t she is a fictional creation played by an actress. She and her family regularly receive death threats, and have excrement mailed to their Stockholm flat.
Greta Thunberg is the world’s most famous teenager, the only one known across the planet by her first name alone. She has inspired millions of her peers on every continent to stage school strikes. She has some 17 million Instagram, Twitter and Facebook followers combined. She addresses diplomats, politicians and business tycoons. She has been applauded by former president Barack Obama, Pope Francis, French president Emmanuel Macron, Al Gore, Prince Charles and the UN secretary-general, Antonio Gu-
slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and seemed to stop functioning. She stopped playing the piano. She stopped laughing. She stopped talking. And. She stopped eating,” her mother writes in staccato style. She lost ten kilos in two months. She was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Her younger sister, Beata, also began behaving strangely. She couldn’t tolerate sounds. She shut herself in her bedroom and screamed obscenities at her parents. “For five years… our family could not eat together, or were barely able to be in the same room,” Ernman writes. Beata was finally diagnosed
Fake photos online show Thunberg feasting in a train while starving children stare through the window terres. She was Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019, and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“You have achieved things that many of us who have been working on [climate change] for 20-odd years have failed to achieve,” David Attenborough told her when she guest-edited the BBC’s Today programme on 30 December 2019. “You have aroused the world.”
Her detractors evidently find it impossible to believe – or wilfully refuse to believe – that a young girl operating alone could have such an impact. But they are wrong. She has become a global brand, but there is no such thing as “Greta Inc”. It is said that it cost a fortune to keep Mahatma Gandhi in poverty, but there is practically nothing in the way of a support structure behind Thunberg. She has no office, no staff, no organisation – just her parents, a few volunteers, the climate change experts from whom she seeks advice and the sheer force of her words.
As she once wrote of her solitary campaign on a Facebook post: “People say that since I have Asperger’s I couldn’t possibly put myself in this position. But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ‘normal’ and social I would have organised myself in an organisation, or started an organisation myself. But since I am not that good at socialising I did this instead… There is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself.”
Our House is On Fire describes a deep and protracted crisis within Thunberg’s family and, paradoxically, how the global climate crisis helped to alleviate it. When Thunberg was 11 she became deeply depressed. She cried constantly. “She was
34 | NEW STATESMAN | 6-12 MARCH 2020
with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and elements of Asperger’s, OCD and oppositional defiant disorder.
Ernman and Svante, an actor, stopped work to look after their daughters. Friends fell away. “We felt like shit. I felt like shit. The children felt like shit. The planet felt like shit. Even the dog felt like shit,” recalls Ernman, who survived with the help of sedatives and antidepressants.
Then, Greta Thunberg latched on to the climate crisis with the intense, laser-beam focus that can be a characteristic of those with autism – what she calls her “superpower”. She persuaded her parents to stop flying, become vegan and buy an electric car. That energised her, her parents say. She started to speak outside the family again, and to eat in the company of strangers.
She got the idea of staging a three-week strike from school in front of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm from the 2018 high school protests against gun violence in America. Her parents say they opposed the plan, but did not stop her. “Whatever happens, you have to do it all on your own,” her father warned. “You have to be able to answer every question. And you have to know the arguments and answers. The journalists are going to ask you everything.”
One obvious question, he told her, would be: “Did your parents put you up to this?” She replied: “I’ll tell it like it is. I’m the one who influenced you and not the other way around.”
Her father took her to buy a rough wooden board on which she painted the now famous words “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” – school strike for climate. She printed fliers with facts about climate change. “We see that she feels good as she draws up her plans – better than she has felt in many years. Better than ever before, in fact,” Ernman writes.
On the morning of 20 August 2018, Thunberg put on a black T-shirt with a crossed-out plane on the front. She and her father then cycled to the parliament building where she sat down on the pavement. While Svante watched discreetly from a distance she asked a passer-by to take a picture of her and posted it on Twitter and Instagram. Journalists arrived to interview her. Other students joined her, and the global school strike movement began. So did the venom.
Thunberg appears unfazed by the attacks. “Quite frankly I don’t know how she does it, but she laughs most of the time,” says her father.
Her parents are less sanguine. “Some think that ‘someone’ is ‘behind all this’. A PR agency. But that’s not the case,” Ernman protests in the book. “Greta’s summer did not pass by in a series of clandestine meetings behind thick curtains at murky advertising agencies, where she was drilled in falsifying her background, her values and opinions. All under the influence of globalists, cunning left-wing economists and George Soros. That sort of thing.
“All to reinforce government influence and increase our joint tax burden; all for the creation of the eco-fascist, global super-state. Each conspiracy theory is worse than the next. Greta has not sacrificed four or five hellish years to simulating various life-threatening difficulties in order now to launch the world’s most cunning PR coup.”
Ernman might have added that the hidden forces at work are actually those opposing her daughter – the fossil fuel companies and other vested interests who spend vast sums discreetly lobbying against environmental regulations; the right-wingers who consider her a threat to individual freedom, to untrammelled capitalism, to an economic system that depends on boundless consumerism and constant growth.
She might also have observed that the extremists are not those who warn that the planet is in peril, but those – like Trump – who ignore and disparage the increasingly irrefutable scientific evidence that this is so.
Shortly before Thunberg began her first school strike, she and her parents asked to see Kevin Anderson, a climate change professor at the universities of Manchester and of Uppsala in Sweden. They quizzed him in the morning, over lunch, and into the afternoon.
“I was slightly cynical. There was a sense
Barnes & Noble
Find out more information on this title from the publisher.
Sign in with your Exact Editions account for full access.
Subscriptions are available for purchase in our shop.
Purchase multi-user, IP-authenticated access for your institution.
Register for digital access using your print subscription details.