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The long read: Times of upheaval are always times of radical change. Some believe the pandemic is a once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. Others fear it may only make existing injustices worse

Everything feels new, unbelievable, overwhelming. At the same time, it feels as if weve walked into an old recurring dream. In a way, we have. Weve seen it before, on TV and in blockbusters. We knew roughly what it would be like, and somehow this makes the encounter not less strange, but more so.

Every day brings news of developments that, as recently as February, would have felt impossible the work of years, not mere days. We refresh the news not because of a civic sense that following the news is important, but because so much may have happened since the last refresh. These developments are coming so fast that its hard to remember just how radical they are.

Cast your mind back a few weeks and imagine someone telling you the following: within a month, schools will be closed. Almost all public gatherings will be cancelled. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will be out of work. Governments will be throwing together some of the largest economic stimulus packages in history. In certain places, landlords will not be collecting rent, or banks collecting mortgage payments, and the homeless will be allowed to stay in hotels free of charge. Experiments will be underway in the direct government provision of basic income. Large swathes of the world will be collaborating with various degrees of coercion and nudging on a shared project of keeping at least two metres between each other whenever possible. Would you have believed what you were hearing?

Its not just the size and speed of what is happening thats dizzying. Its the fact that we have grown accustomed to hearing that democracies are incapable of making big moves like this quickly, or at all. But here we are. Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better. The global flu epidemic of 1918 helped create national health services in many European countries. The twinned crises of the Great Depression and the second world war set the stage for the modern welfare state.

But crises can also send societies down darker paths. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, government surveillance of citizens exploded, while George W Bush launched new wars that stretched into indefinite occupations. (As I write this, the US militarys current attempt at reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan, 19 years after the invasion, is being slowed by coronavirus-related complications.) Another recent crisis, the 2008 financial crash, was resolved in a way that meant banks and financial institutions were restored to pre-crash normality, at great public cost, while government spending on public services across the world was slashed.

Because crises shape history, there are hundreds of thinkers who have devoted their lives to studying how they unfold. This work what we might call the field of crisis studies charts how, whenever crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear. In such moments, whatever is broken in society gets revealed for just how broken it is, often in the form of haunting little images or stories. In recent weeks, the news has furnished us with countless examples. Airlines are flying large numbers of empty or near-empty flights for the sole purpose of protecting their slots on prime sky routes. There have been reports of French police fining homeless people for being outside during the lockdown. Prisoners in New York state are getting paid less than a dollar hour to bottle hand sanitiser that they themselves are not allowed to use (because it contains alcohol), in a prison where they are not given free soap, but must buy it in an on-site shop.

But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and its never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world were entering become clear.

The pessimistic view is that a crisis makes bad things worse. People who study disasters and especially pandemics know all too well their tendency to inflame xenophobia and racial scapegoating. When the Black Death came to Europe in the 14th century, cities and towns shut themselves to outsiders and assaulted, banished and killed undesirable community members, most often Jews. In 1858, a mob in New York City broke into a quarantine hospital for immigrants on Staten Island, demanded that everyone leave and then burned the hospital down, fearful that it was putting people outside at risk of yellow fever. Wikipedia now has a page collating examples from more than 35 countries of xenophobia and racism related to the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic: they range from taunts to outright assault.

In a totally rational world, you might assume that an international pandemic would lead to greater internationalism, says the historian Mike Davis, a renowned American chronicler of the disasters incubated by globalisation. For Davis, who wrote a book about the threat of avian flu in 2005, pandemics are a perfect example of the kind of crises to which global capitalism (with its constant movement of people and goods) is particularly vulnerable, but that the capitalist mindset (with its inability to think in terms beyond profit) cannot address. In a rational world, we would be ramping up production of basic essential supplies test kits, masks, respirators not only for our own use, but for poorer countries, too. Because its all one battle. But its not necessarily a rational world. So there could be a lot of demonisation and calls for isolation. Which will mean more deaths and more suffering worldwide.

In the US, President Trump has tried hard to brand the new coronavirus as inherently Chinese, and to use the pandemic as a pretext for tightening borders and accepting fewer asylum seekers. Republican officials, thinktanks and media outlets have claimed or implied that Covid-19 is a man-made Chinese bioweapon. Some Chinese officials, in turn, have pushed the conspiracy theory that the outbreak came to China by way of American soldiers. In Europe, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbn, recently announced: We are fighting a two-front war: one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement.

Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

When youre fighting a war, you want to know as much about the enemy as possible. But its easy, in the rush of crisis, to put in place surveillance tools without thinking about the long-term harm they might do. The scholar Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, reminded me that, prior to 9/11, the US government had been in the process of developing serious regulations designed to give web users real choice about how their personal information was and wasnt used. In the course of a few days, Zuboff says, the concern shifted from How do we regulate these companies that are violating privacy norms and rights to How do we nurture and protect these companies so they can collect data for us?

For governments looking to monitor their citizens even more closely, and companies looking to get rich by doing the same, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect crisis than a global pandemic. In China today, drones search for people without facemasks; when they are found, the drones built-in speakers broadcast scoldings from police. Germany, Austria, Italy and Belgium are all using data anonymised, for now from major telecommunications companies to track peoples movement. In Israel, the national security agency is now allowed to access infected individuals phone records. South Korea sends texts to the public identifying potentially infected individuals and sharing information about where theyve been.

Not all surveillance is inherently malign, and new tech tools very well might end up playing a role in fighting the virus, but Zuboff worries that these emergency measures will become permanent, so enmeshed in daily life that we forget their original purpose. Lockdowns have made many of us, sitting at home glued to our computers and phones, more dependent than ever on big tech companies. Many of these same companies are actively pitching themselves to government as a vital part of the solution. It is worth asking what they stand to gain. People have a hard time remembering privacy rights when theyre trying to deal with something like a pandemic, says Vasuki Shastry, a Chatham House fellow who studies the interplay of technology and democracy. Once a system gets scaled up, it can be very difficult to scale it back down. And then maybe it takes on other uses.

The prime ministers of both Israel and Hungary have effectively been given the power to rule by decree, without interference from courts or legislature. The UKs recently rolled-out coronavirus bill gives police and immigration officers the authority in place for the next two years to arrest and detain people suspected of carrying the virus, so that they can be tested. The US Department of Justice has, since the outbreak began, filed a request with Congress for a new rule that would allow judges to suspend courtroom proceedings in emergencies, creating the possibility of people being jailed without ever being able to formally object. Those of us who follow the police know how this goes, said Kevin Blowe of Netpol, a UK group focused on protest rights. These powers get put in place, and it sounds reasonable enough at the time and then very quickly theyre applied for other purposes that have nothing to do with democracy and nothing to do with public safety.

