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Who Will Save Us?

Kevin Power

Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, by Malena and Beata Ernman and Svante and Greta Thunberg, Allen Lane, 279 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0241446737

The coronavirus ‑ but no. Let’s not talk about the coronavirus. Let’s talk about the other crisis instead: the supervening crisis, the crisis to which all the other crises are as mere hors d'oeuvres: “the crisis that surrounds and affects us all. The one we humans have created through our way of life: beyond sustainability, divorced from nature, to which we all belong. Some call it over-consumption, others call it a climate crisis.” Thus Malena Ernman, who is the narrator, though not solely the author, of Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis.

This odd, disjointed book originally appeared in Sweden in 2018, a few days before, it is worth noting, Malena’s daughter Greta Thunberg first took up her post outside the Swedish parliament buildings and inaugurated the “school strike for climate” that is the basis of her global fame. The date of publication is worth noting because non-Swedish readers, who may have become aware of Greta only in December 2018, when she addressed the UN Climate Change COP24 Conference (“Our civilisation is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money”), might assume that Our House is on Fire, appearing in English for the first time in 2020, was composed in the aftermath of Greta’s rise to global prominence.

Not so. In its Swedish incarnation, the book was published to capitalise not on Greta’s celebrity but on her mother’s. In Sweden, Malena Ernman is famous not just as a respected mezzo-soprano but as the performer chosen, via a televised contest, as the country’s 2009 Eurovision entry. Malena has also worked as a newspaper columnist, stage actor, and climate change campaigner. Greta’s father, Svante Thunberg, is an actor and producer. In fact it was Malena and Svante’s popularity, coupled with their media connections, that guaranteed Greta a certain amount of attention when she first sat down outside the Riksdag in August 2018 accompanied by her handwritten sign. When Greta’s strike began to trend on social media and was picked up by newspapers and television, it was partly because Anders Hellberg, a family friend who happened also to be a professional photographer, shared for free his now-iconic shot of Greta hooded in her yellow rain-slicker, staring, like the image of moral integrity itself, into the camera, with the strike sign just slightly out of focus in the background. And it was partly because the documentary filmmaker Peter Modestij, another family acquaintance, brought a film crew along to record the strike’s first days.

In other words, Greta Thunberg ‑ with her famous and well-connected parents, and her growing prominence in the Swedish media (long before the school strike Malena had placed stories by and about Greta in national newspapers) ‑ was unusually well-positioned to become the face of a new and powerful international movement. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that Greta herself is almost hypnotically photogenic and articulate. But context counts, in every case.)

These facts run counter to the popular myth of Greta Thunberg, which tends to suggest that she sprang fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, from the hearth of an ordinary Swedish family, impelled by nothing but her passion and her remarkable charisma, and borne aloft by a growing sense, among ordinary people, that their leaders were ignoring the most significant crisis in human history. This is an appealing story, of course. But its very appeal is what might lead us to examine it more closely, if we feel so inclined. Like all popular stories, it simplifies something that is actually extremely complicated, and like all popular stories, it answers a variety of inchoate compulsions and needs, often unconsciously held.

Even before Greta made her zero-emissions yacht trip across the Atlantic in August 2019 (now semi-officially memorialised on Wikipedia as “The Voyage of Greta Thunberg” ‑ and note the epic cadence of that phrase), it was becoming clear that the popular response to Greta’s message of reason and togetherness (“Unite behind the science”) may certainly have been about togetherness but was only ever fitfully about reason. Within a month of the school strike’s inception, Greta’s story had made the journey from the Stockholm dailies to The New Yorker; Masha Gessen, having interviewed Greta, remarked that “Thunberg’s is a voice of unaccommodating clarity that reminds me of Soviet-era dissidents.” The epic tone was set.

