Greta Thunberg joins history’s teenage superheroes

From Joan of Arc to Albert Einstein, 16-year-olds have had a profound impact on humanity. But Greta’s impact may be greater then any of them.

Steve Moretti
Oct 13, 2019 · 7 min read
Greta Thunberg addressing a Friday Climate Strike in Denver, Colorado in October

Albert Einstein had long mastered integral and differential calculus on his 16th birthday and already published his findings into the state of ether in a magnetic field.

Paul McCartney was playing guitar with fellow teenager John Lennon when he invited an even younger George Harrison to join their band.

Joan of Arc experienced visions from three saints who told her to drive out the English from France, and she began her campaign to do just that.

These and other examples of 16-year-olds throughout history make me marvel at the confluence of innocence, inspiration, passion and raw talent that produced young men and women destined to change the world.

To my mind they are teenage superheroes.

With each Friday climate strike and every Twitter post she shares with her 2.4 million followers, I am starting to see Greta Ernman Thunberg from Stockholm as a worthy inclusion to this list of illustrious 16-year-olds.

Inspiring hope, provoking rage

Greta’s unyielding and dogged determination has inspired millions around the world to take action against the climate crisis facing the planet. Her campaign has also provoked attacks against her by indignant climate change deniers – the majority of whom are much older men.

Greta’s “School Strike for Climate” has become a world-wide movement

She’s become a lightning rod for a level of venom and rage that seem more suited to fighting invading hordes of murdering barbarians than a petite girl barely 5 feet tall.

Why is it that we continue to disparage so many young people who at the tender age of 16 are ready and able to change the world? Until they are ‘mature’ we too often discount their talents, ridicule their ideas, and sometimes even persecute them.

Greta Thunberg has seen this first hand under the intense glare of social media and international media attention. She is perhaps the most admired and reviled 16-year-old in history, thanks to the instantaneous and global nature of communications in the 21st century.

She’s become a lightning rod for a level of venom and rage that seem more suited to fighting invading hordes of murdering barbarians than a petite girl barely 5 feet tall.

Her message, her manner of speaking, and her youthful intensity draw many of us under her spell. Consider her simple impassioned plea to the United Nations on September 23:

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.
And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Her voice quavered as she delivered her blistering 496 word sermon to the United Nations Climate Action Summit. No adult in the room, and probably no other person of any age on the planet, could match the impact of her words that smacked us like a sharp slap across the face.

Greta’s full speech in United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 23, 2019

Some of history’s other teenage superheroes

I think Greta compares well to some of the greatest 16-year-olds in history. Here are but a few examples.

Musical Superboy

As a precocious 16-year-old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartwas already an accomplished, although unemployed, composer.

At 16 Mozart had already written three operas

He had written fourteen symphonies, four piano concertos and perhaps most impressively — three complete operas. all of which were elaborately staged in Milan.

He was only 14 when his first opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto, was presented at the regal Teatro Regio Ducal opera house. The organizers feared the production was doomed because of Mozart’s young age. Instead, the opera was met with critical acclaim and played to more than twenty sold-out performances.

Only the performers knew the composer was a child barely able to see over the stage.

France’s teenage saviour

From the age of 13, Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) began to hear the voice of God urging her to fight the siege laid to the city of Orléans, in France. It told her to leave her home and lead an army, without revealing anything to her father.

Joan of Arc was placed at the head of King Charles’ army

And at 16, Joan began just such a quest. Within a couple of years she helped turn the longstanding Anglo-French conflict into a religious war. Charles VII, the King of France desperate to hold his crown and drive out the English, granted Joan’s request. He watched in wonder as a small uneducated farm girl was equipped for war and placed at the head of his army.

Joan became an inspiration to the French, leading them to many victories before being captured by those loyal to English interests. She was burned at the stake as a cross-dressing heretic. She was burned twice more to to reduce her body to ashes which were then scattered into the Seine River.

But in death her inspiration, and the military prowess that she imparted to the French commanders, helped Charles VII retain his crown and eventually prevail over the English.

“Live without seeing, but be what you are”

Louis Braille, also from France was blinded in both eyes during a childhood accident. He was determined to develop a system of reading and writing for the blind, and by his 16th birthday had worked out a system that would later be labeled the “stamp of genius.”

Louis Braille’s most important contribution to the world was perfected when he was 16

Using an awl, he simplified a previously developed systems of dots and dashes into just six raised dots, the combination of which represented the letters of the alphabet. He had opened the world of written communication to the blind.

Braille used only six dots to represent any letter in the alphabet

During his lifetime though, reaction’s to his system were either indifferent or outright hostile. Two years after he died at age 43, Braille’s system finally began to be adopted and within a few years had spread across 19th century Europe and eventually to North America and the rest of the world.

Still more superheroes

There are other examples of 16-year-olds who’s talents and stubborn determination, eventually forced the world to take note.

16-year-olds who made the world take note: Malala Yousafzai (2013) — Niccolò Paganini (1798) — Elvis Presley (1951)

Malala Yousafzai published I Am Malala in 2013 when she was 16. The year before she had been shot by the Taliban for promoting the rights of girls to attend school and receive an education. That practices was banned by the Taliban occupier in the Swat District of Pakistan where she lived.

Niccolò Paganini was already one of the greatest virtuoso violinists in the world at 16, as the 18th Century drew to a close. Although he had many personal demons and was unknown outside of Northern Italy, he was on his way to becoming the first superstar composer/performer the world had ever seen.

Elvis Presley started to slicks his hair with rose oil and Vaseline at 16. He was practicing his guitar everyday before heading down to Beale Street in Memphis, ignoring the fact he was often the only white face in the negro blues bars and clubs he preferred. He loved the music and the clothes, the style and the energy. It showed the first time he took to the stage a year or so later in a local talent show. The audience rumbled and his journey to immortality began.

Greta in NYC, leading a Friday climate strike

“Leaders are behaving like children”

Back in 2019, Greta continues to make her own case for supehereodom.

I think part of the reason Greta has become such a powerful voice is her unassuming style, and her unflinching message that she forcefully delivers like Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

“It should not be up to us to take this responsibility, but since the leaders are behaving like children, we have no other choice,” she said recently in an ABC News interview.

Greta sailing across the Atlantic ocean leaving a zero carbon footprint

As she makes her across the world, leading thousands of students and their parents along with a cadre of supporters on Friday climate strikes, many have come to believe the best hope for progress on climate action is this tiny 16-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome.

A stubborn child who will not take no for answer has somehow done more than all the desperate scientists across the world who beg us to look at the data on climate change.

She has truly galvanized us with her superpowers.

Steve Moretti

Written by

I’m fascinated by the lives of history’s most creative minds. Author of the Song for a Lost Kingdom series. Read the free Prequel

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