Penguin, 2019. $10, 112 pages.
Earlier this year, I attended the Cambridge, UK, branch of the second Global Climate Strike for Future, in which activists in nearly eighteen hundred cities spread across 130 countries marched to demand radical action on the climate crisis. In Cambridge, about two thousand students walked through the city center, chanting and displaying a wide variety of colorful signs:
CLIMATE CHANGE IS WORSE THAN VOLDEMORT;
MISSING HISTORY TO MAKE HISTORY (SORRY MRS. THOMPSON);
SAVE THE POLAR BEARS AND PENGUINS.
The international scale of the strike was impressive. Even more so is that it — and countless similar demonstrations — can largely be traced back to one sixteen-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg. In August 2018, Thunberg began to spend her Fridays sitting alone outside Sweden’s parliament building, calling for bold government responses to the climate crisis. She’s since become a global lightning rod, inspiring climate actions around the world and fervent polemics against her.
Now, a new book, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, collects Thunberg’s public statements for the first time. The book spans the whole of Thunberg’s meteoric activist career, covering everything from a Facebook post, to a speech at an Extinction Rebellion rally, to presentations at the World Economic Forum and European Parliament. In every instance, Thunberg speaks with the same fierce eloquence as she delivers the same, clear message: “I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”
This book isn’t the place to find detailed technical solutions to the climate crisis (though plenty of others are available, such as Paul Hawken’s Drawdown, the National Council for Science and the Environment’s The Climate Solutions Consensus, and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Cooler Smarter, to name a few). Thunberg isn’t an atmospheric scientist or policy wonk or climate specialist of any kind. But in many ways, that’s the point. As Thunberg reminds us time and time again, our reliance on a small cadre of experts to solve the climate crisis while we keep to our normal lives has only allowed us to inch as close as we are to an irreversible climate catastrophe. The science behind the crisis has been clear for decades. We just need to act on it. “We don’t have any other manifestos or demands — you unite behind the science, that is our demand,” Thunberg says.
This book isn’t about hope, either. As Thunberg sees it, believing we’ll all solve the climate crisis someday, somehow, only leads to complacency and inaction. Instead, Thunberg wants us to notice the sharpness of the razor’s edge on which we stand. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act,” she says.
Scattered throughout the book, Thunberg gives a general sketch of what those actions should look like, and they speak to a world in dire straits. We need a radical new economy that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. We need a new political system based on cooperation, not competition. We need to focus on equity: minority world (i.e., developed) countries need to transition off fossil fuels first and fastest so majority-world (i.e., developing) countries can build key infrastructures without causing a climate disaster. We need to invent new technologies, such as instruments to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the ground. We need to save what’s left of nonhuman life and restore what we’ve ravaged. With every action we take, we need to think about the climate first and foremost.
Many of these activities will look different in every place, and many details have yet to be clarified. But that shouldn’t stop us, Thunberg says. The day after Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral caught fire, Thunberg gave a speech to the European Parliament. There, she argued that the climate crisis requires what she calls “cathedral thinking”: We must “act now, to lay the foundations when we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling.”
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference is an inspiring call to arms and a powerful testament to the ability of any — and every — one person to change the world. But statements, however moving, are only the beginning. As Thunberg says in the book’s very first speech, at a climate march in Stockholm: “The climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second. They only care about what we actually do. This is a cry for help.” We’d all do well to answer it.
Nathaniel Dolton-Thornton studies political ecology as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge.