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How Greta Thunberg Transformed Existential Dread Into a Movement …

 

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How Greta Thunberg Transformed Existential Dread Into a Movement …
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How Greta Thunberg Transformed Existential Dread Into a Movement

Greta Thunberg.
After a time, Greta Thunberg and her family decided that freaking out was the only rational response, not only to climate change but to modern life.Photograph by Harley Weir / Art Partner

Greta Thunberg began her “School Strike for Climate Change” on August 20, 2018, when she was fifteen years old. Her plan was to demonstrate in front of the Swedish parliament from the first day of the fall term until the country’s parliamentary elections three weeks later. Every morning, she would bike to the parliament, arriving when her classes would have started. After posting on social media, she would turn off her phone, as would have been required in the classroom. During the day, she sat on the ground outside the building, studying her textbooks, although she made it clear, in interviews, that she found preparing for the future to be pointless. “Why should any young person be made to study for a future when no one is doing enough to save that future?” she wrote in the Guardian in November of that year. At the hour when school would normally end, she packed up her things and cycled home. In a matter of days, she became a globally recognized figure, known for her precise articulation of the scientific causes of climate change and the unequivocal condemnation she rained upon her elders for failing to address it. After the Swedish elections, she decided to continue her campaign by striking only on Fridays, sparking what has become a global student movement called Fridays for Future. It is a protest she has continued, every Friday, whether leading thousands of students in cities around the world or, as in the past week, while she recovered from a suspected case of the coronavirus, posting online from home.

In Sweden, a year after Thunberg began her movement, she co-authored a book, “Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis.” It was published in the U.S., in an English translation by Paul Norlen and Saskia Vogel, on March 17th, one of the early days of the mass disruption of public life in response to the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. Last year, some of Thunberg’s lectures were also published as a short book, called “No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.” Her missives of alarm—“I want you to panic” is a frequent refrain in her speeches—are strange to read during the pandemic. Here we are, panicking on a global scale, but for a different, though not unrelated, reason.

“Our House Is on Fire” is a family memoir. Its authors are listed as Malena Ernman and Svante Thunberg, Greta’s mother and father, and Greta and her younger sister Beata Ernman. The primary storyteller, however, is Malena Ernman, an opera singer who became an overnight celebrity in Sweden after winning a televised song contest and competing in Eurovision in 2009. In short, epigrammatic chapters, most centered on scenes of family life, this claustrophobic book narrates a story of desperation, in which climate-change activism transforms a family beset by psychological diagnoses into one that has a sense of purpose and agency. Thunberg’s school strike, it turns out, was the culmination of five years of fraught domestic crises featuring episodes of mental illness that spurred Ernman and her family to question whether the problem lay with them or with the world. After a time, the family decided that freaking out was, in fact, the only rational response, not only to the fact of climate change but to modern life. By Ernman’s reckoning, both climate change and mental breakdowns are consequences of a society that overvalues productivity, optimism, economic expansion, and extroversion over contemplation, stillness, and a smaller, less active life. “I should not have written a book about how I felt,” Malena Ernman writes. “But I had to. Because we felt like shit. I felt like shit. Svante felt like shit. The children felt like shit. The planet felt like shit. Even the dog felt like shit.” They were, she concludes, “burned-out people on a burned-out planet.”

Malena Ernman, who was born in 1970, was already a successful mezzo-soprano who regularly toured the opera circuit of Europe when she became pregnant with Greta, in 2002. Svante Thunberg, her boyfriend of less than six months, was an actor. That year, the couple decided that Malena, who earned more money, would keep working, and Svante would put his career on hold to raise Greta, who was born in January, 2003, in Stockholm. “You’re the best in the world at what you do,” Svante told Malena at the time, according to Malena. “As for me, it’s more like I’m the bass player, but in Swedish theater.”