And once she disembarked in New York to address the UN Climate Action Summit, the fact that the popular response to Greta, her mission, and her voyage was essentially cultic in nature became even clearer. Her arrival in New York harbour was live-streamed online and covered by major media outlets, who reproduced another iconic photo, this time of Greta smiling, with the Manhattan skyline behind her and a turbulent sky above. She was greeted by a “welcome flotilla” and cheering crowds. Reporters sought the high style: “Greta Thunberg arrived in New York on Wednesday, stepping on to dry land after crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat with a passionate message to tackle global heating.” (The Guardian)

Greta’s braided hair had already led to comparisons with “a straightforward, stubborn and deeply reflective Pippi Longstocking” (this was Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus); now more overtly intellectual commentators (like David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth [2019]) began to compare her to Joan of Arc. Melana Ernman compares her daughter to the boy who points out that the emperor is naked. (From the start, Greta and her story have been understood in terms of a narrow range of fictional and historical analogues, almost always young women or children who are felt to exemplify either innocence or purity of purpose or both.)

Greta has been welcomed as a "”prophet”; as “Earth's saviour”; as a “true teen role model”; as a “role model for kids on the autism spectrum”. Other teenage girls have published essays online explaining “Why Greta Thunberg is My Idol”. The hourly progress of her journey across the Atlantic was monitored on social media using the hashtag #Malizia (the name of the yacht on which she sailed). On International Women’s Day this year, a sixty-metre portrait of Greta, properly visible only from above, was inscribed on the playing field of a school in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. In the more left-leaning quadrants of non-social media, heartwarming stories about Greta’s human side have been appearing regularly since 2018. Of her visit to Capitol Hill, The Guardian wrote: “Photographers hoping to get a shot of Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg had to contend with a young boy who attempted to shield the often shy teenager from the media. The spontaneous act elicited a smile from Thunberg.”

What does this remind you of? Well, in one sense, it reminds you of Beatlemania (the minute-by-minute tracking of an idol’s progress, the grandiose gestures of homage, the insatiable appetite for humanising detail). And in another sense it reminds you of a phenomenon more obviously religious in nature: the recurrent elevation, throughout the history of Christianity, of children and other politically marginal individuals to the status of seer or saint. To say, with David Wallace-Wells (and with Margaret Atwood, and with op-ed writers for publications as geographically diverse as The Daily Telegraph and the Australian Courier Mail), that Greta is our Joan of Arc is to confess, willingly or not, that our response to her mission has less to do with science and reason than it has to do with superstition, hero-worship, and hagiography.

Indeed, from the beginning, the popular response to Greta Thunberg has displayed some of the characteristics of a millenarian movement, as described by Norman Cohn in his classic study The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957). The millenarian movements of the Middle Ages, Cohn writes in that indispensable book, appealed to “an unorganised, atomized population”; they tended to take place “against a background of disaster” (plague, famine, economic crisis); they were “salvationist” in tendency (imagining the redemption of the world through struggle); they convocated around “intellectuals or half-intellectuals”, figures of humble rank perceived by their followers as prophets or messiahs, leaders who possessed “a personal magnetism which enabled [them] to claim, with some show of plausibility, a special role in bringing history to its appointed consummation”.

We live, of course, against a background of disaster. In fact, in the age of climate change, this background threatens increasingly to become something like the foreground. As we preside over the mass extinction of animal species, the infiltration by microplastics of our oceans and the irrevocable heating of our planet’s surface, surely some revelation is at hand? As the Irish essayist Mark O’Connell writes in his superb new book, Notes From an Apocalypse: “[I]t has always been the end of the world. Our entire civilisation – from Ragnarok to Revelation to The Road – rests on a foundation of flood and fire. But what if now it’s especially the end of the world, by which I mean even more the end of the world: really and truly at long last the end (or something like it)?” The message we’ve been hearing from climate scientists for half a century now tells us that there’s no “what if?” about it: anthropogenic climate change really does portend, if not the end of the world as such, then certainly radical and irremediable changes to all of human experience. (David Wallace-Wells: “the world has, at most, about three decades to decarbonise before truly devastating climate horrors begin”.) Under the auspices of this message, Greta’s elevation to the status of saviour or saint is completely intelligible. It’s just one of myriad ways in which the religious imagination continues to shape the secular world, like a restless sleeper disturbing a thin blanket.

