M E M O I R S & P O L I T I C S
Resist rottenness Global crisis and a Swedish family
SARA HUDSTON OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE Scenes of a family and a planet in crisis MALENA AND BEATA ERNMAN, SVANTE AND
GRETA THUNBERG 277pp. Allen Lane. £16.99. NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A
DIFFERENCE GRETA THUNBERG 136pp. Allen Lane. £14.99.
WAITING FOR GRETA THUNBERG to speak in Bristol earlier this year, the cameras kept focusing on an eye-catching knitted doll, borne aloft in the crowd on a bamboo cane. It was a simple rendition of Greta iconography: yellow coat, brown wool plaits, angry eyes, a sign saying “Skolstrejk för Klimatet”.
Who is Greta Thurnberg? The person who finally appeared on the podium at College Green looked much younger than seventeen. She was shorter and slighter than the other youth climate strikers, and the microphone stand towered over her head.
Greta’s combination of anorak, woolly hat, schoolgirl hair and unmade-up face is not a style generally favoured by British teenagers. But her body language is even more different than her clothes. Although she appears shy, she lacks the genuflections towards power expected of young women in Western culture. It may be this silent absence of submission that older people, men and women but especially men, find so challenging.
Watching the Bristol event live on BBC West’s Facebook page, I could see a simultaneous stream of angry comments from older viewers, most of them men. They were cross because Thunberg had a mobile phone, wore clothes she hadn’t hand-made herself, travelled to Bristol by diesel train – diesel, that is, rather than electric – and used domestic electricity. All these were cited as free choices and therefore marks of deep environmental hypocrisy.
According to these commentators, Thunberg’s greatest crime was being young. They were enraged by the idea that younger generations might look to her for leadership, rather than listening to older people. Teenagers in general were too selfish, too focused on their gadgets, too indulged: “WHAT A HYPOCRITE”, wrote one man. “It’s hilarious, all these school kids preaching to us oldies that we ruined the planet! Back in the 60s and 70s and 80s not a plastic bottle to be seen it was all glass that were reused, pop bottles taken back to the shop … I think these youngsters need to take a look in a recycled mirror and think was it my wasteful generation who are ruining the planet.”
Versions of this folk tale about our supposedly thrifty past generally appear in every comment thread about the environment. It’s not just social media; the myth is a staple of grassroots print outlets, cropping up frequently in parish magazines, those trusty almanacs of older, predominantly white, conservative thought. These accounts generally shift aspects of life arguably experienced in the 1940s to a more recent period. It’s typical that the Bristol man claimed plastic bottles weren’t used in the 1970s and 80s. Others remember differently: when the novelist and children’s writer Russell Hoban visited Paxos in September 1978, he found it
littered with plastic rubbish. “Beautiful Ionian island in the sparkling blue sea and it’s got plastic mineralwater bottles all over it”, he recalled in an essay from 1983, “Pan Lives”. “Why do perfectly good children become such rotten grown-ups?” he asked.
Our House Is on Fire is a story of resistance against rottenness. It’s largely told by Malena Ernman with contributions from her husband Svante Thunberg, and is about their two daughters, Greta and Beata, who are also credited as co-authors. It tells how at the age of eleven, Greta stopped eating and speaking, unable to cope with the dissonance she perceived in the world around her. Ernman writes: “What happened to our daughter can’t be explained simply by a medical acronym or dismissed as ‘otherness’. In the end she simply could not reconcile the contradictions of modern life”.
Originally published in Sweden as Scener ur hjärtat (Scenes from the Heart), the book first appeared in August 2018, three days after Greta began her school strike outside the Swedish parliament. Named after a speech she gave to the World Economic Forum at Davos in January 2019, Our House Is on Fire adds an account of her protest up until Sweden’s election day on September 10, 2018.
When the book was published initially, Ernman was the celebrity in the family, an acclaimed opera singer who had also represented Sweden in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. The book is divided into “scenes” rather than chapters, in a nod to her performance background. This expanded and updated edition is inevitably clouded by hindsight. We know how much Greta has eclipsed her mother’s fame in the past two years. These days, Ernman is more likely to be known internationally as Greta’s mum than as an artist in her own right. It is Greta’s story we want to hear most; what is she like, how did she become such a figurehead?
But Ernman wants to tell us about the climate emergency. Given our curiosity about Greta’s life, Malena’s philosophizing can become wearing at times, even if you share her viewpoint. Take this from Scene 70, entitled “Healing”:
The planet is suffering from a serious disease and we need to initiate extensive medical protocols immediately. We need urgent care. But instead – in the best case – we have chosen faith healing as our treatment method. There is no insight into the illness. Not a trace. And so on, all in the same staccato style. Ernman acknowledges the mismatch between what we want to hear and what she needs to say. In Scene 42, she dramatizes an exchange between Greta and her father as they discuss feedback on an early draft. Svante says: “Okay, there are some who say the reading gets a bit heavy around Scene 41; they think it’s a lot more fun when you and Beata are present. Can
A public artwork depicting Greta Thunberg, Bristol, 2019
“Few of us want to read a boring book, however important its message
Sara Hudston is a writer living in rural Dorset. She has been part of Extinction Rebellion since 2018 and gives the “Heading for Extinction” talk. She is a Guardian Country Diarist and writes occasionally for the Dark Mountain project something be added there?” He asks: “Can we write something about you instead?” This is Greta’s response: “‘No,’ she replies curtly. ‘Lots of personal and other stuff comes later. Mum’s burn-out and all the things people love to read about celebrities. This is a book about the climate and it should be boring. They’ll have to put up with it’”.
That’s the crux of the whole book and the dilemma that the Ernman-Thunberg family confronts. They have to be interesting in order to be heard. Few of us want to read a boring book, however important its message. Our brains crave stories and characters. Scientific facts are hard work without personal context and narrative drive. This inclination to prioritize certain kinds of information above others is, of course, a reason why we are facing a climate emergency. We’d rather hear about how an indomitable child found her voice and spoke truth to power, her family’s struggles to overcome stress disorders, even the faithful love of the family dogs, than scary facts about the planet.
Being interesting, however, also has its perils. Conspiracy theorists believe that Greta’s compelling public image was manufactured in order to achieve some devious aim. They accuse her of being a puppet controlled by sinister forces plotting a global eco-fascist super-state. Ernman says: “We get death threats on social media, excrement through the letterbox, and social services report that they have received a great number of complaints against us as Greta’s parents”. Much of this hatred and suspicion seems to arise from the family’s success at communicating, almost irrespective of what they actually say. Of all the family members, Greta attracts the most criticism because she is the one to whom we listen and respond the most.
How does Greta catch our attention so ably? She has the gift of brevity. Her collection of speeches, No One Is too Small To Make a Difference, is a brilliantly concise meld of current eco-thinking and climate science. When she spoke at Extinction Rebellion’s Declaration of Rebellion in October 2018, she said in about ten minutes what takes nearly two hours in XR’s official introductory talk. She is also highly quotable. Slogans such as “Unite behind the science”, “I am too young to do this” and “Asperger’s is not a disease, it’s a gift” have appeared on thousands of protest banners around the world. (Thunberg was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, which she refers to as having Asperger’s.)
Who knows how Greta’s story, or ours, will play out over the next few years? When she spoke to the European Parliament in Brussels on March 4 this year, the Italian MEP Pietro Fiocchi addressed her, he said, “as a father giving advice to a daughter”. His advice was impossible: “Go back to school and go back to normal life”. n
JUNE 19, 2020
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