In a 2008 report on the legal aspects of pandemic response, prompted by the increase in pandemic flu outbreaks, a team of historians and medical ethicists assembled by the American Civil Liberties Union bemoaned a common tendency resurgent, in their view, since 9/11 for government to address public health problems using mindsets more appropriate to tracking down criminals. This suspicious mindset, they argued, ended up most affecting racial minorities and the poor. Tactics like these can make fighting the disease harder, by driving a hard wedge of distrust between government and citizens. As the report put it: People, rather than the disease, become the enemy.

Theres another school of thought that looks at crisis and sees glimmers of possibility. For thinkers in this camp, the example of the 2008 financial crash looms large. But where, from their view, 2008 led to defeat with the broad public giving up a great deal while a small few profited Covid-19 might open the door to political progress.

I think were just so different to how we were before we saw the aftermath of the 2008 crash, said the American writer Rebecca Solnit, one of todays most eloquent investigators of crises and their implications. Ideas that used to be seen as leftwing seem more reasonable to more people. Theres room for change that there wasnt beforehand. Its an opening.

The argument, in its simplest form, is this: Covid-19 has revealed the political status quo to be broken. Long before anyone had heard of the new coronavirus, people died of diseases we knew how to prevent and treat. People lived precarious lives in societies awash with wealth. Experts told us about catastrophic threats on the horizon, including pandemics, and we did next to nothing to prepare for them. At the same time, the drastic measures governments have taken in recent weeks testify to just how much power the state does have the extent of what government can accomplish (and quickly!) when it realises it must act boldly or risk being seen as fundamentally illegitimate. As Pankaj Mishra recently wrote: It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens.

For years, in mainstream politics the conventional line on everything from healthcare to basic living expenses such as housing has been that even if the world has its problems, expansive government intervention is not a feasible solution. Instead, we have been told that what works best are marketplace solutions, which give large roles to corporations motivated not by outdated notions like the public good but by a desire to make a profit. But then the virus started spreading, governments spent trillions in days even going so far as to write cheques directly to citizens and suddenly the question of what was feasible felt different.

From this perspective, the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane and secure.

In her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit used case studies of disasters including the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 2001 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina to argue that emergencies arent just moments when bad things get worse, or when people inevitably become more scared, suspicious and self-centred. Instead she foregrounded the ways in which disasters opened up human reserves of improvisation, solidarity and resolve, pockets of purpose and joy, even in the midst of loss and pain. The book was not a call to celebrate disaster but to pay attention to the possibilities it might contain, and how it might shake us loose from old ways. In Solnits telling, official disaster responses had a tendency to muck things up by treating people as part of the problem to be managed, not an invaluable part of the solution.

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Sometimes this mismanagement is a result of mere incompetence other times it is more sinister. In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, the Canadian writer Naomi Klein laid out a dark account of crisis politics. In Kleins view, there is always Disaster 1 the earthquake, the storm, the military conflict, the economic slump and Disaster 2 the bad things that people with power subsequently get up to, such as ramming through extreme economic reforms or gobbling up post-crisis opportunities for self-enrichment, while the rest of us are too dazed to notice. (In fact, Klein argued, these people sometimes engineer Disaster 1 to get the process started.)

Unlike Solnits book, The Shock Doctrine doesnt have much to say about the resilience of everyday people when everything goes horribly wrong. (Indeed, Solnit directly criticised Klein for this omission.) But the two books fit together like puzzle pieces. Both address crisis not in terms of what inevitably or naturally happens as they unfold, but in terms of choices that people make along the way. And both were well-timed to contribute to the political conversations taking shape in the rubble of the financial crash.

In 2008, days after Barack Obamas election, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously said: You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Todays leftists, for whom Obama mostly represents disappointment, are prone to agree. They feel that, in the wake of recent crises, they lost, and now is the time to make amends. If, facing a pandemic, we can change this much in a few weeks, then how much might we change in a year?

For anyone making this argument, the contrast between 2008 and the present crisis is striking. Compared to the opaque financial crisis, with its credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations, the coronavirus is relatively easy to understand. It is a dozen crises tangled into one, and theyre all unfolding immediately, in ways that cannot be missed. Politicians are getting infected. Wealthy celebrities are getting infected. Your friends and relatives are getting infected. We may not quite all be in it together as always, the poor are hit worse but there is more truth to the idea than there ever was in the wake of 2008.

In this, the optimists believe, there is hope that we might begin to see the world differently. Maybe we can view our problems as shared, and society as more than just a mass of individuals competing against each other for wealth and standing. Maybe, in short, we can understand that the logic of the market should not dominate as many spheres of human existence as we currently allow it to.

More people are in a position to connect the dots, Klein said. It has to do with peoples experiences; for people of a certain age, their only experience of capitalism has been one of crisis. And they want things to be different.

That screaming buzzsaw noise in the background of this conversation is the sound of the climate crisis. If 2008 is the disaster that Klein and like-minded thinkers want to avoid repeating, climate change is the much bigger disaster they see coming that they know is already here and that they want to fight off. Indeed, in the years since publishing The Shock Doctrine, Klein has made climate change her central focus, framing it as the paradigmatic emergency that must be wrenched from the clutches of fossil-fuel profiteers and their enablers in government.

Although Covid-19 is likely the biggest global crisis since the second world war, it is still dwarfed in the long term by climate change. Yet the two problems have suggestive similarities. Both will require unusual levels of global cooperation. Both demand changes in behaviour today in the name of reducing suffering tomorrow. Both problems were long predicted with great certainty by scientists, and have been neglected by governments unable to see beyond the next fiscal quarters growth statistics. Accordingly, both will require governments to take drastic action and banish the logic of the marketplace from certain realms of human activity, while simultaneously embracing public investment. In other words, to think of this new level of state intervention as a temporary requirement is to ensure that we continue barrelling down the path to climate disaster.

Weve been trying for years to get people out of normal mode and into emergency mode, said Margaret Klein Salamon, a former psychologist who now heads the advocacy group The Climate Mobilization. What is possible politically is fundamentally different when lots of people get into emergency mode when they fundamentally accept that theres danger, and that if we want to be safe we need to do everything we can. And its been interesting to see that theory validated by the response to the coronavirus. Now the challenge is to keep emergency mode activated about climate, where the dangers are orders of magnitude greater. We cant think were going to go back to normal, because things werent normal.

The analogy between the two crises only goes so far. There is no getting around the fact that the impacts of climate change are more gradual than those of Covid-19. Most people do not feel they or their loved ones could die from the climate crisis this month, and so emergency mode is harder to activate and sustain. As Salamon pointed out to me, if we truly accepted we were in a climate emergency, then every day the news would lead with updates about which countries were reducing their emissions the fastest, and people would be clamouring to make sure their leaders were adopting the policies that worked.

Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

But it is not unimaginable that the experience of Covid-19 could help us understand climate change differently. As the virus has reduced industrial activity and road traffic, air pollution has plummeted. In early March, the Stanford University scientist Marshall Burke used pollution data from four Chinese cities to measure changes in the level of PM2.5, a particularly harmful pollutant that attacks the heart and lungs. He estimated that, in China alone, emission reductions since the start of the pandemic had in effect saved the lives of at least 1,400 children under five and 51,700 adults over 70. Meanwhile, people around the world have been sharing their own anecdotal findings online stories of sweet-smelling breezes, expanded bike lanes and birdsong returning to neighbourhoods in a way that almost resembles a digitally distributed Rebecca Solnit project: people catching glimpses, in the midst of a disaster, of a future they know they want and need.

Alongside these hopeful signs, a far less heartening story is unfolding, which fits Kleins shock doctrine framework. Disaster 1: Covid-19. Disaster 2: the dismantling of even the meagre existing rules designed to protect the environment. On 26 March, following lobbying from the energy industry, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that, in recognition of the pandemics effects on the workforce, it will not punish violations of pollution regulations so long as companies can link those violations to the pandemic. Chinas environmental ministry has started waiving inspections that assess the environmental impact of industrial facilities. And advocacy groups funded by the plastics industry have launched a public relations blitz on behalf of single-use plastic bags, spreading the unproven claim that the virus is less likely to stick plastic than to the cloth fabric of reusable bags. Looking back at the crisis of 2008, we can see that emissions dropped then, too only to rebound drastically in 2010 and 2011.

Salamon believes that one lesson of the coronavirus crisis is the power of shared emotion, which has helped make possible radical action to slow the pandemic. Im not talking about people giving each other medical expertise. Im talking about people calling each other up and saying: How are you doing? Are you scared? Im scared. I want you to be OK, I want us to be OK. And thats what we want for climate, too. We need to learn to be scared together, to agree on what were terrified about. Only then, she said, would governments be forced to act. Its good that were entering emergency mode about the pandemic, she said. But unless we also do it for climate She didnt finish the sentence.

What kind of actions would it take for the optimists vision to materialise? The historian Philip Mirowski, author of Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, warns against complacency. The left thought it was so obvious to everyone that the crisis revealed the utter bankruptcy of a certain way of looking at the economy, he told me. And it wasnt obvious to everyone, and the left lost. How do we prevent the world from going back to a version of the way it was before Covid-19, with the virus vanquished but all of the old ongoing disasters still unfolding?

The political outcome of the epidemic, said Mike Davis, will, like all political outcomes, be decided by struggle, by battles over interpretation, by pointing out what causes problems and what solves them. And we need to get that analysis out in the world any way we can. One major obstacle, of course, is social distancing, which certainly hinders many time-tested methods of waging such struggles, such as political canvassing and street protest. The biggest risk for all of us, said Klein, is going to be frittering away this time sitting at home on our social media feeds, living the extremely limited forms of politics that get enabled there.

Davis hoped protesters would find their way into the streets sooner rather than later, and speculated that a street action with all the sign-holding participants spaced 10 or 15 feet apart would make a dramatic media image. He lives in Ppaaloa, a small community in Hawaii, and as our conversation wrapped up, he mentioned that he was planning to spend part of the afternoon doing his part by standing by himself on a street corner, holding a sign. He hadnt decided what to write on it yet, but was thinking about SUPPORT THE NURSES UNION or DEMAND PAID SICK LEAVE.

Solnit told me she was taking heart from all the new ways people were finding to connect and help each other around the world, ranging from the neighbourhood delivery networks that had sprung up to bring groceries to people who couldnt get out, to more symbolic interventions, such as kids playing music on an older neighbours porch. The Italian political scientist Alessandro Delfanti said he was finding hope from a post-outbreak wave of strikes roiling Amazon warehouses in the US and Europe, and also the steps that workers across different sectors of the Italian economy were taking to help each other secure equipment they needed to stay safe.

What happens next might depend on the optimists ability to transport such moments of solidarity into the broader political sphere, arguing that it makes no sense to address Covid-19 without at least trying to fix everything else, too, creating a world where our shared resources do more for more people. We dont even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological, Solnit wrote in A Paradise Built in Hell.

The world feels awfully strange right now, but not because or not just because it is changing so fast and any one of us could fall ill at any time, or could already be carrying the virus and not know it. It feels strange because the past few weeks have exposed the fact that the biggest things can always change, at any minute. This simple truth, both destabilising and liberating, is easy to forget. Were not watching a movie: were writing one, together, until the end.

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Royal expert sounds alarm after Prince Harry seemingly duped into thinking he was talking to Greta Thunberg

Russian hoaxers who apparently tricked Prince Harry into offering help to take penguins to the North Pole have raised serious questions over security and screening measures for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as they leave the royal fold, a royal expert said.

Posing as the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and her father, hoaxers Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov managed to reach Harry on his landline at his rented Vancouver Island mansion on New Years Eve and on 22 January, it has been reported.

The royal, seemingly duped into thinking he was talking to Thunberg and her father Svante, also criticised Donald Trump and spoke of a bullying tabloid media trying to sink him and wife Meghan.

A spokeswoman for the Sussexes declined to comment when asked if there was any doubt the voice was that of Harry.

A former press secretary to the Queen, Dickie Arbiter, claimed the fact that the hoaxers, known as Vovan and Lexus, had reached Harry exposed weaknesses in their personal security. As long as Harry and Meghan are over there, theyre out of the protection of the system, he said. For all its faults, the system does, and is there to, protect.

He said the hoaxers would not have been able to get through the Buckingham Palace switchboard. Theyre pretty vigilant, he said, adding: If youre outside the system, youre open to anything and everything.

The couple has a 15-strong team of staff based at Buckingham Palace, but they will be disbanded when the couple transition on 31 March, with some staff being made redundant and others redeployed in other royal households. No details about any staff in Canada have been made public.

Arbiter spoke as the Sun, which published excerpts of the conversations, reported more details of the hoax calls. Harry failed to spot he was being pranked when the fake Greta and her father said they had 50 penguins that were stuck in land-locked Belarus and they were after a ship to transport them to the north pole, even though the animals are native to the south pole.

When asked if he had any contacts to help, the duke is said to have suggested: Ive got one person who is a polar guide in the north pole he may be able to help you, he knows all the right people.

Greta also asked if Harry could help her marry into the royal family and suggested she was interested in Prince George, the Sun reported. It said Harry replied: I can assure you, marrying a prince or princess is not all its made up to be.

When the hoaxers suggested there were discussions in Russia that Harry could become head of a restored monarchy, he replied chuckling: Well there you go, maybe thats our new purpose: to be able to take over Russia.

The hoaxers joked about Harry smoking weed with hippies on Thunbergs eco-catamaran, and also of forming a celebrity movement called Stars Save the Earth with Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie.

