The Wonders of Greta Thunberg: Read our interview with the voice of a generation
Read Greta Thunberg's Vogue Scandinavia cover interview: Greta on activism, Trump and becoming the voice of a generation
Over the last three years Greta Thunberg has become the most recognisable activist in the world, calling upon world leaders to halt the climate crisis. Given our love of nature, we could think of no one more fitting for Issue 1 of Vogue Scandinavia. Here, she talks with our own Tom Pattinson and two Swedish conservationists, the artist duo Alexandrov Klum, who shot Greta for this issue’s cover, about their shared vision of a sustainable future:
The voice on the phone is one of the most recognisable voices in the world. “It’s Greta, I’m downstairs.” This is the voice that has admonished political leaders around the world, and chastised CEOs of global companies. This is the voice that has told the adult world they have failed the youth. This is the voice that has called for action on the climate crisis at talks at the UN, and a voice that has been sampled hundreds of times by musicians around the world.
Opening the door at my Stockholm apartment I see a group of five teenage girls do a double take as they pass Greta. They giggle, turn back and pull out their phones with squeals of delight. I hold the door open as Greta stands patiently, smiling, as one by one, they get their selfies with the girl who has become the voice of a generation.
Greta Thunberg - Issue 1
Greta has cycled here. She turns up, with no chaperone, no family member or minder, just her backpack on her back.
Greta Thunberg, who turned 18 earlier this year, is as fresh faced as we had seen in the various documentaries and news items about her. Her long braided hair, which she occasionally fiddles with during the afternoon, rests over her shoulder. She wears a striped cotton shirt, creased and frayed, that looks like it has been through the wash a thousand times. Her baggy leopard-print leggings show their age. Greta points out the patchwork stitching – a very rough repair job that she did herself, she explains.
“The last time I bought something new was three years ago and it was second-hand. I just borrow things from people I know.”
As the early summer sunshine streams in through the window, Greta sits at my kitchen table with a nonchalant composure and confidence that belies her youth.
Greta and I are joined by Iris and Mattias Alexandrov Klum, who photographed her for the cover of this first issue of Vogue Scandinavia, via a Zoom call from their home in Spain.
The multimedia artists use sound, photography and film to explore the idea of living in harmony with nature.
“From the beginning, I had a passion for nature and gradually as we gained references, it changed me,” says Mattias, who spent the best part of four decades travelling the world, documenting our changing environment and the impact of man on fragile ecosystems. “I tried to visualise the beauty of nature but I saw the anthropogenic changes – the horrendous situation we have entered into – my work became more balanced and I started to become more inclined to show the juxtaposed worlds.”
"ONE SECOND I'M CONTROLLED BY MY PARENTS, I CAN'T THINK FOR MYSELF; THE NEXT SECOND I'M AN EVIL MANIPULATIVE LITTLE CHILD" Greta Thunberg
Iris has spent a lifetime studying the relationship between mankind and the natural world. She explains that she uses inspiration from nature and the natural sciences as methods of spiritual research to find the answers we are all looking for: “What it means to be human today and how we are interlinked with nature and what do we need to do to change this relationship that’s obviously broken. We need to share the very basic notion that we are all one, all connected,” says Iris.
The couple photographed Greta in forests near Stockholm. Greta was quiet but not uncomfortable. It’s well known she doesn’t like small talk and preferred to spend much of her time on set alone, exploring the stunning landscape and spending time with the Icelandic horse, Strengur, who is the third star of this cover, alongside Greta and the Scandinavian landscape.
Greta has a love of horses and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of them. Her father says she has a photographic memory and the incredible amount of detail she knew about them would corroborate this theory. Shy in front of the camera, Greta was clearly unused to being dressed, styled and pampered for Vogue. However, she would always engage in conversation when approached with the poise and clarity we have come to know.
When Greta talks, it’s articulate, controlled. She’s relaxed and laughs often – a small half smile that cracks into a short giggle. The statistics and facts that she delivers are done with well-rehearsed clarity.
"WHEN IT COMES TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO NOT ACCEPT IT IF YOUR SALARY DEPENDS ON IT" Greta Thunberg
“I see myself sometimes as a broken record who repeats the same things over and over again,” she laughs. “It might get a bit repetitive but that’s just a sign that people aren’t really listening so we must repeat the messages until it reaches people.”
The way she speaks in her non-native English is like that of a well-versed world leader. Her sentences are punctuated with repetition for emphasis, as if she were standing on a world stage rather than sitting in my kitchen.
She has the prowess of an aged diplomat, stating her personal views but caveating them with disclaimers. “If you are buying fast fashion then you are contributing to that industry and encouraging them to expand and encouraging them to continue their harmful process,” she says. “Of course I understand that for some people fashion is a big part of how they want to express themselves and their identity.”
