Our House is on Fire; Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis by the family of Greta Thunberg. Penguin paperback 2018.
Greta Thurnberg made the headlines and wrote a short book about her teenage adventure into environmental activism that took her to the UN and world-wide fame at age 17. This book, written mainly by her mother, is about what that effort of Greta was all about. It’s a complex story told as a direct, clear and unapologetic short memoire which is also a polemic for action on global warming. The writing was, one gathers, a joint effort, with all members contributing to one or more of the 108 short chapters.
The reader soon learns is that this is a highly motivated and highly talented family. Malena, the mother, is a star opera singer who once combined singing with ballet, but who was anti-social, intense, and was prone to emotional crashes. Her two daughters, Greta and Baeta, had impossible childhoods- eating disorders, anti-social behavior, extreme mood swings. They spent years in psychological treatments. Greta was diagnosed with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, and OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a heady collection. She has to be handled like a fragile piece of glass. Any misstep and she would crack. Malena learns that she suffered from ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder), a condition not dissimilar from that of her daughters. They are all in the same rocky boat.
Those psychological conditions are the background for this family’s fixation on the environment that drives them to take serious action. The father, Svante Thunberg holds the family together with overwhelming kindness, patience and support. But it is Greta who leads when it comes to the environment. She learns basic facts in school; she quickly understands the peril. She does not understand how grown-ups can stand around and not deal with it. Their failure is more than political inertia; it is a moral failure of global proportions. She and her family are aware that entrenched interests keep the environment out of the press, off the agendas, out of view. Unlike their peers, they do not bend with the wind, they do not go along with the crowd. They make waves.
Greta’s first act of public disobedience was, at age 15, a decision not to go to school but to picket outside Parliament with a sign she made saying “…because you grown-ups don’t give a damn about my future, neither do I. My name is Greta and I’m in 9th grade. And I am going on strike from school for the climate until Election Day.”
She posted on twitter; reporters show up. She was soon doing non-stop interviews. She was invited to conferences. She is now recognized. Even her teacher gives her support. But the establishment mostly sees her as an impertinent child. The chapters alternate between reporting on the family and on the global crisis. The family refuses to fly. They have an electric car. They are vegetarian. They bicycle and walk. The publicity also brings hate letters, threats. The family debates what exactly should be the program. They don’t know. But on the last day of the strike a thousand children join her; there is a march that is global on September 8th. Greta wants to speak, and it’s arranged. She has never spoken in public before. She overcame all her hang-ups, all her tears, all her fears, and gives the audience directions: turn your phones on and broadcast what I am about to say, and they do. Within minutes the entire world is listening to a 15-year-old telling them to get with it. Now. She is cheered. It is a personal triumph as well as a landmark in the stalled environmental movement. This was the year that Trump was elected.
This is an easy read. It is informative and it is urgent. We have to change the curve on global emissions today, 2020. This is the year that global emission must start a steep downward descent to zero by 2035-40. That’s just 15 years to wean the world off fossil fuels.
We have somehow lost sight of the urgency. The glaciers are melting faster than predicted; predictions were tamed so as to not frighten the public. Politicians tell people what they want to hear. They don’t want to hear that calamity is around the corner unless we act now. Many of us see that calamity is already here; it can only get worse. Is the coronavirus just one of many more calamities we can expect?
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