During one call they tricked him into believing mining companies close to Trump were exploiting the fictional island of Chunga-Changa the name of a Russian childrens song.

The rights to the audio recordings had been transferred to British media, the hoaxers said as they confirmed the Suns report in response to a Guardian inquiry.

In the audio, a person, reportedly Harry, says of the decision to stand down as a senior royal: Sometimes the right decision isnt always the easy one. And this decision certainly wasnt the easy one, but it was the right decision for our family, the right decision to be able to protect my son. And I think theres a hell of a lot of people around the world that can identify and respect us for putting our family first.

On Trump, he says: I think the mere fact that Donald Trump is pushing the coal industry so big in America, he has blood on his hands. He says he is confident things will change on the climate agenda within 10 years: But we cant wait five to 10 years, so I think if Donald Trump can become president of the United States of America, then anythings possible, right?

He continues: You forget, I was in the military for 10 years so Im more normal than my family would like to believe But certainly, being in a different position now gives us the ability to say things and do things that we might not have been able to do.

On Prince Andrew, who has stepped down from public duties over his friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, he says: I have very little to say on that. But whatever he has done or hasnt done, is completely separate from me and my wife.

Harry speaks of Boris Johnson being a good man, and tells the person posing as Thunberg: So you are one of the few people who can reach into his soul and get him to feel and believe in you. But you have to understand that because he has been around for so long like all of these other people, they are already set in their ways.

In separate quotes, published by Mail Online, Harry reportedly says he has been part of a family and part of a country that is scared of the tabloid media because they have so much power and influence and no morals.

From the moment that I found a wife that was strong enough to be able to stand up for what we believe in together, [that] has basically scared them so much that theyve now come out incredibly angry, theyve come out fighting, and all they will try and do now is try and destroy our reputation and try and, you know, sink us.

He adds: It hasnt been very nice. Its been horrible, but we will come out of it stronger people.

Kuznetsov and Stolyarov have previously targeted Elton John, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, and the US senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

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A new book by Greta Thunbergs mother reveals the reality of family life during her daughters transformation from bullied teenager to climate icon

Gretas father, Svante, and I are what is known in Sweden as cultural workers trained in opera, music and theatre with half a career of work in those fields behind us. When I was pregnant with Greta, and working in Germany, Svante was acting at three different theatres in Sweden simultaneously. I had several years of binding contracts ahead of me at various opera houses all over Europe. With 1,000km between us, we talked over the phone about how we could get our new reality to work.

Youre one of the best in the world at what you do, Svante said. And as for me, I am more like a bass player in the Swedish theatre and can very easily be replaced. Not to mention you earn so damned much more than I do. I protested a little half-heartedly but the choice was made.

A few weeks later we were at the premiere for Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper in Berlin and Svante explained his current professional status to Daniel Barenboim and Cecilia Bartoli.

So now Im a housewife.

We carried on like that for 12 years. It was arduous but great fun. We spent two months in each city and then moved on. Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Barcelona. Round and round. We spent the summers in Glyndebourne, Salzburg or Aix-en-Provence. As you do when youre good at singing opera and other classical music. I rehearsed 20 to 30 hours a week and the rest of the time we spent together.

Beata was born three years after Greta and we bought a Volvo V70 so wed have room for dolls houses, teddy bears and tricycles. Those were fantastic years. Our life was marvellous.

One evening in the autumn of 2014, Svante and I sat slumped on our bathroom floor in Stockholm. It was late, the children were asleep. Everything was starting to fall apart around us. Greta was 11, had just started fifth grade, and was not doing well. She cried at night when she should be sleeping. She cried on her way to school. She cried in her classes and during her breaks, and the teachers called home almost every day. Svante had to run off and bring her home to Moses, our golden retriever. She sat with him for hours, petting him and stroking his fur. She was slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and little by little, bit by bit, she seemed to stop functioning. She stopped playing the piano. She stopped laughing. She stopped talking. And she stopped eating.

We sat there on the hard mosaic floor, knowing exactly what we would do. We would change everything. We would find the way back to Greta, no matter the cost. The situation called for more than words and feelings. A closing of accounts. A clean break.

How are you feeling? Svante asked. Do you want to keep going?


OK. Fuck this. No more, he said. Well cancel everything. Every last contract, Svante went on. Madrid, Zurich, Vienna, Brussels. Everything.

One Saturday soon afterwards, we decide were going to bake buns, all four of us, the whole family, and were determined to make this work. It has to. If we can bake our buns as usual, in peace and quiet, Greta will be able to eat them as usual, and then everything will be resolved, fixed. Its going to be easy as pie. Baking buns is after all our favourite activity. So we bake, dancing around in the kitchen so as to create the most positive, happiest bun-baking party in human history.

But once the buns are out of the oven the party stops in its tracks. Greta picks up a bun and sniffs it. She sits there holding it, tries to open her mouth, but cant. We see that this isnt going to work.

Please eat, Svante and I say in chorus. Calmly, at first. And then more firmly. Then with every ounce of pent-up frustration and powerlessness. Until finally we scream, letting out all our fear and hopelessness. Eat! You have to eat, dont you understand? You have to eat now, otherwise youll die!

Then Greta has her first panic attack. She makes a sound weve never heard before, ever. She lets out an abysmal howl that lasts for over 40 minutes. We havent heard her scream since she was an infant.

I cradle her in my arms, and Moses lies alongside her, his moist nose pressed to her head. Greta asks, Am I going to get well again?

Of course you are, I reply.

When am I going to get well?

I dont know. Soon.

Malena Ernman and Svante Thunberg with their daughters, newborn Beata and Greta aged three, 2005. Photograph: Lizzie Larsson/TT/PA Images

On a white sheet of paper fixed to the wall we note down everything Greta eats and how long it takes for her to eat it. The amounts are small. And it takes a long time. But the emergency unit at the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders says that this method has a good long-term success rate. You write down what you eat meal by meal, then you list everything you can eat, things you wish you could eat and things you want to be able to eat further down the line.

Its a short list. Rice, avocados and gnocchi.

School starts in five minutes. But there isnt going to be any school today. There isnt going to be any school at all this week. Yesterday Svante and I got another email from the school expressing their concern about Gretas lack of attendance, despite the fact that they were in possession of several letters from both doctors and psychologists explaining her situation.

Again, I inform the school office of our situation and they reply with an email saying that they hope Greta will come to school as usual on Monday so this problem can be dealt with. But Greta wont be in school on Monday. Because unless a sudden dramatic change occurs shes going to be admitted to Sachsska childrens hospital next week.

Svante is boiling gnocchi. It is extremely important that the consistency is perfect, otherwise it wont be eaten. We set a specific number of gnocchi on her plate. Its a delicate balancing act; if we offer too many our daughter wont eat anything and if we offer too few she wont get enough. Whatever she ingests is obviously too little, but every little bite counts and we cant afford to waste a single one.

