There is a fair chance that throughout her Zoom conversation with Björk Guðmundsdóttir, Greta Thunberg will be doing embroidery. It is a Thursday afternoon in Stockholm, after class, in what is Thunberg’s last year of secondary school. Doing cross-stitch does not affect her concentration – in fact it helps her to focus; she stitches in many important meetings, and in lessons, as long as she’s not required to take notes. Thunberg is 19 but took a year out – she was also absent on many Fridays, striking alone at first in 2018 and then as part of what became an international movement, Fridays for Future. Today, it turns out that the thing she’s twiddling like worry beads at the bottom of her Zoom screen is just the lead from her headphones. Björk pipes in from Reykjavik: a face-to-face meeting of the pair would create a carbon footprint of around 0.59 tonnes.
The world’s leading voice for climate action and the world’s most original musician have collaborated in the past (on Björk’s 2019 Cornucopia tour) but never met until now. Today, Guðmundsdóttir is wearing a sweater and spectacles, and Thunberg a vest, sitting in the offices of her publisher in Stockholm. Both admit to being shy. They live in countries that have little truck with celebrity and can go relatively unbothered in their daily lives – a Scandinavian phenomenon they will go on to discuss.
For many years there were few significant musical voices within the climate movement. There was Sting and his Rainforest Foundation, launched more than 30 years ago, but the environment wasn’t considered sexy – the stuff of science rather than songwriting. Yet Guðmundsdóttir has found a way to speak about it for two decades, in her work, and in fronting several high-profile campaigns in Iceland. She has protested against aluminium smelting, and campaigned for a new national park in the island’s highlands. Her songs have always put nature into playful dialogue with music – from the 1997 album Homogenic, with its beats crafted to sound like volcanoes, to her new album Fossora (a made-up word meaning “she who digs”) – a meditation on the Earth from a “matriarchal” perspective.
Thunberg listened to the album earlier today, and Guðmundsdóttir has spent the weekend reading Thunberg’s new anthology, The Climate Book – her epic guide to achievable climate action with essays by over a hundred scientists, academics, activists and thinkers.
In the course of an hour, the pair will consider the connections between culture and the climate movement, and the power of music (Thunberg’s mother, an opera singer, curtailed her international career because of Greta’s concerns about her carbon footprint). They will talk about the pernicious influence of greenwashing, the costs of political inaction, and the UK’s reputation on the climate, as well as motherhood, Icelandic taxi drivers, seaweed and burnout. They started by talking about their first, remote collaboration.
[Listen to this conversation on the World Review podcast]
Björk Guðmundsdóttir: In 2019 I sent Greta a request, and she recorded an environmental manifesto which I included in my show, Cornucopia. We travelled the world showing this to the audience, and I’d just like to thank you, Greta, in person. I heard your voice so often when I was running behind the stage – I’ve been in the presence of your voice for a few years now.
Greta Thunberg: Thank you, it’s a great honour. I know that you invited some of my friends and fellow activists to go up on stage during the concert in Sweden.
BG: That was a good moment.
Kate Mossman: Greta, what role does music play in your life?
GT: I always have a song in my head. Even when I’m doing interviews: it’s to stay focused, because otherwise, my mind drifts off. Music is a way for me to remember things.
All my family are musicians, and I’m the only one who is not. I guess I kind of rebelled in that way. Music plays a very, very important part in creating the cultural shifts and social changes that we need in order to address the climate emergency. It’s a really important way to mobilise people.
BG: I just read your book. And I’m inspired and sad, because the situation is worse even than we thought it was, but there are some hope-inspiring moments there, to encourage us to act. I’ve been thinking about our Northern countries – because on the surface, it looks like we get a few more years than the South, but obviously that’s not the case.
I found the chapter about adding seaweed into the ocean [to regulate its acidity] very inspiring, and how we can reforest the ocean environment, and rewild animals and sea creatures. Sorry, I got over-excited, but I really want to try to initiate some sort of action here in Iceland, to focus on these issues.
GT: Thank you, I’m glad to hear it. I also listened to Fossora today, and I find it very cool, and I really like the idea behind it – about going back to the roots, if I interpreted it correctly. The book is very long. So many texts! But that’s what I like about it.
BG: The climate emergency is clearer now. Every day you can look at the news, and most things won’t matter in five years, but the news about the environment will. I think musicians are more aware of it.
It’s also very generational. I have kids, both a millennial kid and a Gen-Z kid, who are telling me off. And there is more room for matriarchal points of view now. When I was a kid, it was just Kate Bush, and that was it – the rest was women entering guys’ worlds. I feel that I’m a typical example of a female, matriarchal musician, by which I mean I cannot just talk about me. We have a tendency to look at the whole picture, so I have to take in my children, my ancestors, the land.