There is also Greta’s immense symbolic usefulness to our contemporary demonologies of left and right. If Greta has conjured up thoughts of salvation for the climate-conscious left, for the climate-ignoring right she has instead evoked a language of fear, manipulation and scorn. “Fears Greta Thunberg is being manipulated on climate change by pushy parents”, wrote The Sun in August 2019. “Greta the Teenage Climate Puppet” is the preferred epithet of one fringe right-wing website. In January of this year, US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin remarked, in response to Thunberg’s call for governments to cut back on fossil fuel use: “Is she the chief economist? Who is she? I’m confused […] After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.” And these examples are relatively benign in comparison to the stickers circulated in February by Canadian oil concern X-Site Energy Services, which depicted a pigtailed woman with a Greta tattoo being sexually assaulted. Nor should it surprise us that the right has produced an “anti-Greta”, in the form of nineteen-year-old German think-tank employee Naomi Seibt, who suggested at CPAC this year that “Climate change alarmism at its very core is a despicably anti-human ideology.”

That the right’s response to Greta is just as irrational as the left’s is less significant, I think, than the widespread perception of Greta’s viability as a totem in the culture wars (climate-change division). It’s not really a coincidence that she achieved global fame in the aftermath of Trump’s election, when “carbon ideologies” (in William T Vollman’s phrase) were everywhere in the ascendant and a demoralised left was casting around for some equivalent of Masha Gessen’s “Soviet-era dissidents” to rally behind in dark times. Cue Greta: here was a neurodiverse teenage girl equipped with heroic resources of patience, concentration, moral integrity and intellectual clarity: in every way the human opposite of Donald Trump (with his incuriosity, his oilman attorney general and his apparently nonfunctional moral compass).

All that was left was for these two opposites to meet, which they did, sort of, in September 2019, when a video, widely shared on social media, depicted Trump’s arrival at the UN Climate Action summit. As Trump enters the foyer ‑ waddling along in his odd, penguin-like way ‑ Greta can be glimpsed in the background, her face set in an expression of thunderous disapproval. Here it is: Greta versus the carbon ideologies, live from New York. It was widely felt, by people who shared the video, that Greta had scored a victory here; just as she was felt to have scored a victory when, in response to Trump’s suggestion that she had an “anger management problem” and should go to “a good old fashioned movie with a friend” she changed her Twitter biography to read, “a teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend”. Boom!

That climate change ‑ the issue, after all, on which Greta and Donald most forcibly differ, and the issue that they were both in New York to publicise ‑ was scarcely mentioned at all in the online coverage that followed these smackdowns tells us a great deal about the roles played by Trump and Greta in our collective imagination. No victories had been won in these online spats for climate consciousness (or for climate ignorance). In fact what had happened was just another skirmish in the culture wars, in which two people, elevated (or reduced) to the status of symbols, were moved around like counters in a high-stakes board game. Or, more to the point, like two figures acting parts in a story ‑ a classically Manichean drama of good versus evil, innocence versus complicity, integrity versus corruption, enacted on the world stage, with everyone on earth taking a side.

It shouldn't be surprising that this is the story we choose to tell, in the shadow of climate change. As an issue, climate change has proved fatally storyable ‑ perhaps one of the reasons we have been, and will continue to be, weirdly passive in the face of the dangers it represents. To hear that we have poisoned the world, and that the world will soon turn against us and all our works, is to hear an apparently simple message. It’s a message that lends itself to fables of guilt and redemption (“We are all guilty, but if we act now, we might just save ourselves”) just as readily as it spurs us to tell stories of good and evil (“The oil companies are the baddies and the environmental activists are the goodies”). Partly this urge to simplify arises because climate change, as a phenomenon, is so ungraspably huge and totalising in its consequences that the mind quails before its ramifying complexities. There is a tremendous urge to reduce these complexities to easily understood demonological narratives, or to a blindingly obvious set of “scientific facts” (“Listen to the science”).

