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  • Published: 29 September 2020
  • ISBN: 9780141991306
  • Imprint: Penguin Press
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $22.99

On Fire

The Burning Case for a Green New Deal


Young people around the world are cracking open the heart of the climate crisis, speaking of a deep longing for a future they thought they had but that is disappearing with each day that adults fail to act on the reality that we are in an emergency.

This is the power of the youth climate movement. Unlike so many adults in positions of authority, they have not yet been trained to mask the unfathomable stakes of our moment in the language of bureaucracy and overcomplexity. They understand that they are fighting for the fundamental right to live full lives—lives in which they are not, as thirteen-year-old climate striker Alexandria Villaseñor puts it, “running from disasters.”

On that day in March 2019, organizers estimate, there were nearly 2,100 youth climate strikes in 125 countries, with 1.6 million young people participating. That’s quite an achievement for a movement that began just eight months earlier with a single fifteen-year-old girl in Stockholm, Sweden.


The girl in question is Greta Thunberg, and her story has important lessons about what it will take to protect the possibility of a livable future—and not for some abstract idea of “future generations” but for billions of people alive today. Like many of her peers, Greta started learning about climate change when she was around eight years old. She read books and watched documentaries about species collapse and melting glaciers. She became obsessed. She learned that burning fossil fuels and eating a meat-based diet were major contributors to planetary destabilization. She discovered that there was a delay between our actions and the planet’s reactions, which means that more warming is already locked in, no matter what we do.

As she grew up and learned more, she focused on the scientific predictions about how radically the earth is on track to change by 2040, 2060, and 2080 if we stay on our current course. She made mental calculations about what this would mean to her own life: the shocks she would have to endure, the death that could surround her, the other life forms that would disappear forever, the horrors and privations that would await her own children should she decide to become a parent.

Greta also learned from climate scientists that the worst of this was not a foregone conclusion: that if we took radical action now, reducing emissions by 15 percent a year in wealthy countries like Sweden, then it would dramatically increase the chances of a safe future for her generation and the ones that followed. We could still save some of the glaciers. We could still protect many island nations. We might still avoid massive crop failure that would force hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people to flee their homes.

If all this were true, she reasoned, then “we wouldn’t be talking about anything else . . . If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal?”

It made no sense. Surely governments, especially in countries with resources to spare, should be leading the charge to achieve a rapid transition within a decade, so that by the time she was in her mid-twenties, consumption patterns and physical infrastructure would be fundamentally transformed.

And yet her government, a self-styled climate leader, was moving much more slowly than that, and indeed, global emissions were continuing to rise. It was madness: the world was on fire, and yet everywhere Greta looked, people were gossiping about celebrities, taking pictures of themselves imitating celebrities, buying new cars and new clothes they didn’t need—as if they had all the time in the world to douse the flames.

By age eleven, she had fallen into a deep depression. There were many contributing factors, some related to being different in a school system that expects all kids to be pretty much the same. (“I was the invisible girl in the back.”) But there was also a feeling of great sorrow and helplessness about the fast deteriorating state of the planet—and the inexplicable failure of those in power to do much of anything about it.

Thunberg stopped speaking and eating. She became very ill. Eventually, she was diagnosed with selective mutism, obsessivecompulsive disorder, and a form of autism that used to be called Asperger’s syndrome. That last diagnosis helped explain why Greta took what she was learning about climate change so much harder and more personally than many of her peers.

People with autism tend to be extremely literal and, as a result, often have trouble coping with cognitive dissonance, those gaps between what we know intellectually and what we do that are so pervasive in modern life. Many people on the autism spectrum are also less prone to imitating the social behaviors of the people around them—they often don’t even notice them—and instead tend to forge their own unique path. This often involves focusing with great intensity on areas of particular interest, and frequently having difficulty putting those areas of interest aside (also known as compartmentalization). “For those of us who are on the spectrum,” Thunberg says, “almost everything is black or white. We aren’t very good at lying, and we usually don’t enjoy participating in this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of.”

These traits explain why some people with Greta’s diagnosis become accomplished scientists and classical musicians, applying their super focus to great effect. It also helps explain why, when Thunberg trained her laser-like attention on climate breakdown, she was completely overwhelmed, with no way to protect herself from the fear and grief. She saw and felt the full implications of the crisis and could not be distracted from it. What’s more, the fact that other people in her life (classmates, parents, teachers) seemed relatively unconcerned did not send her reassuring social signals that the situation wasn’t really so bad, as such signals do for children who are more socially connected. The apparent lack of concern of those around her terrified Thunberg even more.