Greta is aware that her comments can be quickly shared globally and that, although half the world loves her, the other half doesn’t. She speaks with off-the cuff fluency but is controlled in what she says, aware that almost anything can be misinterpreted, and another controversy could engulf her.
Former President Trump was one of her most vocal critics, and recently most of China attacked her after a China Daily journalist questioned her veganism. She hit back saying the journalist was fat shaming her. “It was very fun,” she says with a smile, treating these global spats with entire nations as little more than minor irritations.
There is no hint of an angry little girl here. Instead, I am faced with a cheerful, confident young woman, who is passionate, and quick to deflect her accomplishments.
“I see my role as being a small part of a much, much larger movement in which we are all equally important. Some people may see me as a figurehead or as a leader or representative of the movement but this is far from being true as we are a grassroots movement.”
The notion that those she looks up to most are “the people fighting in silence,” sums up her lack of concern for the celebrities, royalty and world leaders who clamour to host her at palaces and castles around the world.
Nor does she criticise those who have attacked her publicly. “I never get disappointed at people, because I try to see things from their perspective and then I understand why they do what they do,” she says.
We talk about former President Trump’s regular and vocal attacks on her. “You have to see it from a larger perspective,” she says very philosophically. “Why are they writing these kinds of things? It’s because they feel that we are being too loud and they want to silence us, whether it’s by scaring us or intimidating us or to spread doubt about us so people won’t believe what we are saying, so people won’t take us seriously. And that they do by spreading lies, hate, mockery and so on. So that’s, in a way, a very positive sign we are having an impact,” she says. “They are not evil, they just don’t know better. At least that’s what I am trying to think.”
She says that grown adults, presidents and prime ministers, who spend their time spreading lies about children and mocking teenagers “who just want to do good in the world” are “hilarious and entertaining.”
It’s hard to know whether she is putting on a brave face or whether she has managed to find a way to not take these attacks, which are constant, personally. “I can’t keep track. There must be at least one new conspiracy theory [about me] every day. One second I’m an American spy, the next second I’m a Russian agent and then I’m a Communist, then an extreme capitalist.
“One second I’m controlled by my parents, I can’t think for myself; the next second I’m an evil manipulative little child. These theories don’t match, and that’s also the fun of it. It’s very unreasonable, if you listen to these people they say, ‛I’m just emotional, I just cry’ and then the other person says yeah exactly, she just repeats the science.” These views completely contradict each other.”
Although Greta seems more amused by these intellectually naive conspiracy theorists than scared or upset, the consequences of this rhetoric are very real.
“Unfortunately it often doesn’t stop [with name calling]. These things just trigger people who become more and more angry who are just confirming their views of me. Whether it is sending letters with threats or whether they are coming to the apartment.”
The threat was so extreme that Greta had to switch between apartments. “We received some not so encouraging things,” she says. “I tried to have a hidden identity for a while but it was just too complicated. You couldn’t do things, you couldn’t apply for school, it was so much work so I gave up.”
This trench coat is constructed from discarded coats. Photo: Alexandrov Klum
There is no hint of fear in her voice, no anger or even disappointment. It’s just very matter of fact as if this is just the small price to pay for being the voice of a global movement that has changed the way the world views the climate crisis, in just three short years.
Greta started her activism with School Strike for Climate. For weeks, she sat outside parliament in Stockholm with a sign calling for stronger action on climate change. Before long she had started a movement, which became Fridays for Future. Millions of students around the world spent their Fridays taking to the streets and lobbying governments in a bid to bring attention to the climate catastrophe.
Still, Greta says that change isn’t taking place at anywhere near the scale or pace it needs to in order to stop the damage we are doing.
“The more I have spent time talking to people, travelling, reading and experiencing, the more convinced I am that changes will come from the bottom up,” says Greta. “And when I say from the bottom up I don’t mean that we – through our power as consumers make the changes that are necessary. But rather that we as democratic citizens and voters and family members, friends – that we use that power to create change and put enough pressure on people in power.”
The top-down, governmental approach of forcing major change that would be sufficient to solve the climate crisis, would actually not be democratic, argues Greta. “It needs to come through awareness and from people realising that we are in an emergency and putting pressure on people in power.
“If we look throughout history, the biggest [group of] people who have had the greatest impact have all been led by young people. That shows what power young people have, so I see that as hopeful,” she says.
Greta is a divisive character. “She makes me cry when I hear her speak,” one senior (middle-aged male) member of the Vogue team told me. But to others, her name evokes a roll of the eyes – and often worse.
“There is some kind of misconception about activists, especially about climate activists that we are just negative and pessimists, and we are just complaining, and we are trying to spread fear but that’s the exact opposite. We are doing this because we are hopeful, we are hopeful that we will be able to make the changes necessary,” she says, using the presidential repetition to emphasise the word we should be remembering here: Hope.