For the next twelve years, Svante was a self-described “housewife.” The couple’s second child, Beata, was born three years after Greta, in 2006. When the girls were small, the family led an insular life, spent mostly on the road, travelling across Europe according to Malena’s schedule of performances. “No relatives, except Grandmother Mona. No friends. No dinners. No parties. Just us.” Malena and Svante enjoyed the solitude. “Our everyday life was like no one else’s. Our everyday life was marvelous.” Winters were spent together, in “bright, beautiful fin-de-siècle apartments,” and springs in “leafy parks.” Summers took the family to classical-music and opera festivals in Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and Aix-en-Provence.

In 2009, Malena won the Melodifestivalen, a televised Swedish singing contest. Later that year, she finished in ninth place in Eurovision, at which she represented Sweden with a song called “La Voix”—half Euro-pop dance anthem and half operatic aria. In the book, Malena writes for an audience for whom her fame is already known. Greta’s austere personality and appearance are a stark contrast with her radiant, telegenic mother, with her platinum-blond tresses and glowing white teeth, and it is hard, as a non-Swede, to gauge what kind of celebrity Ernman is exactly. A sudden popular interest in opera, she tells us, was deemed the result of the “Malena effect.” But her fame did not change her habits. “Being socially shy makes a person incredibly efficient,” she writes. “As soon as my concerts or performances are over I go straight home.”

According to Malena Ernman, Greta was always an exceptional child, with a photographic memory. She knew the capitals of every country and territory in the world and could pronounce the names of the cities forward and backward. She had a copy of the periodic table of elements hanging over her bed and could recite it from memory in less than a minute. At school, however, other students bullied her, and she relied on the intervention of a particularly caring teacher to maintain her grades.

In 2014, when Greta was eleven years old, she began crying all the time. “She cried at night when she should have been sleeping. She cried on her way to school. She cried in her classes and during her breaks, and the teachers called home almost every day.” Greta stopped playing the piano, laughing, and talking, and seemed to find comfort only with the family’s golden retriever, Moses.

In the fall of 2014, Greta stopped eating. Malena writes that at first it was unclear whether the cause was physical or psychological. Greta had her first panic attack one day in September, when the family was baking cinnamon buns and her parents encouraged her to eat some. When Greta refused, Svante and Malena yelled at her to obey. Their daughter, Malena writes, let out “an abysmal howl that lasts for over forty minutes.” After blood tests from the hospital indicated that there was nothing physically wrong with her, Greta began undergoing extensive psychological evaluation. On the recommendation of doctors, the family started keeping a list on the wall of how much she ate every day and how long it took her to eat it. (“Breakfast: 1/3 banana. Time: 53 minutes.”) If the consistency of Greta’s gnocchi wasn’t perfect, she rejected it. Too many gnocchi on a plate and she was overwhelmed. (“Lunch: 5 gnocchi. Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes.”)

Greta stopped speaking with anyone but the members of her immediate family. By the end of 2014, she was on the verge of hospitalization. Ernman would rush home on her bicycle from her performances in Stockholm before she had even removed her stage makeup, a bundle of nerves. “Svante stays home, never leaving the children’s side,” she writes. In early 2015, Greta finally received a set of diagnoses: Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as selective mutism. She started taking an antidepressant called sertraline. But, Malena writes, “What happened to our daughter can’t be explained simply by a medical acronym.” Instead, Greta was simply exhibiting the only rational response to the world around her: “In the end, she simply couldn’t reconcile the contradictions of modern life.”

In her speeches, Thunberg says that she first learned about the problem of climate change at the age of eight. Ernman recounts the moment at school when her daughter first watched a documentary about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As Ernman writes, it was quickly forgotten by her classmates: “New iPhones are taken out of fur-trimmed down jackets, and everyone who has been to New York talks about how great it is.” But Greta could not return to normalcy. Malena does not pinpoint the moment when climate change became Greta’s particular obsession; nor does she question the rightness of her daughter’s response. “Greta has a diagnosis, but it doesn’t rule out that she’s right and the rest of us have got it all wrong,” she concludes. Greta sees our carbon dioxide “transforming the atmosphere into a gigantic, visible garbage dump.” The hamburger on her plate is no longer food but “a ground up muscle from a living being with feelings, awareness and a soul.”

