Today we are featuring an article published in the April 2020 edition of Megaphone Magazine about Greta Thunberg and how other youth activist groups, like Sustainabiliteens, in Vancouver are leading climate change.
As Within, So Without
Story by Maddi Dellplain
Photos by Liam Hill-Alan
When it comes to finally waking up to the realities of climate change, maybe a global crisis is in order.
Despite the fear and uncertainty, perhaps one of the best possible outcomes of the COVID-19 health crisis could be the potential for massive collective healing— of individuals, political systems and the planet.
After all, it took a personal implosion for climate activist Greta Thunberg to finally find her power and spark a global movement, as detailed in a book by her mother, Malena Ernman.
Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and Planet in Crisis is set to hit Canadian bookstore shelves on April 28. English language readers around the world will be granted access to what critics are calling the “touching and extraordinary” account of the life of Thunberg in the years before she became the most recognizable climate activist of our time.
Previously published only in Swedish, Our House is on Fire weaves together a memoir of immense personal hardship and a sobering reflection on the harsh ecological realities facing the planet, but ultimately delivers a message of hope to its readers.
This intimate account follows the 17-year-old’s life leading up to Aug. 20, 2018, when Thunberg made history at age 15 by sitting on the steps of Swedish Parliament holding a sign reading Skolstrejk för Klimatet, or “School Strike for Climate.”
The book is credited to the entire family, but is primarily narrated by Ernman. She shares glimpses into the horror that began in 2011 when the family noticed that Thunberg was “slowly slipping into some kind of darkness.” They were pushed to the limit when 11-year-old Thunberg sank into a pit of depression, plagued by disordered eating, selective
mutism, undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and high-functioning Asbergers syndrome (a form of autism).
With one of her daughters on the brink of hospitalization and her other daughter, Beata, struggling with her parents unequally divided attention, Ernman recounts the terror and frustration that she and her husband, Svante Thunberg, endured when Thunberg refused to eat.
Excerpt from Our House is On Fire from The Guardian:
One evening in the Autumn of 2014, Svante and I sat slumped on
our bathroom floor in Stockholm. It was late, the children were asleep.
Everything was starting to fall apart around us. Greta was 11, had just
started fifth grade, and was not doing well. She cried at night when she
should be 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.
Svante had to run off and bring her home to Moses, our golden retriever.
She sat with him for hours, petting him and stroking his fur. She was
slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and little by little, bit by
bit, she seemed to stop functioning. She stopped playing the piano. She
stopped laughing. She stopped talking. And she stopped eating....
“Please eat,” Svante and I say in chorus. Calmly, at first. And then more
firmly. Then with every ounce of pent-up frustration and powerlessness. Until
finally we scream, letting out all our fear and hopelessness. “Eat! You have
to eat, don’t you understand? You have to eat now, otherwise you’ll die!"
After receiving a formal diagnosis, Thunberg’s health began to gradually improve, though the family was still in the midst of managing the worsening angryoutbursts from Thunberg’s sister, Beata.
One day near her 11th birthday I find her standing in the living room, hurling DVDs from the bookshelf down the spiral staircase to the kitchen. “You only care about Greta.Never about me. I hate you, Mum. You are the worst bloody mother in the whole world, you bloody fucking bitch,” she screams as Jasper the Penguin hits me on the forehead.
It’s autumn 2015 when Beata undergoes an evaluation for various neurodevelopmental disorders. She is diagnosed with ADHD, with elements of Asperger’s, OCD and ODD [oppositional defiant disorder]. Now that she has the diagnosis it feels like a fresh start for her, an explanation, a redress, a remedy.
In the end it would take more than five years of patience, determination andcourage for the family to find solutions that worked for both of their daughters. Ernman explains that it was in many of Thunberg’s struggles that the connection between personal and the global became clear.
What happened to Greta in particular can’t be explained simply by a psychiatric label. In the end, she simply couldn’t reconcile the contradictions of modern life. Things simply didn’t add up. We, who live in an age of historic abundance, who have access to huge shared resources, can’t afford to help vulnerable people in flight from war and terror—people like you and me, but who have lost everything.
She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye. The invisible, colourless, scentless, soundless abyss that our generation has chosen to ignore. She saw all of it—not literally, of course, but nonetheless she saw the greenhouse gases streaming out of our chimneys, wafting upwards with the winds and transforming the atmosphere into a gigantic, invisible garbage dump.
She was the child, we were the emperor. And we were all naked.
Unleashing Greta’s superpower
Thunberg has publicly hailed her Aspergers as a superpower and says that the unique way that her mind works has enabled her to approach the climate crisis with tireless
interest and single-mindedness. In a talk she gave at TEDx Stockholm in December 2018, Thunberg explained to the audience: “For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is in black and white. We aren’t very good at lying and we usually don’t enjoy participating in the social game that the rest of you seem so fond of.”
