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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 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.”)



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