A movement born without a face tends to acquire one. Since August 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began a solo “school strike for the climate”, the teenager has become the unlikely face of climate activism. Our House Is On Fire is, among many other things, the story of how and why Greta came to be sitting on the pavement outside the Swedish parliament with a home-made placard. The book is co-authored by Greta, her mother Malena Ernman (the primary narrator), her father Svante and her sister Beata. It is an urgent, lucid, courageous account.
“The personal is political” was a rallying cry for 1960s demonstrators, and the slogan applies neatly here. The first quarter of Our House Is On Fire describes events in 2011, when Greta sank into depression and the family’s expectations went “off-script” – for good. 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 … She stopped eating.”
The book wastes no time in dispelling any notion that Sweden is a utopia of public services. The description of getting help and a diagnosis out of the adolescent psychiatric services – “Where everyone is burned out from struggling with a constantly growing workload and where much of the time is spent putting out fires” – will have parents across the world groaning with grim recognition. Not a lot better is mainstream education, “where all pupils must function in exactly the same way and where overworked teachers on a conveyor belt end up hitting the wall”. Greta was bullied, her school was indifferent, she lost 10kg in two months and reached the brink of hospitalisation before she was, eventually, diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, selective mutism and Asperger syndrome. Her sister, in time, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. To live with these conditions is very tough: to care for children living with them and to keep your marriage afloat is also very tough, and behind the book’s matter-of-fact prose, Greta’s parents emerge as involuntary superheroes and recipients of no awards but hard-won wisdom: “Perhaps we will never be fine, but we can always get a little bit better, and there is strength in that. There is hope in that.”
The middle quarters of the book stay in touch with the up-and-down progress of Greta’s family, but focus on the climate crisis and its effects on politics, feminism, economics, ecology, psychology and sociology. Don’t be put off by these “-ologies”: the book is a highly readable sequence of shortish “scenes” written in the direct language Greta uses in her speeches. The life-vest of humour inflates more often than you’d expect, and the text is studded with subversive, persuasive maxims: “Carbon offsetting is like paying poor people to diet for us”; “The truth is just another of those things that can be bought with money”; “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. I wrote down several pages of quotations for this review until it got ridiculous: I was copying out half the book.
While many readers will be familiar with much of the science and the contradictions of “all you can eat” consumerism, the book also explores the less obvious circuitry that connects apparently disparate things. One impactful passage links our “winners take all” culture with the explosion of mental illness suffered by the “losers” (as defined by the winners) who are disproportionately female, neuro-diverse and/or socially maladroit – people not unlike Greta Thunberg. Autistic people, as Greta noted in her 2018 Ted Talk, tend not to be good liars, either to others or to themselves. Greta’s initial depression was triggered by her lack of the neurotypical talent to compartmentalise fact A “We know we are destroying our planet with orgiastic overconsumption” (my words) safely away from fact B “We carry on regardless.” This talent lets us neurotypicals function as inconvenient truths pile up but it also prevents us from making the systemic changes needed to avert ecological collapse. Famously, Greta has described her Asperger’s as a “superpower” and the point is well-made. Single-mindedness and immunity to flattery and abuse are crucial qualities for activism. (Writing as the dad of an autistic young man, I view Greta Thunberg as a default autism advocate as well as a climate activist.) In some quarters, however, this way of thinking is a red flag to a bull. “Greta provokes,” observes her mother. “In certain cases to such an extent that normally respectful people lose their composure. Not only does she say that everything has to change, she has autism too. And she has the gall to brag about it. That’s not how things are supposed to work.”
To engage with the climate crisis is to engage with climate crisis denial. A revolution in how we live is needed, and no revolution can succeed without broad support: otherwise, it’s a doomed putsch. Our House Is on Fire makes this engagement with acuity drawn from a deep well of hard-won experience. “Our future ecological state has been reduced to a political game where it’s word against word, and the most popular wins. And guess which climate and sustainability story sells the best? The one that demands changes or the one that says we can continue shopping and flying for all eternity?”
Piety – these days rebranded as virtue signalling – is notable in the book by its absence: “They say that climate change deniers are idiots. But everyone is a climate change denier. Every single one of us.” The trolls of Greta Thunberg (whose prestigious ranks include Presidents Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin) are considered with an emotional intelligence that is rarely, if ever, reciprocated. The message that business as usual is the enemy is not a welcome one for those of us conducting business as usual. Far comfier to dismiss the messenger as a mentally ill brat, or the stooge of eco-fascist lizard people hellbent on establishing their own World State, than to admit culpability in ecocide. Far easier to dismiss the science as biased, as false, as “not settled”. The problem is that with every swath of Australia or California burned, every never-before flooded city flooded, every hurricane of record-breaking destruction, and every Florida-sized ice-shelf splitting off from Antarctica, the same message gets affirmed: that business as usual will roast us, drown us or starve us.
The final quarter of the book describes the tension-filled days leading up to Greta’s Skolstrejk for klimatet outside the Swedish parliament. There are reasons some things go viral and some things don’t. There is an ancient power in symbol and narrative. There is a powerful magnetism in the defiance of the powerless. These are glimpsed in a scene during a meeting with climatologists and family friends in Uppsala: “There is a pause. These thoughts take over the room – that the almost invisible little girl on the chair by the window is planning to put herself at the very centre of the spotlight, and, all alone, in her own thoughts and words, question the foundation of the prevailing world order.” Greta’s parents’ anxieties about exposing their 15-year-old daughter to incoming flak from any ill-disposed passerby in Stockholm are matched by Greta’s resolve to stage her strike no matter what, and by a growing sense that activism is a strange kind of cure. What happened next on that pavement in Stockholm is well-documented elsewhere – but everyone with an interest in the future of the planet should read this book. It is a clear-headed diagnosis. It is a glimpse of a saner world. It is fertile with hope.
o David Mitchell’s novels include Cloud Atlas. He translated, with Keiko Yoshida, Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism. Our House Is on Fire by Malena Ernman, Svante Thunberg et al is published by Penguin (GBP16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over GBP15.