Meet the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who kickstarted a global school strike movement On a cold, bright day in Stockholm in late March, 2019, Greta Thunberg looked smaller than ever. Posing for a photo outside the vast parliament building with her iconic black and white “School Strike for Climate” sign, at under five feet tall, she barely looked her 16 years of age. The photo was tweeted out with her familiar caption – “School strike week 31” – and so began her usual Friday routine. All day Greta stood, calm and steadfast, hands bundled in her pockets against the cold, as people swarmed around her like iron filings scattered around a magnet. She formed the epicentre of a rush of journalists and cameras; gaggles of schoolchildren reciting squeaky Swedish chants; groups of adults holding signs saying things like “Psychologists for future”, or “Fathers for future”.
The movement that Greta has ignited is much bigger than herself. She was the first person to sit outside Swedish parliament in protest against the government’s inaction on climate change every Friday. Today, she’s joined weekly by thousands around the world, skipping school and work everywhere from France to Ghana to demand justice for the planet. But Greta doesn’t want to be a saviour – in her conversation with Dazed during her 31st strike, she told us, “I’m just a messenger.” In the middle of the crowd that day, her small stature was a reminder that she’s just one person, in a fight against something that’s overwhelmingly bigger than all of us. Her power is in how she’s brought so many of us together.
Below is a condensed transcript of our conversation, about overcoming the depression of climate change and finding the courage and the hope to fight it.
How did you first learn about climate change?
Greta Thunberg: When I was maybe eight or nine years old, I first learned about the climate crisis in school. My teachers taught me about it and we saw films and pictures of plastic in the ocean and extreme weather events. Those pictures were just stuck in my head; I thought, there is no point in anything. So then I became very depressed when I was 11. I got out of that depression by thinking to myself that I could do so much good with my life, and it was just a waste of time feeling this way instead of doing as I should – to try to make a difference.
Can you remember specific films that stuck with you?
Greta Thunberg: Yes, one of the first was maybe early An Inconvenient Truth – films like that that are easy to understand, but not very alarmist.
Do you think that’s important, to not be alarmist?
Greta Thunberg: No, I think we should tell the truth and if that is alarmist or not, it’s realistic. We can’t just choose to tell some facts and not others because we don’t want to upset people. We have to tell it like it is. What should we do otherwise, should we spread false hope? We have to tell it like it is.
What are your favourite books on climate change?
Greta Thunberg: So many, but mostly books by Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, James Hansen and climate scientists and geologists.
“I don’t think about how the future will turn out, because that will be too depressing. So instead of worrying about how that future might turn out, I try to change it while I still can” – Greta Thunberg
Can you describe what that time was like, when you fell into depression at 11?
Greta Thunberg: When I had depression I overthought – I still overthink things, but then I did it to the extreme. I just felt empty, like there’s no point in anything, and I didn’t have any energy to do anything. Also since I stopped eating I almost starved to death, I had many doctors coming and saying to me that I need to eat, otherwise I will die, and then I got to the children’s psychology hospital and then I got pills, antidepressants, on the condition that I had to gain weight. So I started to eat more and more, a slow process, but I did it. I don’t remember much from that time. I just remember it was dark.
How did you begin to move past that dark time, and into action?
Greta Thunberg: When I was depressed, I didn’t really see any point in living, because we’re going to die anyway, and also because I have several diagnoses and that was hard for me. I was very different from everyone else. But I know that a lot of people feel that way, that they don’t matter and they can’t do anything about the climate crisis, and that they just feel worried and scared. The best medicine against that concern and sadness is to do something about it, to try to make a change.
A lot of people feel that climate change is simply too depressing to properly engage with. What would you say to those people?
Greta Thunberg: Of course it’s difficult to think about the climate crisis, but that is not an excuse for not doing anything. Even if there’s no hope, we have to do everything in our power to stop this.
How did you decide on striking, as your way of making a change?
Greta Thunberg: There were a couple of years where I just kept reading about it, and became more and more frustrated and nothing was being done. I just thought that scientists had things under control, that the politicians had things under control, but then I learnt they didn’t have anything under control, they don’t know what’s going on either. After a while, I was in a writing contest. I got my article published in a Swedish newspaper, and then some people contacted me, among others was someone who had a group with people of all ages who wanted to do something about the climate crisis. We had some phone meetings, we were going to make up new ideas for what to do to get attention on the climate crisis. Someone had a vague idea of a school strike inspired by the Parkland students in the USA. I thought it sounded very interesting, and I started planning and developing that idea, and then I tried to make the other people join me but they didn’t want to do it, so I decided to do it by myself even if I was alone.
You mentioned that you wanted to think that the experts have it all in hand, but you realised that actually everyone is quite powerless in this instance. That realisation could make people feel powerless, but it seems like it made you feel more empowered to do something.
Greta Thunberg: I met many people who had new projects, new biofuels and new techniques that are going to save us. That was great, and it was comforting to know that they had things under control. But then I learnt that those techniques weren’t going to exist within the timeframe of the Paris agreement. I just became very surprised to know that we have our faith resting in the hands of techniques that might never exist. That means we have a serious problem, and the techniques aren’t going to save us. We must do something ourselves as well.
What is the aspect of the climate crisis that concerns you the most – if you can condense it to one point?
Greta Thunberg: Just the fact that there are tipping points in the system, and once we pass a certain point, there is no going back. We might already have passed that point, but we might not, and once we do that, we set off an irreversible chain reaction which triggers events beyond human control. That’s very scary, because we can’t just invent something in the future that will suck CO2 out of the air.
Are there any world leaders you would like to get in a room with and speak to about this issue?
Greta Thunberg: No, because I can’t really say anything to them that hasn’t been said before. They are obviously not listening. It can’t just come from an individual, especially not a child without proper education. They need to listen to the scientists, and (scientists) need to be the ones who convince them, because I can’t say anything new, I’m just repeating what the scientists are saying. I’m just a messenger.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed thinking about the task ahead?
Greta Thunberg: Of course – it’s very overwhelming to think about it sometimes, so I don’t think about how the future will turn out, because that will be too depressing and I wouldn’t do anything except worrying. So instead of worrying about how that future might turn out, I try to change it while I still can.
“Everyone has a responsibility – some have a bigger responsibility, but everyone has some kind of responsibility” – Greta Thunberg
You’ve described yourself as an introvert. How does that feel? As somebody who naturally would rather be quiet, you’re being so loud and so brave, standing in front of the world.
Greta Thunberg: I am an introvert; privately I am very shy, and I don’t speak unless I have to. I think now I just decide to do things and once I decide to do that I do it, I don’t think twice. So when I speak in front of thousands, tens of thousands of people, I don’t really get nervous because I know what I want to say and I know what message I want to give. But privately, I don’t speak unless necessary.
How do you take care of yourself, after all this action?
Greta Thunberg: I just stay at home with my dogs, and do homework to catch up, and try to think about other things.
What makes you feel happy and hopeful?
Greta Thunberg: What makes me happy and hopeful about doing this is that more and more people are starting to become aware of the situation, and that people are taking action and holding the people who are responsible accountable.
I really like what you said about how the burden and the responsibility to fix this shouldn’t be on you, or on children at all. What would you like to say to any adults reading this?
Greta Thunberg: I would say that you have to take responsibility for your children or grandchildren or just future generations and the earth. Everyone has a responsibility – some have a bigger responsibility, but everyone has some kind of responsibility, and we should take that responsibility to make the world better, and to try to stop this from happening.