But nothing is simple. If stories are the tool we use to reduce the world’s illimitable complexity to a graspable size, they are also, famously, the thing that prevents us from seeing how complex things really are. Ironically, it’s Greta Thunberg herself ‑ in her human particularity, rather than in her symbolic simplicity ‑ who might be able to help us put aside the stories, or at least help us to replace the crude epics of public life with a perhaps more nuanced account of human frailty, blindness and love.

Which is to say that there are two stories about Greta Thunberg ‑ the public and the private ‑ and that, in muddling the two for the purposes of public symbology, we are doing ourselves a disservice. On the other hand, in making this muddle, we are also following very much in the footsteps of Greta’s parents, Malena and Svante, who have produced, in Our House is on Fire, a book that attempts to connect the trauma experienced by a single Swedish family to the climate crisis, and in so doing, to find a universal and potent meaning in the family’s pain.

“Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis”, says the subtitle, and by the end of this strange, haphazard memoir, we are left in no doubt that the Ernman-Thunberg family believes that both family and planet have been stricken by the same crisis (“Some call it over-consumption, others call it a climate crisis”). But the connection between the troubles undergone by Malena, Svante, and their two daughters (Greta has a younger sister, Beata) and the dangers posed by anthropogenic climate change isn’t so much proved here as forged by an act of will.

Famously, it was Greta’s discovery of climate change ‑ via a school video about the Pacific Trash Vortex ‑ that offered her a means of engaging with a world that had once seemed to her incomprehensible and malign. Aged eleven, Greta had stopped eating; she experienced severe isolation at school; she had suicidal thoughts. It took Malena and Svante several years of meetings with various representatives of the Swedish medical establishment (harrowingly chronicled here) to procure for Greta a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and selective muteness. With a diagnosis at last in hand, it was possible to make various accommodations to Greta’s needs, at school and elsewhere; but it was her interest in climate activism that empowered her, in Malena and Svante’s telling, to begin meaningfully to grapple with the problems her disorders had created. “Greta’s energy has increased a little every day since last spring,” Malena writes, towards the end of Our House is On Fire. “Since [she won] the writing contest in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet” (for an essay about climate change). “Since she started planning her school strike.”

This too is an established part of the public myth of Greta Thunberg: that climate activism saved her life. It’s a powerfully resonant idea, because it chimes with the general hope that climate activism will save all of our lives if we pursue it diligently enough. The transformation dramatised in Our House is on Fire ‑ as Greta gradually evolves from a malnourished and inward child who dawdles for two hours and ten minutes over five individual gnocchi to a self-possessed young woman who eats Thai food and chats to strangers ‑ is enormously moving, not just because of Greta’s own bravery and passion but because of the heroic patience and fortitude demonstrated, along the way, by her parents. Observing Greta’s awakened interest, and taking note of its salutary effects, Malena and Svante did what any loving mother and father would do: they joined in, reading books about the climate crisis, arranging for Greta to meet climate scientists and campaigning themselves for climate awareness. Soon Malena and Svante were abjuring plane travel (Svante, flying home with the troubled Beata after an abortive therapeutic holiday to Sardinia, is welcomed by Greta with the words, “You just released 2.7 tonnes of CO2 flying there and back”). Malena was chastised by her editor for writing too often about climate change.

But by this point in the book we are completely on her side. After a hundred pages about the Ernman-Thunberg family’s grinding struggles with “meltdowns” and noise sensitivity (Beata), anorexia and depression (Greta), hyperactivity (Beata), and mutism (Greta), we are left in no doubt whatsoever that climate change has been the salvation of this family ‑ that, in an irony unremarked upon by Malena, general catastrophe has rescued them from particular catastrophe.

In other words, the implicit story told by Our House is on Fire is not global but local ‑ indeed familial. Roughly half of the book takes the form of a memoir about the pains and triumphs of raising children who suffer from a range of emotional and sensory disorders (this is the good half). The remainder of the text is about climate change, and the West’s response to it (this is the bad half). The bad half ‑ amid much staccato citing of scientific evidence and much humourless hectoring about governmental responsibility ‑ advances an explicit story about the Ernman-Thunberg family’s relationship to climate change in which the chronology of the implicit story is reversed. In these latter sections, it turns out that climate change was the family’s problem all along.