To hear Greta and her parents tell it, a big part of emerging from her dangerous depression was finding ways to reduce the unbearable cognitive dissonance between what she had learned about the planetary crisis and how she and her family were living their lives. She convinced her parents to join her in becoming vegan, or at least vegetarian, and, biggest of all, to stop flying. (Her mother is a well-known opera singer, so this was no small sacrifice.)

The amount of carbon kept out of the atmosphere as a result of these lifestyle changes was minute. Greta was well aware of that, but persuading her family to live in a way that began to reflect the planetary emergency helped ease some of the psychic strain. At least now, in their own small ways, they were not pretending that everything was fine.

The most important change Thunberg made, however, had nothing to do with eating and flying. It had to do with finding a way to show the rest of the world that it was time to stop acting like everything was normal when normal would lead straight to catastrophe. If she desperately wanted powerful politicians to put themselves on emergency footing to fight climate change, then she needed to reflect that state of emergency in her own life.

That’s how, at age fifteen, she decided to stop doing the one thing all kids are supposed to do when everything is normal: go to school to prepare for their futures as adults.

“Why,” Greta wondered, “should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts in the school system when the most important facts given by the finest science of that same school system clearly means nothing to our politicians and our society.”

So, in August 2018, at the start of the school year, Thunberg didn’t go to class. She went to Sweden’s parliament and camped outside with a handmade sign that read simply, SCHOOL STRIKE FOR THE CLIMATE. She returned every Friday, spending all day there. At first, Greta, in her thrift shop blue hoodie and tousled brown braids, was utterly ignored, like an inconvenient panhandler tugging at the conscience of stressed-out, harried people.

Gradually, her quixotic protest got a bit of press attention, and other students, and a few adults, started visiting with signs of their own. Next came the speaking invitations—first at climate rallies, then at UN climate conferences, at the European Union, at TEDxStockholm, at the Vatican, at the British Parliament. She was even invited to go up that famous mountain in Switzerland to address the rich and mighty at the annual World Economic Summit in Davos.

Every time she spoke, Greta’s interventions were short, unadorned, and utterly scathing. “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is,” she told the climate change negotiators in Katowice, Poland. “Even that burden you leave to us children.” To British MPs she asked, “Is my English OK? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.”

To the rich and mighty at Davos who praised her for giving them hope, she replied, “I don’t want your hope . . . I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

To those in the rarified crowd of CEOs, celebrities, and politicians who spoke of climate disruption as if it were a problem of universal human shortsightedness, she shot back, “If everyone is guilty, then no one is to blame, and someone is to blame . . . Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular know exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.” She paused, took a breath, and said, “And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”

Her sharpest rebuke to the Davos set was wordless. Rather than staying in one of the five-star hotel rooms on offer, she braved -18°C temperatures (0°F) to sleep outside in a tent, snuggled in a bright yellow sleeping bag. (“I’m not a great fan of heat,” Greta told me.)

When she spoke to these rooms filled with adults in suits, who clapped and filmed her on their smartphones as if she were a novelty act, Thunberg’s voice rarely trembled. But the depth of her feeling—of loss, of fear, of love for the natural world—was always unmistakable. “I beg you,” Thunberg said in an emotional address to members of the European Parliament in April 2019. “Please do not fail on this.”

Even if the speeches did not dramatically change the actions of the policymakers in those stately rooms, they did change the actions of a great many people outside them. Nearly every video of the fiery-eyed girl went viral. It was as if by yelling “Fire!” on our crowded planet, she had given countless others the confidence they needed to believe their own senses and smell the smoke drifting in under all those tightly closed doors.

It was more than that, too. Listening to Thunberg speak about how our collective climate inaction had nearly stolen her will to live seemed to help others feel the fire of survival in their own bellies. The clarity of Greta’s voice gave validation to the raw terror so many of us have been suppressing and compartmentalizing about what it means to be alive amid the sixth great extinction and surrounded by scientific warnings that we are flat out of time.