Greta’s diagnosis and treatment helped stabilize things. She began to attend a different school. Meanwhile, Beata’s behavior disrupted the family once again. Malena first wondered whether Beata had A.D.H.D. at the age of four, when her daughter threw regular tantrums about putting on clean clothes, saying that they “feel dry.” She suspended her suspicions at the time, a decision she later regretted. “The logical thing for us was to scream, wave our arms demanding that a four-year-old explain her bad behavior, like two idiots,” she writes.

As she grew older, Beata was sweet and well behaved in public and a tyrant at home. “We continue to teach manners,” Malena writes. “We set clear boundaries.” Beata did not heed them. By the time she reached the age of ten, the wrong sounds, tastes, and clothes could make her lose control. Life became a battle of wills between parents and daughters. “With Greta it was all kilograms, minutes, tables and structure,” Malena writes. “With Beata it’s all chaos, compulsion, defiance and panic.” The only similarity was the age at which the children’s symptoms reached the point of crisis: “When the clock strikes ten or eleven years old.”

The family’s insularity, once a source of happiness, now transformed the family into a kind of crucible of madness. “We scream. We kick down doors. We scratch. We pound walls. We wrestle. We cry. We ask for help and we endure,” Malena writes. Svante and Beata took a trip to Italy, where Beata had a panic attack and had to be taken home. “You just released 2.7 tonnes of CO2 in the air,” Greta informed them when they got back to Stockholm. “And that corresponds to the annual emissions of five people in Senegal.”

In a chapter called “The Ballad of the Summer of 2016,” Malena describes the nadir of the family’s experience, a season when Greta could only eat meals that were prepared in the right way, at home, and couldn’t eat around other people, and when Beata began answering every attempt at conversation with “Shut up, you fucking idiot.” For Beata, “new experiences” were now “out of the question.” She developed such an extreme sensitivity to sound that the family ate on plastic plates to appease her. Outside, Beata laboriously avoided stepping on cobblestones as she walked down the street, although, Malena notes, “It’s only with me that she has these compulsions.”

Beata was also talented. She could learn songs quickly and perform them without nerves. (Out of curiosity, I watched a video of Beata singing a pop song on YouTube—an unsmiling, chilling performance.) She finally got “diagnosed with A.D.H.D., elements of Asperger’s,” obsessive-compulsive disorder, and oppositional-defiant disorder. The family adopted a “low-arousal approach.” They stopped meeting anger with anger. Each parent took a child and lived in a different place. “Our children and work,” Malena writes. “That’s all we can manage, Svante and I. Everything else has to be put aside.” Soon, Malena had a breakdown and received her own diagnosis, of A.D.H.D., at the age of forty-five. A doctor warned the family of the dangers of “co-autism,” or of conforming too much to their respective diagnoses.

Since Greta Thunberg began speaking publicly on climate change, she has said little that has not been said before by other climate activists. What makes her exceptional is not only her youth but her neurological difference, which she often brings up in speeches. “I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange,” she said at an Extinction Rebellion rally in London in 2018. “They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before. If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.” It is Greta’s psychological condition that prevents her from simply acquiescing to the life style that contributes to climate change, but the rest of her family quickly followed her lead. As Malena writes, in response to the doctor’s idea that the family might become “co-autistic,” “It’s just that some days we choose to play along with the diagnosis, because sometimes the diagnosis is right and the norm is wrong.” According to the family memoir, Greta told her jet-setting mother, “You celebrities are basically to the environment what anti-immigrant politicians are to multicultural society.” Ernman describes thinking back to a trip she took to Tokyo; her “sun-drenched selfies” fill her with shame. In this period, Svante read “Storms of My Grandchildren,” by James Hansen, the former head of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, then about twenty more books about climate change, then gave up meat, shopping, and air travel. When he took Beata to London to see her favorite girl group, Little Mix, they went by electric car.