GT: I live in a city, so it’s more difficult to find places in nature to connect with. One of my favourite things in Stockholm is to walk along the water, because it makes me calm. I love taking long walks in the forest – there’s a specific forest I used to walk in when I was younger with my dogs.
BG: Like Greta, I live in a capital in the North where we have access to the ocean. So I actually live on a beach, which I go for walks on a few times a week. I also have a cabin by a lake which is 40 minutes away, so that’s very precious to me.
When I studied musicology as a child, I never understood when it was mapped on to the old world of Mozart and all that: I couldn’t relate to that. But I was very happy when touch screens came along, because then I could take patterns from nature – the way lightning moves, or a pendulum, and connect a pendulum to counterpoint, or lightning to arpeggios.
GT: For me, it was a lack of access to nature that impacted on me in becoming an activist, because I felt I was missing something. That’s what I’m fighting for now, to bring nature back into our lives. For many, many people, we have distanced ourselves so far from it that we can no longer identify with it. An important part of the climate emergency is being able to reconnect with what we are fighting for.
GT: I mean, what I said was that we can have as many Cops as we want to, but as long as nothing changes it won’t make a difference. The Conference of the Parties is not designed to reshape our entire system; it is not designed to represent the people. It is designed, to a large extent, to represent lobby groups and become a platform for nations, greenwashers and polluters who want to say, “Oh, we are doing enough, we are gathered here because we care about the environment.” During Cop26, the fossil lobbyists had greater representation than any nation.
All they do is gather every few years, make new targets and pledges, only to break them and make new ones. This has been turned into a strategy to make it seem as if they’re doing something when in fact they are not. So unless we educate people about what is actually happening, and create a movement of people demanding change, pressing from the outside, Cops will not make a difference.
BG: I think we need to create new economic institutions. I’m not sure that governments can actually change anything. I had hopes that when you declare a state of emergency, at least you get more finances to meet it – like the pandemic, when we managed to make a vaccine in ten months, which was incredible, a miracle.
GT: I must add, having said that, it doesn’t mean that Cops are not useful. They are a big opportunity to mobilise if we have representation from the most affected people and the most affected areas. If we have representation from scientists, from indigenous peoples and from young people, then that will have an impact and push things forward. But this alone will not be enough: we need a massive pressure from the outside, too.
KM: How do you balance optimism and pessimism?
BG: That’s a very big question. I just released a track [“Atopos”, from her new album] where I repeat “Hope is a muscle, hope is a muscle”. It is something you need to work on, it doesn’t fall from the sky. As a mother of two children, it comes naturally for me to think in this way, because when you are bringing up kids, you have to have some sense of continuity – a place to head for in 20 years, 40 years, 60 years.
I feel this responsibility is woven more naturally into mothers, and I was a mother at 20, so that’s always been part of my music writing. I write about hope, but a lot of my songs start with some sort of conflict, and then in the middle of the track, you transform and figure out a way to deal with that issue. It’s not escapist; it’s trying to deal with real issues.
GT: I completely agree that hope is something you need to work on. Hope is something you need to engage in; it is something you need to earn. It feels like people are obsessed today with asking “Is there hope?” – because they feel that without it, they cannot act. In fact, it’s the exact opposite: when they act, they create hope.
Many people dump that burden on children, expecting us to be the ones delivering that hope. And that’s not a fair thing to do, because we aren’t the ones who created this crisis – we are the ones who will suffer the consequences. They expect us to deliver them hope while not doing anything. I find that very, very absurd.
KM: Do you feel more or less hopeful than you did five years ago?
GT: Both! We are moving in the wrong direction: the concentration level of CO2 is higher today than it was then; our emissions are still rising; and we have lost another few years to inaction and lobbying instead of actually doing something. But I have also seen what people can do. We were able to mobilise millions of people in a span of a few months, just a handful of schoolchildren, and that was something I would never have believed possible. I have seen what we can do when we really want to do something.
BG: Every year or two, for the last 20 years, I have tried to do something quite dramatic in Iceland to raise awareness. I try to come from a different angle every time, to act locally but keep people on their toes. I think, in the North, we have to deal with these things in a very different way. There was a whole chapter in your book, Greta – sorry, I don’t have the English word – about the place where the ocean meets the land?
GT: The shore?
BG: Yeah, the shore, that area where there are tiny creatures. This is something that we could really focus on in Iceland. But maybe I’m being selfish, taking Greta’s time to talk about the problems of the North! What should we in the North focus on? We have just had the hurricane in Florida, and the media is full of disasters that happen in hot countries, but the North will have severe problems soon.
GT: We are so close to the Arctic and the temperature here is rising much quicker than in the rest of the world, which is something that we tend to forget. A huge part of Sweden lies above the Arctic Circle, and the weather patterns are more or less destabilising. I’ve talked a lot to Sámi people living here, and they can no longer trust the weather: sometimes it rains in winter, and that completely destroys the conditions for the reindeer, for example. It creates a thick layer of ice, so that they can’t get to their food, and they starve to death.