Suddenly, children around the world were taking their cues from Greta, the girl who takes social cues from no one, and were organizing student strikes of their own. At their marches, many held up placards quoting some of her most piercing words: I WANT YOU TO PANIC, OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE. At a massive school strike in Düsseldorf, Germany, demonstrators held aloft a giant papiermâché puppet of Greta, brow furrowed and braids dangling, like the patron saint of pissed-off kids everywhere.

Greta’s voyage from invisible schoolgirl to global voice of conscience is an extraordinary one, and looked at more closely, it has a lot to teach about what it is going to take for all of us to get to safety. Thunberg’s overarching demand is for humanity as a whole to do what she did in her own family and life: close the gap between what we know about the urgency of the climate crisis and how we behave. The first stage is to name the emergency, because only once we are on emergency footing will we find the capacity to do what is required.

In a way, she is asking those of us whose mental wiring is more typical—less prone to extraordinary focus and more capable of living with moral contradictions—to be more like her. She has a point.

During normal, nonemergency times, the capacity of the human mind to rationalize, to compartmentalize, and to be distracted easily is an important coping mechanism. All three of these mental tricks help us get through the day. It’s also extremely helpful to look unconsciously to our peers and role models to figure out how to feel and act—those social cues are how we form friendships and build cohesive communities.

When it comes to rising to the reality of climate breakdown, however, these traits are proving to be our collective undoing. They are reassuring us when we should not be reassured. They are distracting us when we should not be distracted. And they are easing our consciences when our consciences should not be eased.

In part, this is because if we were to decide to take climate disruption seriously, pretty much every aspect of our economy would have to change, and there are many powerful interests that like things as they are. Not least the fossil fuel corporations, which have funded a decades-long campaign of disinformation, obfuscation, and straight-up lies about the reality of global warming.

As a result, when most of us look around for social confirmation of what our hearts and heads are telling us about climate disruption, we are confronted with all kinds of contradictory signals, telling us instead not to worry, that it’s an exaggeration, that there are countless more important problems, countless shinier objects to focus on, that we’ll never make a difference anyway, and so on. And it most certainly doesn’t help that we are trying to navigate this civilizational crisis at a moment when some of the most brilliant minds of our time are devoting vast energies to figuring out ever-more-ingenious tools to keep us running around in digital circles in search of the next dopamine hit.

This may explain the odd space that the climate crisis occupies in the public imagination, even among those of us who are actively terrified of climate collapse. One minute we’re sharing articles about the insect apocalypse and viral videos of walruses falling off cliffs because sea ice loss has destroyed their habitat, and the next, we’re online shopping and willfully turning our minds into Swiss cheese by scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. Or else we’re binge-watching Netflix shows about the zombie apocalypse that turn our terrors into entertainment, while tacitly confirming that the future ends in collapse anyway, so why bother trying to stop the inevitable? It also might explain the way serious people can simultaneously grasp how close we are to an irreversible tipping point and still regard the only people who are calling for this to be treated as an emergency as unserious and unrealistic.

“I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange,” Thunberg has said, adding that it helps not to be easily distracted or reassured by rationalizations. “Because if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t. We have to change.” Living with autism is anything but easy—for most people, it “is an endless fight against schools, workplaces and bullies. But under the right circumstances, given the right adjustments it can be a superpower.”

The wave of youth mobilization that burst onto the scene in March 2019 is not the result of one girl and her unique way of seeing the world. Greta is quick to note that she was inspired by another group of teenagers who rose up against a different kind of failure to protect their futures: the students in Parkland, Florida, who led a national wave of class walkouts demanding tough controls on gun ownership after seventeen people were murdered at their school in February 2018.

Nor is Thunberg the first person with tremendous moral clarity to yell “Fire!” in the face of the climate crisis. It has happened multiple times over the past several decades; indeed, it is something of a ritual at the annual UN summits on climate change. But perhaps because these earlier voices belonged to brown and black people from the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, and South Sudan, those clarion calls were one-day stories, if that. Thunberg is also quick to point out that the climate strikes themselves were the work of thousands of diverse student leaders, their teachers, and supporting organizations, many of whom had been raising the climate alarm for years.

As a manifesto put out by British climate strikers put it, “Greta Thunberg may have been the spark, but we’re the wildfire.”

On Fire Naomi Klein

No.1 international and New York Times bestselling author Naomi Klein makes the case for a Green New Deal

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