Then Greta sits there sorting the gnocchi. She turns each one over, presses on them and then does it again. And again. After 20 minutes she starts eating. She licks and sucks and chews: tiny, tiny bites. It takes for ever.

Im full, she says suddenly. I cant eat any more.

Svante and I avoid looking at each other. We have to hold back our frustration, because weve started to realise that this is the only thing that works. Weve explored all other tactics. Every other conceivable way. Weve ordered her sternly. Weve screamed, laughed, threatened, begged, pleaded, cried and offered every imaginable bribe. But this seems to be what works the best.

Svante goes up to the sheet of paper on the wall and writes:

Lunch: 5 gnocchi. Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes.

Not eating can mean many things. The question is what. The question is why. Svante and I look for answers. I spend the evenings reading everything I can find on the internet about anorexia and eating disorders. Were sure its not anorexia. But, we keep hearing that anorexia is a very cunning disorder and will do anything to evade discovery. So we keep that door wide open.

I speak endlessly to the childrens psychiatry service (BUP), the healthcare information service, doctors, psychologists and every conceivable acquaintance who may be able to offer the least bit of knowledge or guidance.

At Gretas school theres a psychologist who is experienced with autism. She talks with both of us on the phone and says that a careful investigation must still be conducted, but in her eyes and off the record Greta shows clear signs of being on the autism spectrum. High-functioning Aspergers, she says.

Meeting after meeting follows where we repeat our story and explore our options. We talk away while Greta sits silently. She has stopped speaking with anyone except me, Svante and Beata. Everyone really wants to offer all the help they can but its as if theres no help to be had. Not yet, at least. Were fumbling in the dark.

After two months of not eating Greta has lost almost 10kg, which is a lot when you are rather small to begin with. Her body temperature is low and her pulse and blood pressure clearly indicate signs of starvation. She no longer has the energy to take the stairs and her scores on the depression tests she takes are sky high. We explain to our daughter that we have to start preparing ourselves for a stay at the hospital, where its possible to get nutrition and food without eating, with tubes and drips.

In mid-November theres a big meeting at BUP. Greta sits silently. As usual. Im crying. As usual. If there are no developments after the weekend then well have to admit you to the hospital, the doctor says.

On the stairs down to the lobby Greta turns round. I want to start eating again. All three of us burst into tears and we go home and Greta eats a whole green apple. But nothing more will go down. As it turns out, its a little harder than you think to just start eating again. We take a few careful, trial steps and it works. We inch forward. She eats tiny amounts of rice, avocado and bananas. We take our time. And we start on sertraline, an antidepressant.

Do they always look at you that way?

Dont know. Think so.

Svante and Greta have been at the end-of-term ceremony at school where they tried to make themselves invisible in the corridors and stairwells. When students openly point and laugh at you even though youre walking alongside your parent then things have gone too far. Way too far.

At home in the kitchen, Svante explains to me what theyve just experienced while Greta eats her rice and avocado. I get so angry at what I hear that I could tear down half the street we live on with my bare hands, but our daughter has a different reaction. Shes happy its in the open.

She devotes the whole Christmas break to telling us about unspeakably awful incidents. Its like a movie montage featuring every imaginable bullying scenario. Stories about being pushed over in the playground, wrestled to the ground, or lured into strange places, the systematic shunning and the safe space in the girls toilets where she sometimes manages to hide and cry before the break monitors force her out into the playground again. For a full year, the stories keep coming. Svante and I inform the school, but the school isnt sympathetic. Their understanding of the situation is different. Its Gretas own fault, the school thinks; several children have said repeatedly that Greta has behaved strangely and spoken too softly and never says hello. The latter they write in an email.

They write worse things than that, which is lucky for us, because when we report the school to the Swedish schools inspectorate were on a firm footing and theres no doubt that the inspectorate will rule in our favour.

I explain to Greta that shell have friends again, later. But her response is always the same. I dont want to have a friend. Friends are children and all children are mean.

Gretas pulse rate gets stronger and finally the weight curve turns upwards strongly enough for a neuropsychiatric investigation to begin.

Our daughter has Aspergers, high-functioning autism and OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. We could formally diagnose her with selective mutism, too, but that often goes away on its own with time, the doctor tells us. We arent surprised. Basically, this was the conclusion we drew several months ago.

On the way out, Beata calls to tell us shes having dinner with a friend, and I feel a sting of guilt. Soon well take care of you too, darling, I promise her in my mind, but first Greta has to get well.

Summer is coming, and we walk the whole way home. We almost dont even need to ration the burning of calories any more.

Six months after Greta received her diagnosis, life has levelled out into something that resembles an everyday routine. She has started at a new school. Ive cleared my calendar and put work on the back burner. But while were full up with taking care of Greta, Beatas having more and more of a tough time. In school everything is ticking along. But at home she falls apart, crashes. She cant stand being with us at all any more. Everything Svante and I do upsets her and in our company she can lose control. She is clearly is not feeling well.

One day near her 11th birthday I find her standing in the living room, hurling DVDs from the bookshelf down the spiral staircase to the kitchen. You only care about Greta. Never about me. I hate you, Mum. You are the worst bloody mother in the whole world, you bloody fucking bitch, she screams as Jasper the Penguin hits me on the forehead.

Its autumn 2015 when Beata undergoes an evaluation for various neurodevelopmental disorders. She is diagnosed with ADHD, with elements of Aspergers, OCD and ODD [oppositional defiant disorder]. Now that she has the diagnosis it feels like a fresh start for her, an explanation, a redress, a remedy. At school she has marvellous teachers who make everything work. She doesnt have to do homework. We drop all activities. We avoid anything that may be stressful. And it works. Whatever happens we must never meet anger with anger, because that, pretty much always, does more harm than good. We adapt and we plan, with rigorous routines and rituals. Hour by hour. We try to find habits that work.

Outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, August 2018. Photograph: Anders Hellberg

The fact that our children finally got help was due to a great many factors. In part it was about existing care, proven methods, advice and medication. It was also thanks to our own toil, patience, time and luck that Greta and Beata found their way back on their feet. However, what happened to Greta in particular cant be explained simply by a psychiatric label. In the end, she simply couldnt reconcile the contradictions of modern life. Things simply didnt add up. We, who live in an age of historic abundance, who have access to huge shared resources, cant afford to help vulnerable people in flight from war and terror people like you and me, but who have lost everything.

