination with nature. And though I left the field of environmental science to pursue film, a deep awe for our planet continues to inform every aspect of my work.
As a director, I’m in constant pursuit of the right image. And I’ll admit that I’ve often fallen prey to cynicism when looking for a visual to best convey the current state of the world, confronted as it is with such terrifying environmental challenges. It’s hard to be optimistic about the visual encapsulation of our dying planet.
Yet, as soon as I saw an Instagram photo of Greta Thunberg staging her first environmental protest in August 2018, I knew. There she was, a 15-year-old girl, sitting outside the Swedish Parliament, on strike from school to bring attention to climate change. Here was the image — one of hope, commitment and action — I needed to see. An image that could spark a movement.
The use of visual language is universal and constant across human history. We might have progressed from cave drawings to emojis, but the intention remains the same. It is through imagery that we tell stories about who we are or want to be. Some images do more than just represent an idea; they deepen, illuminate, connect. They can make us pause or change our minds.
Sometimes, images become a kind of historical shorthand. That’s why November 1963 feels indistinguishable from Abraham Zapruder’s 8-millimeter film and its infamous frame No. 313, the fuzzy still image — all green with that horrifying splotch of pink — that captured the moment of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Or why the entire trauma of the Vietnam War is encapsulated by a single June 1972 photo of a young Vietnamese girl, naked and barefoot, howling in anguish as dark smoke billows behind her after a napalm attack. Or why a photo of a man plummeting to earth against the mirrored surfaces of the twin towers came to symbolize the horror of Sept. 11, 2001.
Whether they originate in tragedy or not, powerful images tend to show us what we’ve tried to ignore. Their rawness slices through the haze and forces us to reckon with our own history.
I’m certain that future generations will look at the first few photographs of Ms. Thunberg — dwarfed in a yellow raincoat, calm but defiant, refusing to take no for an answer — as a representation of the early days of a major cultural shift. I have no doubt that she will become an icon for the climate crisis — if she isn’t one already.
On the first of her many “school strikes for the climate,” Ms. Thunberg camped outside the Swedish Parliament for days, pamphlets in hand, forcing us to reckon with the consequences of our passivity. Like many others, I was rocked by her unshakable clarity of mission.
I watched as her message took shape and gained legs, as her protest transformed from a lone act of civil disobedience into a global youth movement. Ms. Thunberg eschewed convenience, comfort and all the other little things that serve as excuses for our inaction. She challenged the way we think about air travel when she opted in August to sail across the Atlantic on a carbon-neutral racing yacht ahead of her monthslong tour of the Americas.
Ms. Thunberg saw plainly that most of us were content with avoiding reality, condemning her generation and those after it to a doomed planet. So she chose to act, and in doing so she gave the movement a face and a future. When millions of children and young people around the world joined her call to take to the streets for a week of global climate action at the end of September, it was a sight to behold.
I am sure we will continue to see images of this fierce young activist. There are already so many: stills of her delivering a passionate speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23, leading thousands of protesters in Montreal the next week, shaking hands with indigenous activists at Standing Rock in October. But we should remember that it is not those images that are doing the important work — it is Ms. Thunberg herself.
I’ve long believed that visual language is the ultimate tool of communication and connection. In the face of climate change, however, it has become clear that images aren’t enough. We’ve all seen the documentaries and the countless photographs: melting glaciers, oil-soaked seal pups, beached whales. But nothing has changed.
Ms. Thunberg has brought the conversation on climate change out of the theoretical. She has made it human, tangible and urgent. Her protest is stark in its simplicity and brilliant in its lack of frills; she’s merely telling the truth. And for the first time, it feels as if people are listening.
We would be doing a great disservice to Ms. Thunberg — and the planet — if we failed to change. It would be criminal to continue ignoring the truths that she, and countless scientists, have so clearly presented to us. It would be a waste to do anything less than throw the full heft of our support behind her. We don’t need to wait for history to catch up and tell us what we already know. We have plenty of reports telling us how dire the situation is; we are being willfully blind if we don’t read them. We must act. We must vote for people who believe in science.
There’s a tremendous amount of work ahead. I know many of us feel paralyzed by the enormousness of the task, or too scared to look directly at the problem. I doubt the right path forward will be comfortable or clear; things will probably get worse before they get better.
But the fact that someone like Greta Thunberg is out there proves to me that we aren’t too far gone just yet. We can still count on the very human instinct to rally around the underdog and put up a fight. There’s still hope, however flickering.
We are in the midst of a crisis, and the only way we can combat it is to engage, human to human, with all the messiness and complications that are bound to arise. It won’t make for a pretty picture, but desperate times rarely do.
© 2019 Darren Aronofsky. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group