Slowly, Greta’s activism began to alleviate some of her symptoms. At a climate workshop in the Arctic Circle, she spoke in public for the first time in years, raising her hand to deliver a statistic about the efficiency of solar panels. She ate her spartan daily lunch of bean pasta with a pinch of salt in the company of other people. She got the idea to start her strike after a phone call with the founders of Zero Hour, a youth climate-activism group founded in 2017 in the United States. Malena writes that she and Svante were initially reluctant to support Greta’s strike. The family discussed how the first question Greta would be asked was “Did your parents put you up to this?” “I’ll tell it like it is,” Malena quotes Greta as saying. “I’m the one who influenced you and not the other way around.” Svante took her to buy a scrap piece of wood, on which she painted the words, in Swedish, “School Strike for the Climate.” On August 20, 2018, Greta woke up early and packed her backpack with schoolbooks, a cushion, and an extra sweater. She brought a hundred printed flyers with facts about the climate crisis. They read: “We children don’t usually do as you say. We do as you do. And because you grownups don’t give a shit about my future, neither do I.” From the first day, a documentary crew and reporters from the Swedish newspapers Dagens ETC and Aftonbladet came to interview Greta. Her social-media posts went viral. Svante read the interviews. “He doesn’t understand how it has happened but it’s the best interview on the climate he has ever read,” Malena writes. “Greta’s answers are crystal clear and cut right through the noise.” One day, Thunberg ate vegan pad thai in front of a group of supporters. Her energy grew. Her selective mutism ended. Beata, meanwhile, found a new diagnosis for herself on the Internet: misophonia, or an extreme sensitivity to sound.

As many commentators have pointed out, the emergence of the covid-19 virus and the global destruction of natural habitats are directly linked. The virus is thought to be zoonotic, which means it was first transferred from an animal to a human. Such diseases, according to epidemiologists, are often a consequence of the transformation of biodiverse lands into farms and the related global trade in wild animals. Our “war on nature,” as Thunberg has called it, has always been self-harm disguised as self-interest, and the emergence of the new virus is not a crisis separate from environmental destruction but a symptom of it.

“Imagine if Life Is for Real and Everything We Do Means Something” is the title of one section of the family memoir. It’s a childish statement but one that is hard to stop thinking about, particularly in the context of the global pandemic. (Last month, as some people locked themselves at home, others took advantage of cheap flights to “work remotely” from Hawaii or continued to gather in bars.) In the past few years, as storms and wildfires have worsened, glacial melt has accelerated, mass die-offs of insects and other wildlife have been documented, and the weather has become increasingly deviant, emissions have gone up, not down. We have failed to elect politicians willing to challenge the fossil-fuel industries or initiate a transformation of our economies. Sweden’s emissions are at the same level they were in 1992, Malena Ernman points out, when the U.N.’s first climate conference was held in Rio.

The cover of “No One Is Too Small To Make a Difference” is a photograph of Thunberg in a yellow raincoat, hood up, a serious expression on her face, the “School Strike for Climate” sign leaning against a wall behind her. It is hard to tell whether the presentation of the book, which is pocket-size and double-spaced, is meant to be ominous or inspirational, like a novelty edition of a commencement speech. Thunberg’s lectures before the governing bodies of the world have titles like “You’re Acting like Spoiled, Irresponsible Children” and (her speech before the United States Congress) “Wherever I Go I Seem to Be Surrounded by Fairy Tales.” Her insistence on pessimism comes as a relief. The self-justification of any depressive person is that optimism is delusional, but the climate crisis presents a situation in which hope can emerge only from a collective acceptance of the dismal future. Part of the cognitive problem of climate change is that it seems to exist in the abstract realm of “someday I will die,” rather than the immediate realm of something like the coronavirus—“this could kill me within five to fourteen days since the last time I hung out with my friends.” It is difficult, even, to cogitate that what we are experiencing with the pandemic is within the realm of environmental crisis, rather than separate from it.