In school one day, Gretas class watches a film about how much rubbish there is in the oceans. An island of plastic, larger than Mexico, is floating around in the South Pacific. Greta cries throughout the film. Her classmates are also clearly moved. Before the lesson is over the teacher announces that on Monday there will be a substitute teaching the class, because shes going to a wedding over the weekend, in Connecticut, right outside of New York. Wow, lucky you, the pupils say. Out in the corridor the trash island off the coast of Chile is already forgotten. New iPhones are taken out of fur-trimmed down jackets, and everyone who has been to New York talks about how great it is, with all those shops, and Barcelona has amazing shopping too, and in Thailand everything is so cheap, and someone is going with her mother to Vietnam over the Easter break, and Greta cant reconcile any of this with any of what she has just seen.

She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye. The invisible, colourless, scentless, soundless abyss that our generation has chosen to ignore. She saw all of it not literally, of course, but nonetheless she saw the greenhouse gases streaming out of our chimneys, wafting upwards with the winds and transforming the atmosphere into a gigantic, invisible garbage dump.

She was the child, we were the emperor. And we were all naked.

You celebrities are basically to the environment what anti immigrant politicians are to multicultural society, Greta says at the breakfast table early in 2016. I guess its true. Not just of celebrities, but of the vast majority of people. Everyone wants to be successful, and nothing conveys success and prosperity better than luxury, abundance and travel, travel, travel.

Greta scrolls through my Instagram feed. Shes angry. Name a single celebrity whos standing up for the climate! Name a single celebrity who is prepared to sacrifice the luxury of flying around the world!

I was a part of the problem myself. Only recently I had been posting sun-drenched selfies from Japan. One Good morning from Tokyo and tens of thousands of likes rolled in to my brand-new iPhone. Something started to ache inside of me. Something Id previously called travel anxiety or fear of flying but which was now taking on another, clearer form. On 6 March 2016 I flew home from a concert in Vienna, and not long after that I decided to stay on the ground for good.

A few months later we walked home from the airport shuttle having met Svante and Beata off a flight from Rome.You just released 2.7 tonnes of CO2, Greta says to Svante. And that corresponds to the annual emissions of five people in Senegal. I hear what youre saying, Svante says, nodding. Ill try to stay on the ground from now on, too.

Fridays For Future climate change protest, Stockholm, November 2018. Photograph: IBL/Shutterstock

Greta started planning her school strike over the summer of 2018. Svante has promised to take her to a building suppliers to buy a scrap piece of wood that she can paint white and make a sign out of. School Strike for the Climate, it will say. And although more than anything we want her to drop the whole idea of going on strike from school we support her. Because we see that she feels good as she draws up her plans better than she has felt in many years. Better than ever before, in fact.

On the morning of 20 August 2018, Greta gets up an hour earlier than on a regular school day. She has her breakfast. Fills a backpack with schoolbooks, a lunchbox, utensils, a water bottle, a cushion and an extra sweater. She has printed out 100 flyers with facts and source references about the climate and sustainability crisis.

She walks her white bicycle out of the garage and rolls off to parliament. Svante cycles a few metres behind her, with her home-made sign under his right arm The weather is rather lovely. The sun is rising behind the old town and there is little chance of rain. The cycle paths and pavements are filled with people on their way to work and school.

Outside the prime ministers office, Greta stops and gets off her bicycle. Svante helps her take a picture before they lock the bicycles. Then she nods an almost invisible goodbye to Dad and, with the sign in her arms, staggers around the corner towards the government block where she stops and leans the sign against the greyish-red granite wall. Sets out her flyers. Settles down.

She asks a passerby to take another picture with her phone and posts both pictures on social media. After a few minutes the first sharing on Twitter starts. The political scientist Staffan Lindberg retweets her post. Then come another two retweets. And a few more. The meteorologist Pr Holmgren. The singer-songwriter Stefan Sundstrm. After that, it accelerates. She has fewer than 20 followers on Instagram and not many more on Twitter. But thats already changing.

Now there is no way back.

A documentary film crew shows up. Svante calls and tells her that the newspaper Dagens ETC has been in touch with him and are on their way. Right after that [another daily newspaper] Aftonbladet shows up and Greta is surprised that everything is moving so fast. Happy and surprised. She wasnt expecting this.

Ivan and Fanny from Greenpeace show up and ask Greta if everything is OK. Can we help with anything? they ask. Do you have a police permit? Ivan asks. She doesnt. She didnt think a permit would be needed. But evidently it is. I can help you, Ivan says.

Greenpeace is far from alone in offering its support. Everyone wants to do their utmost to help out. But Greta doesnt need any help. She manages all by herself. She is interviewed by one newspaper after the next. The simple fact that she is talking to strangers without feeling unwell is an unexpected joy for us parents. Everything else is a bonus.

The first haters start to attack, and Greta is openly mocked on social media. She is mocked by anonymous troll accounts, by rightwing extremists. And she is mocked by members of parliament. But thats no surprise.

Gretas Christmas 2018 Instagram post: Happy holidays from me and my family! Photograph: Courtesy Greta Thunberg via instagram

Svante stops by to make sure that everything is OK. He does this a couple of times every day. Greta stands by the wall and there are a dozen people around her. She looks stressed. The journalist from [newspaper] Dagens Nyheter asks whether its OK if they film an interview, and Svante sees out of the corner of his eye that something is wrong. Wait, let me check, he says, and takes Greta behind a pillar under the arch. Her whole body is tense. She is breathing heavily, and Svante says that theres nothing to worry about. Lets go home now, he says. OK? Greta shakes her head. Shes crying.

You dont need to do any of this. Lets forget about this and get out of here. But Greta doesnt want to go home. She stands perfectly still for a few seconds. Breathes. Then she walks around in a little circle and somehow pushes away all that panic and fear that she has been carrying inside her for as long as she can remember. After that she stops, and stares straight ahead. Her breathing is still agitated and tears are running down her cheeks. No, she says. Im doing this.

We monitor how Greta is feeling as closely as we can. But we cant see any signs that shes feeling anything but good. She sets the alarm clock for 6.15am and shes happy when she gets out of bed. Shes happy as she cycles off to parliament, and shes happy when she comes home in the afternoon. During the afternoons she catches up on schoolwork and checks social media. She goes to bed on time, falls asleep right away and sleeps peacefully the whole night long. Eating, on the other hand, is not going well.

There are too many people and I dont have time. Everyone wants to talk all the time.

You have to eat, Svante says. Greta doesnt say anything. Food is a sensitive topic. The most difficult one. But on the third day something else happens. Ivan from Greenpeace stops by again. Hes holding a white plastic bag. Are you hungry, Greta? Its noodles. Thai, he says. Vegan. Would you like some?

He holds out the bag and Greta leans forward and reaches for the food container. She opens the lid and smells it a few times. Then she takes a little bite. And another. No one reacts to whats happening. Why would they? Why would it be remarkable for a child to be sitting with a bunch of people eating vegan pad thai? Greta keeps eating. Not just a few bites but almost the whole serving.

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Greta Thunberg: the speeches that helped spark a climate movement video

Gretas energy is exploding. There doesnt seem to be any outer limit, and even if we try to hold her back she just keeps going. By herself.

