Climate Activist Greta Thunberg: From Overcoming Depression to Eclipsing Family Fame as a Teen

The Nobel Peace Prize nominee has captured the attention of the world in her fight to reduce carbon emissions

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg wasn’t always the most famous teenager on the planet — in fact, she wasn’t even the most famous member of her family.

Long before the Swedish 17-year-old graced the cover of Time magazine, caught the attention of President Donald Trump, and set off a global movement all in the name of saving the planet, Thunberg was best known as the daughter of a Swedish opera singer and actor; a shy, quiet young woman whose Asperger’s, OCD, and select mutism made it difficult to fit in.

“That’s one of the pros of having a famous mother,” Thunberg told The New York Times of her mother Malena Ernman’s singing career in February. “I’m quite familiar with the media and how it works.”

Thunberg has proven it. Since her solo school-day strike outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018 went viral, Thunberg’s activism has taken on a life of its own, inspiring hundreds of similar climate strikes around the world as part of the Fridays for Future campaign.

She’s also become a household name as the face of a movement she began at age 8 after hearing about climate change and global warming for the first time.

“I was told to turn off the lights to save energy and to recycle paper to save resources. I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans who are animal species among others could be capable of changing the Earth’s climate,” she said in a TEDTalk last November.

She continued, “Because if we were, and if it was really happening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else … But no one ever talked about it.”

In her talk, Thunberg said that this realization, in part, plunged her into a depression at age 11, during which she stopped talking and eating, losing 22 lbs. in two months.

Greta Thunberg family
Malena Ernman with daughter Greta Thunberg. MALIN HOELSTAD/SVD/TT/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty

“I think she was very isolated and very lonely,” her father, Svante Thunberg, told the Times of his daughter’s adolescence, noting she was not interested in cell phones and clothes like other children. (Svante, an actor, is the son of Olof Thunberg, a famous Swedish actor and director.)

With the crushing realization that the world was in crisis constantly on her mind, Thunberg convinced her family to eat vegan. She stopped flying on airplanes in 2015, with her mother, opera singer Ernman, following suit a year later, according to the New Yorker.

Greta Thunberg family
Greta Thunberg and her family. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty

The decision, which greatly reduced her carbon footprint, was a big one for Ernman, as it meant giving up her international performing career.

Ernman, 48, is a well-known singer in Sweden, and even represented the country in 2009 at the annual Eurovision Song Contest, during which each nation submits an original song that’s performed live and then voted on by viewers.

A member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Ernman wrote about Greta and her younger sister Beata in a 2018 book called Scenes From the Heart, which reportedly revealed that Beata, a singer like her mother, has ADHD.

Thunberg, for her part, has embraced the diagnoses that make her different, and has more than once credited her Asperger’s with aiding in her success, even calling it her “superpower.”

“It makes me see the world differently. I see through lies more easily. I don’t like compromising. For me, it’s either you are sustainable or not — you can’t be a little bit sustainable,” she told Time in May. “To be different is not a weakness. It’s a strength in many ways, because you stand out from the crowd.”

That determination has served her well, especially in getting her movement off the ground.

Thunberg wrote in a Facebook post in February that her parents were not initially on board with her activism, and warned her that she’d have to look elsewhere for support if she went through with her goal of skipping school to protest.

“When I told my parents about my plans they weren’t very fond of it,” she wrote. “They did not support the idea of school striking and they said that if I were to do this I would have to do it completely by myself and with no support from them.”

Of course, they have come around, with Ernman writing in a March Facebook post of her own: “I belong to the overwhelming majority who didn’t know. I guess I understood somewhere that something wasn’t right about the climate and the environment. But I thought it was under control. I was wrong. The only thing I’m proud of is that I listened to my children.”

Greta Thunberg family
Greta Thunberg with dad Svante Thunberg.

Millions now join Ernman in listening to her children, though Thunberg has made it clear she does not do what she does for the accompanying celebrity status.

“I don’t like being the center of attention,” she told CNN in September. “I don’t want to be heard all the time, but if there is anything I can do to improve the situation then I think it’s a very small price to pay.”

Thunberg has also said she finds the sudden fame difficult, especially considering the quiet life she led before, when much of her time was spent doing typical teenager things, like schoolwork and playing with her black lab, Roxy.

“All my life I’ve been invisible, the invisible girl in the back who doesn’t say anything,” she told the Times. “From one day to another, people listen to me. That’s a weird contrast. It’s hard.”

Despite her reluctance, Thunberg, who has said her select mutism means she only speaks when she finds it “necessary,” has captured the attention of the world thanks to earnest and passionate speeches at events like the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

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“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” she told world leaders at the summit last month. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Thunberg is currently a frontrunner to win the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the recipient of which will be announced on Friday.

Last month, her activism efforts made her one of four to win the 2019 Right Livelihood Award, which is known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize.

A statement from the foundation said Thunberg won “for inspiring and amplifying political demands for urgent climate action reflecting scientific facts.”

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