Every speech that Thunberg has given has prodded at the delusion that everything will work out in the end. “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with business as usual and some technical solutions?” Thunberg said to the United Nations General Assembly last September, after she travelled to the gathering by a wind-, sun-, and hydro-powered sailing yacht from England. “I’ve been warned that telling people to panic about the climate crisis is a very dangerous thing to do,” she told the bankers, technology titans, and oligarchs assembled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. “But don’t worry. It’s fine. Trust me, I’ve done this before, and I can assure you it doesn’t lead to anything.” She repeated demands to end all fossil-fuel extraction, exploration, and subsidies. She pointed out the obvious, which is that “no political ideology or economic structure has been able to tackle the climate and environmental emergency and create a cohesive and sustainable world.”

It is no fault of Thunberg’s that her admonishments have become a centerpiece of the pageantry of concern that has accompanied our collective human failure to pursue even the most obvious and well-researched solutions to the problem at hand. The more Thunberg has been celebrated—Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019, two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize—the more she has begun to function, through no fault of her own, as a kind of pressure valve. Her speeches have offered the illusion of purpose and change while everyone in a position to adopt dramatic changes in their life styles, from the busybodies attending world economic forums to our kleptocratic politicians, has avoided effecting them. Joan of Arc led armies to battle, but today’s child climate warriors have to contend with the gerontocracy. “You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway; I don’t respond to that,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is eighty-six years old, said, lecturing a group of child climate activists who visited her office in 2019, in a widely shared video. “I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality, and I know what I’m doing,” she continued. (In a video of the interaction, a child with an adorable speech impediment cries out in response, “It doesn’t matter. We’re the ones who are going to be impacted!”)

“Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced,” Thunberg said in Davos, in 2019. “And since the climate crisis is a crisis that never once has been treated as a crisis, people are simply not aware of the full consequences of our everyday life.” Managing the coronavirus has resulted in some of the sacrifices and societal disruptions that Thunberg has called for since she began her campaign, and has generated a sense of urgency that fires and floods, calving icebergs, cancer clusters, and extinct dugongs have not. It has made travel influencers look decadent and wrong, cleared cities of air pollution, and delivered a temporary economic blow to the fossil-fuel industries. Now we know what it looks like when “life is for real and everything we do means something.” But nobody wanted the change to happen this way, least of all Thunberg. Last Friday, members of Germany’s chapter of Fridays for Future gathered for a Q. & A. with Thunberg on Zoom. Speaking from Sweden, her dog nosing into the frame of the video, she looked weary and pale, and stumbled at moments as she tried to articulate responses. “We can’t ever see this as something positive, because above all people are dying and it’s a global emergency,” she said to the digital assembly of young Germans. “It’s a tragedy, and people are dying.”

The pandemic might have shown humanity its capacity to respond collectively, but it’s done so at such a high cost that calls to address climate change might become even less of a priority. In the United States, millions of lost jobs may give rise to more political demand for a Green New Deal-type federal jobs program, but the economic losses are just as likely to hasten calls to scrap existing environmental protections and regulations in the name of an economic rebound. (The E.P.A. has already relaxed the enforcement of pollution rules during the pandemic; last week Trump rolled back fuel-efficiency standards and met with oil executives who are requesting cash to survive the global drop in oil prices.) Environmental deregulation, deforestation, illegal mining, and the trade in wildlife flourish in conditions of economic desperation. With her characteristic lucidity, Thunberg told her remote audience that environmental concerns will likely be ignored without sustained activism. “People are going to use the corona crisis as a reason to pursue business as usual,” Thunberg warned. “We need to make sure that the response and the way that we recover is the right way to do it.”

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