Beata sits with Greta one day in front of parliament. But this is Gretas thing. Not hers. The sudden fuss over her big sister is not easy to handle. Beata sees that Greta suddenly has 10,000 followers on Instagram, and we all think thats crazy. But Beata handles it well. Even when her own feed is filled with comments about Greta, and can you tell her this and that. All everyone suddenly cares about is Greta, Greta and Greta. Its nuts, Beata says one afternoon after school. Its exactly like Beyonc and Jay-Z, she states, with an acerbic emphasis. Greta is Beyonc. And Im Jay-Z.

We get death threats on social media, excrement through the letter box, and social services report that they have received a great number of complaints against us as Gretas parents. But at the same time they state in the letter that they do NOT intend to take any action. We think of the capital letters as a little love note from an anonymous official. And it warms us.

More and more people are keeping Greta company in front of parliament. Children, adults, teachers, retirees. One day an entire class of elementary-school pupils stops and wants to talk, and Greta has to walk away for a bit. Feels mild panic. She steps aside and starts crying. She cant help it. But after a while she calms herself down and goes back and greets the children. Afterwards she explains that she has a hard time associating with children sometimes because she has had such bad experiences. Ive never met a group of children that hasnt been mean to me. And wherever Ive been Ive been bullied because Im different.

Several times a day people come up and say that they have stopped flying, parked the car or become vegans thanks to her. To be able to influence so many people in such a short time is bewildering in a good way. The phenomenon keeps growing. Faster and faster by the hour. In the run-up to the end of the strike, Greta is being followed by TV crews from the BBC, German ARD and Danish TV2.

Altogether 1,000 children and adults sit with Greta on the last day of the school strike. And media from several different countries report live from Mynttorget Square. She has succeeded. Some say that she alone has done more for the climate than politicians and the mass media have in years. But Greta doesnt agree. Nothing has changed, she says. The emissions continue to increase and there is no change in sight.

At three oclock Svante comes and picks her up and they walk together over to the bicycles outside Rosenbad.

Are you satisfied? Svante asks.

No, she says, with her gaze fixed on the bridge back towards the old town. Im going to continue.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg leads a Fridays For Future rally in Turin, December 2019. Photograph: Alessandro Di Marco/EPA

The next day is Saturday 8 September. Its the day before the Swedish parliamentary elections and Greta is going to speak at the Peoples Climate March in Stockholm. She has only given one speech before at a small event. Prior to that shed never spoken in front of more people than fit in a classroom, and on those few occasions she had not exactly seemed at ease.

There are a lot of people in the park for the march and the rally. Almost 2,000 have crowded together at the stage and more are on their way. Somehow theres a different feeling about this protest. It doesnt feel the same as usual. It feels as if something might happen. Soon. Its no longer just the familiar faces. The regulars. The activists. The Greenpeace volunteers in polar-bear suits. Here, suddenly, are all conceivable kinds of people and characters. People who might have all sorts of jobs. This is my first demonstration, states a well-dressed man in his 40s. Mine too, a woman next to him says, with a laugh.

The host introduces Greta and she walks slowly but steadily into the middle of the stage. The audience cheers. Svante, on the other hand, is scared out of his wits. What will happen now? Will she start crying? Is she going to run away? He feels like an awful parent for not putting his foot down and saying No from the start. All this is starting to feel too big and unreal.

But Greta is as calm as can be. She takes the speech out of her pocket and looks out over the sea of people. Then she grasps the microphone and starts speaking. Hi, my name is Greta, she says in Swedish. I am going to speak in English now. And I want you to take out your phones and film what Im saying. Then you can post it on your social media.

My name is Greta Thunberg and I am 15 years old. And I have schoolstriked for the climate for the last three weeks. Yesterday was the last day. But She pauses. We will go on with the school strike. Every Friday, as from now, we will sit outside the Swedish parliament until Sweden is in line with the Paris agreement. The crowd cheers.

Greta continues. I urge all of you to do the same. Sit outside your parliament or local government, wherever you are, until your country is on a safe pathway to a below-two-degree warming target. Time is much shorter than we think. Failure means disaster.

Her voice is steady and there are no signs of nervousness. She appears to be at ease up there. She even smiles sometimes.

The changes required are enormous and we must all contribute in every part of our everyday life. Especially us in the rich countries, where no nation is doing nearly enough.

The audience stands up. Shouting, applauding. The ovation doesnt stop. And Greta is smiling the most beautiful smile I have ever seen her smile. Im watching everything from a live stream on my phone in the hallway outside the dressing rooms at the Oscarsteatern. The tears keep coming.

This is an edited extract from Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis by Malena and Beata Ernman, Greta and Svante Thunberg, published by Penguin on 5 March (16.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over 15

Greta Thunberg with her dogs at home in Stockholm. Photograph: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/TT/TT News Agency/PA Images

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A slow boat across the Atlantic plus a scenic train home to Vancouver add up to a hugely enjoyable three-week trip

Are you a crew member? the security guard asked, fixing me with a stare in the vans rear-view mirror. Passenger, I replied. The guard gave me a quizzical look then muttered something to himself in German, shaking his head. It was 7am and the port of Hamburg was a hive of activity, our port security van speeding past whirring cranes and towering stacks of shipping containers. As the ships immense hull came into view, I entered a world where everything was larger, louder and more dangerous than my life on land. The 300-metre, 100,000-tonne vessel before me was to be my home for the next 15 days.

Four months earlier I had made a reservation on a cargo ship to take me from Hamburg to Halifax, Nova Scotia. My European work visa was expiring and I hoped to make it home to the west coast of Canada in time for Christmas. Recent campaigns such as the Swedish flygskam (flight shame) had shone a harsh light on my blindness to the climate impact of air travel, and I had decided that booking a flight wasnt an option. Since 2017, Id emitted over 14 tonnes of carbon from flights alone. I realised that all my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint at home in Milan I cycle to work, limit food waste and seldom buy new clothes are wiped out by just one flight between Canada and Europe.

First stop Antwerp en route from Hamburg to Halifax

Sustainable travel within Europe often involves trading a plane for a train, but getting to Canada from Europe is more complex. A cargo ship became the obvious low-carbon choice. Shipping companies sell surplus cabin space through selected travel agents and I booked my passage through Berlin-based Slowtravel Experience. This is still a niche mode of travel and ships rarely have room for more than a dozen passengers, so booking well in advance, especially for peak times, is essential. Flexibility with travel dates is also crucial. I was notified just days before departure that the ship would be leaving three days ahead of schedule, and had I not already been in Germany, I would have literally missed the boat.