“If we didn’t believe that we are able to make the changes, then we wouldn’t be doing this. We are the ones who have not given up, who still have hope, who still have optimism.
“People may call us naive for believing that we can change the world but then please do so, because we know we will be able to change the world if we get enough people with us.”
It’s lines like this, these passionate rallying cries, that make me want to put down my pen, and take to the streets, shouting “I’m with you, Greta!” from the rooftops. But whilst millions of mostly young people around the world have done just that, there are many more who remain climate deniers, whose interest is not to change the status quo. Do they really not believe that climate change is a thing or do they simply not care?
“When it comes to the climate crisis you are very much more likely to not accept it or understand it if your salary depends on it so to speak. But I think that we are just simply not treating the crisis like a crisis. When I first heard about the climate crisis I was a climate denier. Because I thought, if it really was that serious then we would be doing something, right?”
And this is why Greta has chosen to make the changes she has in her lifestyle. She has eschewed meat and dairy, she only travels by train or public transport where possible and she says she hasn’t bought anything in three years.
“You don’t stop flying, you don’t stop consuming or you don’t go vegan because you want to lower your own individual carbon footprint. Of course that might be the case sometimes but at least not for me and for most people I know. We do it because we want to influence the people around us, we want to send a clear signal that we are facing an emergency and when you are in an emergency you change your behaviour,” she says. “Because when one person starts doing something that has a snowball effect and spreads to people around them and they start thinking why is that person doing that, and it can plant a seed in that person’s mind, and it can grow over time, and that is something I think we underestimate.
“Of course if we constantly consume, and want more and more, and want bigger and better, then we set a precedent for other parts of the world to follow,” says Iris. “We need to change that sense of value from the roots. We should want clean water, we should want unpolluted air and fresh foods but instead we want more and more things. Those things aren’t going to make us happy. Most people know this but it’s so hard to change the way we feel,” she says.
Greta seems frustrated when leaders and celebrities talk about the climate crisis yet travel to conferences by private jet. It’s the messaging that matters. Actions have consequences. “Of course I’m not saying that celebrities shouldn’t fly in private jets – as I make a point of never ever telling anyone what to do – but we need to understand that by doing so we may lose some people who won’t believe in what we are saying.”
"TO HAVE THAT MORAL CLARITY IS SOMETHING WE ALL NEED A BIT MORE OF" Greta Thunberg
The way Greta talks about “maybe losing people,” she echoes a campaigning politician. Always aware of the optics as well as the facts. And, like a political analyst, she knows that focusing on one target group is a lot more viable than trying to convert everyone.
“The younger generation is definitely leading this movement,” she says. “It’s both hopeful because young people are the ones going to lead in the future but it’s also discouraging because older generations – the ones who are in charge right now – don’t seem to care about the future and what comes after them.”
Iris understands this. “What we hear a lot at our lectures and whilst we are travelling, is that people feel very hopeless. I think that has to do a bit more with our generation and our parents’ generation. They know that they have been part of this devastation that we are living in today. And they also feel sometimes that there is no hope and this feeling of not having hope is kind of the opposite of activism. This passivism is dangerous.
“It creates a lot of negative energy so what we are trying to do is create natural environments to bring those facts to people. To load them with that kind of force you need to be able to react. The system’s broken and we need to be able to heal the world and not only the natural world but ourselves,” says Iris.
One of the questions that people often ask is what needs to be done and what are the solutions to these sometimes very daunting challenges.
“When we talk about solutions we often single out things and say, ‛we can’t do that because this is much better. We can’t stop flying because it’s much better to go vegan’ and so on but the fact is we no longer have time to single out things. We need to do everything that we possibly can. There is no magic silver bullet that will solve everything but the silver bullet consists of these countless – sometimes very small, sometimes very much larger – changes that are going to need to happen. As long as you are doing everything you can you might as well enjoy living in interesting times,” she smiles.
Both Greta and Alexandrov Klum recognise that as well as individual action (the power of individuals, says Greta, should not be underestimated) it is systemic change that needs to take place. But to find a way, there needs to be a will.
The last 18 months has seen the world change as the global pandemic put an end to international travel, shut down supply chains and contained much of the world in their own homes.
Ecosystems have started to repair themselves and wildlife have returned to their natural habitats. As global consumption has fallen so have carbon emissions. Governments have enforced travel bans and lockdowns, showing that action can be taken when a crisis is declared.
“As we climate activists have been saying from day one, we can not solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. If the pandemic has shown us one thing it is that the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis,” says Greta.