Thunberg continued: “Especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before. I don’t understand that because if the emissions have to stop, then we have to stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.”
According to research done by the United Nations Environment Programme, by 2050, with a projected increased global population of 9.6 billion, we would need the equivalent of almost three planets’ worth of resources to sustain our way of living, if our current consumption and production patterns remain the same. The urgency to act swiftly and current world leaders’ apparent reluctance to make significant large scale change, has been called out by Thunberg directly in a number of speeches over the last two years, producing slogans such as “How Dare You” that have been employed by other climate activists across the globe in their demonstrations.
In Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in September of 2019, she scolded world leaders, saying, “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than eight-and-a-half years. There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.”
Telling it like it is
But many youth are proving to be mature enough to tell it like it is. Although far from the first youth activist to push for climate action, Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” climate strikes have sparked significant student demonstrations across the globe over the last two years.
Just two months after Thunberg first sat outside the steps of Swedish Parliament, Canada became the fourth country in the world and the first in the Americas to join the Fridays for Future movement.
Vancouver youth were ready to welcome Thunberg when she made a speech at the
Vancouver Art Gallery on Oct. 25, 2019. The event was organized by the Sustainabiliteens, a Vancouver-based youth-led climate group that began facilitating the Friday school strikes locally in December of 2018.
Thunberg’s October rally was the ninth Vancouver rally put on by the Sustainabiliteens, which has repeatedly celebrated turnouts into the thousands. The group purportedly
holds the record for organizing the largest protest in the city’s history, when crowds of more than 120,000 turned out for their Sept. 27, 2019 Global Climate Strike.
Sustainabiliteens' organizer and Grade 12 student at Winston Churchill Secondary School,
Naia Lee, says that youth activists are calling for a dramatic shift in elected leaders' priorities.
“One thing we’re really trying to [work on] right now is... changing the political common sense,” Lee explains. “We need to shift our collective mindset towards one that [does not] prioritize extractivism and profit over people's lives because that's what the climate crisis is rooted in.”
Lee adds that the current response of world governments to the climate crisis does not reflect the severity nor the intersectionality of the crisis and notes that the burden of the effects of climate change have historically rested unevenly across world populations.
Experts agree that the catastrophic consequences of extreme climate temperature variability will continue to have the highest adverse impact on countries in the global south, particularly south and southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
This won’t come as a surprise to indigenous youth organizers and youth from the global south, who have long been paving the way in the fight for climate justice. Ridhima Pandey, an 11-year-old girl from Uttarakhand, India, is one of 16 activists who filed a lawsuit with the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child against their government, claiming it has failed to protect the environment; Nina Gualinga, an Indigenous Ecuadorian activist, won
the World Wildlife Fund’s International President’s Youth award in 2018 and has been an advocate for climate justice and Indigenous rights since she was eight years old; and in Canada, 15-year-old Anishinaabe water protector and activist, Autumn Peltier, confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2018 about his failure to make good on the Liberals’ promise to provide clean water across the country when many First Nations communities remain under boil advisories.
Lee adds that Thunberg has likely become such a notable icon due in part to her ability to popularize climate issues and youth activism among certain demographics. “[Thunberg] has a world view and a background that is more relatable to a lot of people who weren’t initially engaged with climate action,” Lee says. “I have so many Indigenous youth who are my friends who have been doing this for ages, but Greta was really able to plug into a network that was more accessible to a lot of European youth and Canadian youth who were not exposed to Indigenous activism.”
Even though Thunberg has become the face of this most recent wave of climate
activism, she has also used her platform to share the mic with other climate allies. At the December 2019 COP25 UN climate summit in Madrid, Thunberg cleared the stage for other youth organizers by stating she would not be speaking that day, adding, “We are privileged and our stories have been told many times over and over again... It is not our stories
that need to be told and listened to, it is the others, it is the people especially from the
global south who need to tell their stories.”
The future of Fridays for Future
In the wake of uncertainty caused by the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many
Vancouver climate groups have called off their Earth Day (April 22) parades and demonstrations for this year.
Thunberg has urged youth to adapt and to push onward with a call to strike digitally by posting a photo of themselves with a protest sign calling for a #DigitalStrike and #ClimateStrikeOnline for upcoming Fridays.
The Sustainabiliteens will be announcing plans for digital organizing and other alternate actions in honour of Earth Day on social media in the coming weeks. The Sustainabiliteens are also coordinating with COVID-19 mutual aid networks and Lee says they hope to broaden the discussion on the many similarities between the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
You can follow Thunberg and the
Sustainabilitieens on Twitter for more updates
@GretaThunberg and @sustainteens
Our House is On Fire: Scenes of a Planet
and Family in Crisis is now available for