These are the unexpected consequences of the climate emergency. We need to be better at educating people about this, because when we think about the climate crisis, we tend to think about polar bears starving and glaciers collapsing. When it comes to these everyday events, we fail to connect the dots.
BG: In your book, you point out that if there were as many carbon capture storage (CCS) facilities in the world as there are oil refineries, you’d start to see some results. Every country needs to be doing them, and it’s one solution of thousands. The fact that there is one place in Iceland doing it now, unfortunately, is not going to change a lot.
GT: Yes, the largest carbon capture storage facility in the world is in Iceland. And I remember in Stockholm, there were big campaigns where energy companies posted pictures of that facility saying, “Yeah, this is the future.” It was greenwashing! That facility, if all goes according to plan, will be able to capture about three seconds’ worth of our annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to one climate scientist’s calculations. They are not only being used as a way of greenwashing and legitimising the bad things we are doing now, but we also fail to invest in them – which is very contradictory, to say the least!
BG: If there was a CCS facility in every country in the world, would it make an impact?
GT: Of course, but CCS cannot be seen as a substitute for drastic immediate emission cuts. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invest every possible resource in it. We no longer have the luxury to pick and choose between the actions we want.
Greenwashing is one of our biggest obstacles. Most of the people I’m around are climate activists, or at least very aware of the problem. Then I go outside that bubble and I’m reminded that people actually think we are making improvements. They say, “We are focusing too much on the negative and we need to talk about the positive things that politicians are actually trying,” and so on.
Politicians take every opportunity to say that we are moving in the right direction – whether it is this one facility in Iceland, or something else – and this has become a strategy: they set up targets and fail to meet them. Greenwashing is a huge problem. But it could also be seen as a sign that people want climate action and more ambitious plans. That’s why the people in power are so desperate to come up with these, to make it look as if they’re doing something.
KM: Which country is the worst greenwasher?
GT: I am very familiar with the greenwashing in Sweden, especially from the forestry industry! In Sweden, we only include about one-third of our actual total emissions [in the official annual figures], and of course that makes it looks much better. In fact, we are expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. But every country seems to be a greenwasher sometimes.
KM: Have either of you ever been impressed by a politician?
GT: I mean, it depends how you define impressed. Sometimes I have been impressed by their cooking or something, but that’s a different thing.
I don’t think I have met a politician who is ready to do what it takes. And by that, I don’t mean pushing from the inside. I mean resigning and saying, “This is not working and I’m not going to be a part of it.” Of course it’s good to have people on the inside who are advocating for change, but what would be the most effective thing to do right now? Is it to try to change things very, very slowly from the inside, or to say, “This is not working, and I resign.”
We need to wake people up, to send a clear message that we are in an emergency, and that I have not seen from any politician.
BG: I often go back to what happened in London when they stopped using coal [the Clean Air Act of 1956]. Nobody in London could see the sky and everyone had breathing problems, and then they made coal illegal, and in a matter of weeks you could see the sky again. How do you feel about mandatory measures like that, Greta? Sometimes I get really impatient; I want to go, “Can you just make it the law?”
GT: People often ask me what I would do if I became prime minister, and my answer is always that I wouldn’t do anything: I would just use the platform to communicate that we are in a crisis.
I don’t believe that undemocratic decisions are the way to go. I believe that we need the people on our side, and to explain why we need this transition. We have seen politicians doing things that didn’t have support from the people, and they were often measures that impacted low-income groups more than those actually responsible. I believe that democracy is the only way of solving this. We need to inform people about what is happening, and from there we will have support. Because we have truth on our side, we have morality on our side, and we have science on our side.
KM: Greta, you have said that the pandemic shone a light on the fact that we can’t make it without science. And Björk, you experienced a sense of rootedness which led to Fossora. What else did lockdown teach you?
BG: I decided to give myself the gift of working slowly, dropping the willpower side of me, to go for more natural songwriting. I think seven billion of us realised we are happy with what we’ve got. Good conversation with your friends and with family; you can have psychology sessions in your living room and then change it into a disco. Everything you need is within walking distance of your house. And then, of course, seeing governments act that quickly to get the vaccine and to finance everything.
[See also: Why we need Greta Thunberg more than ever]
GT: I’m not going to lie: that was interesting to see. The pandemic was a tragedy for billions of people, but it was interesting to see how governments reacted when there was an immediate emergency – which the climate crisis also is, for billions of people. When the media decided: this is a crisis, people changed their behaviour, and governments were then given the mandate to act.
BG: I was hoping that the next people who get elected would be inspired by the speed with which everybody acted.