“Something that at least I thought a lot about at the beginning of the pandemic was that you suddenly saw world leaders and very powerful people say ‛we will listen to the science, we will not prioritise economic interests over public health, we will do whatever it takes because you cannot put a price on a human life’.” Greta laughs. “Just by saying those words you open up a whole new dimension. If you just apply that for any other issue – the climate crisis is just one example – that puts everything upside down completely.
“We wouldn’t have been able to handle the pandemic as we did if we would have treated it as a flu. We didn’t say: ‛Oh we have to think positively, this will benefit the industry that manufactures facemasks, this will create new jobs in healthcare’ and that is exactly the way we are treating the climate crisis.”
The climate crisis is looked at through an economic lens, argues Greta. It’s only considered in terms of jobs lost or jobs gained. Short-term impacts that will have long-term consequences.
The response to the pandemic, shows that we can actually act drastically when we are facing an emergency. “We can treat a crisis like a crisis. The media can treat a crisis like a crisis. We can change our behaviour, and we can change our social norms,” says Greta.
“An example of that is when you look at pictures of people in large crowds, when you look at people standing really close, you think: ‛Oh they should be socially distancing.’ You didn’t do that a year and a half ago.”
That’s how fast social norms can change, says Greta. Perhaps, she muses, that other things that have a detrimental effect on our planet might also become socially unacceptable.
“Unfortunately we are creatures of habit and it’s hard for many people to break habits,” says Mattias. “Covid has been a remarkable alarm clock for a lot of people. It’s really an invoice from nature. When we see what nature can do when we push nature to the brink, we have abrupt changes and reactions from nature, and Covid is a reaction like a severe drought or a huge flood.
“It’s a gradual change and that’s the nasty thing about the climate crisis. For people really affected, let’s say, you’re in Bangladesh, or you’re in the Maldives when you have a huge flood then it becomes super real then it is a crisis. But for the rest of humanity it’s a creeping disease that is there or not there.
“It’s important to make people understand that this is because of us, just being too affluent, and too short-minded, and too neglectful. That we are basically disrupting the planetary systems. So I really believe that we need to work on this from all angles. We must not let this sink into oblivion – back to normal is not good enough.
One really good thing, says Mattias, is that the pandemic has re-connected people to nature in many ways. “It’s re-connected people to a different pace of life and a different appreciation for the natural world.”
Another change, Iris says, has been our appreciation of human connections and the connection to other people. “We understand that life is short and this has made us feel that anything might happen at any time. People really long for these sincere meetings. I don’t know if that will change when we move into the new normal but I really think that people are very grateful to be able to meet again and to be able to touch each other and look at each other and be in each other’s presence,” she says.
Greta agrees. “What we missed during lockdown was not mainly air travel, it was not mainly buying new things,” she says. “It was first of all the human connections, the experience we have together, just something as simple as going to school, going to work, meeting your relatives, being able to hug your grandparents and so on. At least that’s what I felt.”
Greta has Asperger Syndrome – an autism spectrum disorder, which affects how people interact socially and how they understand social norms. Whilst very careful not to downplay the often serious challenges that the syndrome can have for many, Greta treats the diagnosis as a positive attribute.
“It may not seem like it but people with autism often have a lot of empathy and see the world as it is, not through these lenses that are social norms. We know we are not living sustainably, we know that something is seriously wrong but we are still not acting and that’s because we are waiting for other people to act. Everyone is blaming each other.
“We are social animals, we copy the behaviour of others, if people around us aren’t acting as if it’s a crisis then we won’t do that either. Because these social norms are so incredibly strong we can not break them. But people with Asperger’s on the other hand, don’t really act that way, don’t do things just because others do it. We do it because we feel it's the right thing to do, because we enjoy doing it or because we want to do it. And I think that’s a much more neutral approach to the world. To have that moral clarity is something we would all need a bit more of.
“The climate crisis is the biggest elephant that has ever found itself in a room. We have to talk about it but it’s too uncomfortable. People don’t want to talk about it because then they risk their social status, their popularity or sometimes even their job. And I think that’s a big reason why the climate movement is mostly led by children and people on the autism spectrum – because we don’t care as much what other people think about us.”
It’s easy to forget that Greta is only next week finishing her first year of gymnasium – high school here in Stockholm. So what is next for this young woman who has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three years in a row?
“The ideal thing would be to just return to school and finish education and not have to worry about the climate. But as long as there is a need for activists I will probably be an activist,” she says.
The young woman who spends her free time knitting and doing jigsaw puzzles or occasionally watching an episode of Friends is aware that there are a lot of eyes looking at her next move.
“Do I want to become a scientist and find solutions that way or do I want to become a politician? We have the science we need now to start the rapid transition needed and we can’t have political action unless there is public demand for it.
“So what is needed now is to raise awareness in order to start this sustainable transition and that is maybe where I am most useful now.
“And of course there is that tiny fact that I am an uneducated teenager,” she laughs.