“I should not have written a book about how I felt,” Malena reflects:

I should not have written a book about how my family has felt for long periods during the past few years.
But I had to. We had to. Because we felt like shit. I felt like shit. Svante felt like shit. The children felt like shit. The planet felt like shit. Even the dog felt like shit.
And we had to write about it.

The vertiginous move, here, from the micro (“we felt like shit”) to the macro (“The planet felt like shit”) is characteristic of the arguments advanced by Our House is on Fire. At various points the text suggests that the disorders suffered by the Ernman-Thunberg children should be understood as local instances of a general response to those aspects of our civilisation (industrial pollution, technological consumerism, the savage inequalities promoted by unfettered capitalism) that have caused and continue to exacerbate the climate crisis. In fact, the book elides the climate crisis with an older crisis (call it the crisis of post-industrial humanity), and says it’s more or less all the one thing. Malena: “if landslides in West Africa are one consequence of this crisis, drought in the Middle East another, and rising water levels for the island nations in the Pacific Ocean a third, then the crisis is expressing itself in our part of the world in the form of stress disorders, isolation and growing waiting lists within paediatric and adolescent psychiatry”.

This is a rather jumbled remix of a familiar argument ‑ perhaps most eloquently advanced in recent years by Mark Fisher, who in his short book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009) proposed that free market ideologies, having eroded traditional community values and promoted the idea of the solitary consumer, had caused a worldwide boom in mental health disorders. Malena Ernberg’s contribution to this analysis is to suggest that the climate crisis and the triumph of capitalist realism are in fact the same thing, and that this thing, whatever you want to call it, is the root cause of the various troubles experienced by her family over the last few years.

We can disagree over the merits of this argument ‑ though I would suggest that lumping climate change together with capitalist realism and suggesting that there is nothing to distinguish them is not a strategy calculated to improve our understanding of either. It’s more to my immediate purpose tactfully to note that perhaps Malena and Svante’s need to find an explanation for their trials has led them to engage in some high-level rhetorical fudging, and that what this means is that the explicit story told by Our House is on Fire ‑ a story about a family damaged by climate change who have set out to redress their grievances by battling climate change itself ‑ is much less interesting, and much less true, than the implicit story it tells, which is a fragile, hopeful tale about a group of wounded people struggling to redeem their private suffering.

What is the meaning of Greta Thunberg? Despite her parents’ best mythographical efforts, Greta emerges from the pages of this book not as an icon or as a symbol but rather as a human being as helplessly individualised and particular as the rest of us. She is, in propria persona, neither media-friendly nor divinely inspired. In fact, Our House is on Fire frequently makes her sound like a total pain in the ass. She is, in other words, often just a completely normal teenager. This should serve to correct the public myth of Greta Thunberg. But it won’t. We need the myth too badly, or so it seems.

So what is the meaning of the myth? The critic and novelist Joan Smith, reviewing Our House is on Fire for Literary Review recently, wrote: “[Greta's] public persona is unusual and inspiring, and it offers an alternative to the pornified images of teenage girls that dominate popular culture. She also, I’m afraid, deserves a better book than this messy melange of painful self-exposure and naive exhortation.” But the union of painful self-exposure and naive exhortation is the style of our times. Scroll through your social media newsfeed of choice. Attend a Trump rally or watch American cable news. Read a collection of personal essays. What do you see? Painful self-exposure and naive exhortation. The Greta Thunberg myth has been fashioned according to this style – a style that is also profoundly hospitable to older ideas about sainthood, the sanctity of confession and the promise of salvation, and that permits us, whether we know it or not, to tell religious stories about the age of secular doom.

Greta the prophet appeared amongst us with a message: we must change our lives, or the climate emergency will change them for us. But the meaning of her myth is that the human response to climate change will be as irrational – will be as volatile and improvisatory – as the human response to everything else has been. Here we are. The clock is ticking. The falcon cannot hear – but you already know the rest.

1/4/2020

Kevin Power is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock (2008). He teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.

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