GT: I mean, in Sweden, a fascist party just became the second-largest party and we’re going to have a new government with support from them, so… but that’s a different matter.
As activists during the pandemic, we couldn’t keep organising big protests and marches, so we had to rethink everything. I guess we will never know what could have happened. But there’s no reason to be bitter about that. If nothing else, the pandemic did show us that we can treat an emergency like an emergency, if we decide to.
KM: Which is the more powerful approach for an artist or musician to take, localised action or communicating a global message?
GT: We have to act locally and think globally in everything we do. I focus mostly on the global things, but I do volunteer work here in Stockholm, anonymously.
BG: For me, it’s different. When I first got my platform in the 1990s, I agreed to do a few things and it frustrated me. Suddenly I was in this non-profit universe with a lot of hierarchy and politics. I felt that I could have the biggest impact on the environment at home, and give to one thing at a time; put all the eggs in the basket and follow it through. Obviously, it wasn’t me alone. There is a big group of environmentalists in Iceland; often, I’m the face of it, but it is a voluntary job, and it takes a lot of energy. We joke about it – we have to take turns in holding the torch, because people burn out. You get very exhausted.
GT: I’m also working as part of a team. Above all, I am part of Fridays for Future, then Fridays for Future International, Fridays for Future Sweden, and Fridays for Future Stockholm. The media wrongly depict me as a leading figure but I’m not – this is a grass-roots movement and no one can decide anything over anyone else. It’s a very good strategy.
KM: You both live in countries that are not preoccupied with celebrity in the way that the UK is. Do you feel the benefits?
GT: Very much. I only have to cross the border and then it’s a completely different thing. Almost everyone who stops me here is a tourist, which shows that Swedes are not that impressed!
BG: It’s the same for me. If I get stopped, it’s a tourist. In Iceland, tourism went up a million per cent in the last ten years, which is a good thing because it moved everybody away from building their aluminium smelters. We sacrificed our main street [in Reykjavik] for it, which I’m not sad about.
But I can choose. If I walk two streets away, then Icelandic people never bother me. Iceland is quite cool like that: taxi drivers will tell me, “Oh, I met your grandad in the swimming pool, don’t think you’re any more important than I am.” I appreciate coming from a country like that.
GT: It’s in the culture: in Sweden, we have something called Jantelagen, which is the idea that no one is more important than anyone else, and you have to stay grounded. I can walk into a museum and there can be big placards and banners of me. And I can stand there looking at them, and I see people looking at the placard and then at me, and they walk away because they are embarrassed. People just want to leave you alone.
BG: I think there is a respect for your personal life. Iceland’s culture is built on famous authors and chess champions – very eccentric, introverted celebrities. And people understood that, in order for them to be able to give us more books, or win more chess championships against the Soviets back in the Cold War, you had to let them be, and not bother them.
KM: Could you talk a little about the role of women and girls within the climate movement? Within Greta’s generation, there are a lot of young women speaking up.
GT: Of course we need everyone on board. But we have to acknowledge that the harmful systems wrecking the environment are the same harmful systems that are dividing people and causing social inequality. Patriarchy, racism – these things are very connected to extractivism and destroying the environment.
I think that these fights need to be connected. Feminism, the fight for social justice, anti-racism, anti-fascism and climate justice are in many cases the same fights. We’ve not been good enough at joining forces, to communicate that this is one structure, in more ways than we think.
BG: I’ve been working in this area for 20 years, but as I get older I’m less diplomatic – I use the word “matriarchal” as a shortcut. It just means territory created from a woman’s point of view that is more inclusive, more pro-nature, pro-children, pro-hope. And obviously I’m a musician, so I’m thinking more in a sort of abstraction, a sonic version of that. It is a philosophy that runs through everything, not just the family or feminism. It can be a sound or a smell or an ecology.
KM: One final question: what does the UK and its politics look like from where you’re sitting?[They both start laughing.]
BG: I have a home there, and from the environmental point of view it’s not looking good. Britain just seems to be a lot of locked doors, like Brexit. The whole system seems to be about closing doors, including on how we respond quickly to the environment.
GT: It just looks like so much chaos. It’s like the dog meme [the popular cartoon of a dog sitting in a burning building with a cup of tea saying, “This is fine”]. The UK is like, “This is fine.” That’s the clearest image I have right now.
Illustration by Sam Green
This conversation has been condensed for length. Listen to a longer version on the World Review podcast.
“Fossora” is out now. “The Climate Book” is published on 27 October by Allen Lane.
Greta Thunberg will be speaking at the London Literature Festival on 30 October; the event will be live streamed for free on southbankcentre.co.uk
This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Rebecca Solnit and Ai Weiwei. Read more from the issue here.
Buy “The Climate Book” with a 15 per cent discount here, with the promo code ClimateNS (purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops)
[See also: On the climate crisis, to delay is to deny]
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency