Teachable moments from a schoolgirl
(An edited version of this book review was first published in Business Standard.)
“Adults keep saying that they must give young people hope. I don’t want hope, I want you to panic, to take action. I want you to behave as if you were in the middle of a crisis, because that’s what it is.” These words sound like they come from students thronging the streets of India with marches protesting the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act but they were spoken by Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old climate activist, at the World Economic Forum in January 2019. She was castigating individuals, companies and decision makers for sacrificing “priceless values” to “continue making unimaginable amounts of money.”
Greta’s Story: The Schoolgirl Who Went On Strike To Save The Planet by Valentina Camerini is a book that I would recommend to anyone keen on learning about the power of civil resistance led by young people who rarely get a say in framing policies that determine their future. They are filled with rage because of the problems their predecessors have created, and they want to fix things before it is too late. They are unafraid to take on the bigwigs, and call them out for their incompetence.
With her work on the Skolstrejk för Klimatet (School Strike for the Climate), Thunberg’s message has travelled beyond Sweden, the country she was born and raised in. She has managed to successfully rattle United States President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
How did Thunberg become an activist? Why does she care so much about climate change? Who inspired her to make noise instead of keeping quiet about what she feels troubled by? Are her parents supportive? Do her teachers encourage her to pursue what she believes in? Where does she get the strength to deal with all the criticism directed at her? When does she make time for studies? Is she missing out on a ‘normal’ childhood?
Camerini’s book explores these questions with depth, sensitivity and affection. Thunberg is not presented as a hero with superpowers but as a human being who responds to obstacles with fortitude, and requests support when she needs it. This approach makes the book persuasive. “Before starting her mission in front of the Swedish Parliament, she was a wary, quiet, shy girl. The kind of student who doesn’t speak in class and sits to one side, somewhere up the back. Nothing particularly exciting had happened in her life, or at least nothing that would make you think that one day she would convince hundreds of thousands of children to follow her example,” says Camerini.
I enjoyed this book because it challenges attempts to characterize Thunberg as a precocious white girl who is unaware of the issues at stake, and has an anger management problem. Such depictions try to erase the fact that she has inspired millions of young people around the world to skip school on Fridays, and make their governments prioritize climate action. The vitriol against her is a mix of patriarchy, ageism, and ableism. It is not uncommon to encounter men who feel insecure when they see young women who speak their mind and refuse to be sexualized.
If this book is anything to go by, Thunberg is unlikely to step away from the fight. She draws inspiration from Rosa Parks, and American students demonstrating against laws that enable gun violence on school campuses. Camerini writes, “At the age of 11, the doctors had diagnosed her with Asperger’s syndrome. People who suffer from Asperger’s often become interested in a particular issue and think about it obsessively without being able to let go…makes people determined and capable of extraordinary commitment. For years, Greta did in-depth research into climate change, building up a wealth of information, which was unusual for a girl her age.”
Thunberg has also been critical of lifestyle choices made by her mother Malena Ernman and her father Svante Thunberg. The former is an opera singer, and the latter is an actor and writer. She made them realize the environmental impact of air travel, meat consumption, and driving big cars. She firmly believes that individuals must take concrete actions though the climate crisis is a systemic one. The book concludes with a helpful section on discussing global warming with children, pointers about what we can do, and suggestions for further reading. As Thunberg says, “Our house is on fire: our house, planet earth, is going up in flames. And the adults, the powerful, must act responsibly and act for the future of young people.”