I anticipated a long and tiresome journey (I packed dozens of books and downloaded films) and had visions of gruelling nights spent with my face in a barf bag, but my experience on board could not have been more enjoyable. The two other passengers, Tony from the Netherlands and Janos from Germany, were hitching a ride for the same environmental reasons and their company made time fly by. Our cabins were simple and comfortable, each with private toilet and shower, two single beds, a desk and vast ocean views. The 25 crew members, a mix of Filipino and eastern European men, were warm and friendly. I was in all-male company for my transatlantic voyage but Isabel Hagen, a Swedish student I met through a friend, made the voyage earlier this year, and said shed had a positive experience as a solo female traveller: The crew was welcoming, respectful, and polite from the moment I stepped on board.

The writers cabin

Left mostly to our own devices, Janos, Tony and I filled our days with darts tournaments, jigsaw puzzles and raucous games of Risk. One morning we played chess on a deck bathed in sunshine; the next afternoon Tony lost his knitted cap to hurricane-force winds off Newfoundland. During port calls in Antwerp and Liverpool, we were allowed to disembark and explore both for a day. Back on board, a daily routine quickly emerged: morning coffee on the bridge with the gregarious chief officer, sociable mealtimes with the crew, and hourly strolls around the outer decks, the frigid ocean wind buffeting my face and dark waters churning below.

A highlight was a mornings tour of the ship, led by crew members. Passenger access to working spaces was restricted, so the chance to walk through the bowels of the ship from bow to stern was eye-opening. In addition to nearly 4,000 containers stacked on the exterior decks, there were six roll-on, roll-off decks carrying vehicles, ranging from a fleet of Range Rovers and transport trucks for the US army to an aeroplane fuselage. As the captain explained, the complexities of the enormous operation, I marvelled at the sheer scale of everything around us, an industry responsible for transporting 90% of goods worldwide.

Arriving in Halifax after 15 days on board

Life on board was so immersive that after a few days I didnt even mind the food. Passengers dine with the crew, and meals are meat- and starch-heavy, with few vegetables (think beef stew and mash or bacon-wrapped chicken portions). As I soon came to understand, the luxury of being at sea is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life at sea itself the tranquil pace and intoxicating sense of adventure is the true luxury. When I finally set foot on dry land in Halifax, it was hard to say goodbye to the hulking ship that had come to feel like home.

Arriving in Halifax, I still had more than 6,000km to go to get home (further than London to New York), this time by train. With limited passenger rail infrastructure, a cross-country trip in Canada means a halting, week-long adventure rather than high-speed rail jaunt. Theres no single coast-to-coast train, so after an overnight train from Halifax I spent a night each in Montreal and Toronto before boarding The Canadian, VIA Rails flagship sleeper train to Vancouver. Designed for tourists, it has a charming dining car, glass-domed observation decks, live music and even wine tastings during the four-night trip.

Approaching the Rocky Mountains on the VIA train, the Canadian

As on the ship I was immediately struck by the hospitality of the crew servers and attendants who seemed genuinely happy to be there despite being thousands of kilometres from home. The food was impressive as well, like the brunches of fluffy buttermilk pancakes drowning in the maple syrup that Id missed so much in Europe. Dinners of hemp-crusted trout, roast veal chops and fresh vegetables were equally delicious. The atmosphere among passengers was jovial, with communal mealtimes and a rowdy bar where we swapped travel stories.

As on the ship, the vast expanses passing by my window made the journey special: the endless boreal forests of northern Ontario, the icy, placid prairies and the magnificent Rockies in the west, every landscape shimmering under mid-December snow. Sitting in the dome car watching a blazing sun set over white Quebec forests and waking to whiteout blizzards in Manitoba deepened my connection to the land I call home, and reaffirmed my commitment to protecting this natural beauty.

Dome car on board the Canadian train

Stepping off the train in Vancouver, having travelled more than 13,000km and crossed nine timezones, that van ride at dawn through the dreary port of Hamburg felt like a lifetime ago. World travel with a low carbon footprint may not be convenient or easy, but I had proved to myself that it is achievable. Now its time to plan my next adventure.

Way to go

The 15-day cargo ship passage from Hamburg to Halifax, booked through Berlin-based Slowtravel Experience, costs just under 100 a day (including full-board and carbon offset) in a two-person cabin. The best-known shipping companies offering passenger berths include Hamburg Sd and Grimaldi Lines. Other agencies to look at are New Zealand Freighter Travel, London-based Cruise People, and Maris Freighter Cruises. Train travel was provided by VIA Rail Canada. The Ocean travels from Halifax to Montreal three times a week from 68 (C$117) one way, daily trains from Montreal to Toronto from 22 one-way and The Canadian, from Toronto to Vancouver twice weekly from 271 one-way.

Carbon emissions (according to weight of passenger)

Flight Frankfurt-Vancouver: 1.3 tonnes*
Cargo ship Hamburg-Halifax (via Antwerp & Liverpool): 5.3kg**
Trains Halifax-Vancouver: 204.2kg***
Total CO2 Hamburg to Vancouver: 209.5kg
* myclimate Foundation
**International Council on Clean Transportation
***Via Rail

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The long read: He is the most beloved figure in Britain, and, at 93, a global superstar. His films long shied away from discussing humanitys impact on the planet. Now they are sounding the alarm but is it too late?

In the late 1980s, a meeting was convened at the BBC studios on Whiteladies Road in Bristol. Its participants mainly amiable former public schoolboys named Mike discussed the imminent retirement of a grey-haired freelancer, who had been working with the BBC for almost four decades. We need to think about who is going to take over from David when this series is finished, a junior producer, Mike Gunton, remembered his boss saying. David Attenborough was nearing 65 and putting the finishing touches to The Trials of Life, the third of his epic series about the natural world. These programmes had been broadcast around the globe. They had established a new genre, perhaps even a new language, of wildlife films. It was a fine legacy. Now it was time to go.

When Alastair Fothergill became head of the BBC Natural History Unit a few years later, executives were still worrying over the same question. The BBC director-general asked him to find a new David Attenborough. I remember thinking, thats not very sensible, said Fothergill. He has always been this great oak tree under which its been hard for a sapling to grow. Today, Mike Gunton has ascended the ranks to become creative director of the Natural History Unit. He still attends meetings on Whiteladies Road. But, three decades after the subject was first broached, finding the next David Attenborough is no longer on the agenda. We still havent got an answer and I dont want one, Gunton told me.

Attenborough was born on 8 May 1926, 17 days after the Queen. And, like the Queen, he has become a symbol of stability in a turbulent world. It is hard to imagine a time before he was on our screens, affably engaging with sloths or giant turtles partly because there wasnt. Television was invented the year after he was born, and only began to enter peoples homes in the 1950s, when he was beginning his career. The first programme he made was watched by barely 10,000 people gazing at 405 flickering black-and-white lines on large boxes in living rooms in the south-east of England. This spring, his series Our Planet became Netflixs most-watched original documentary, watched by 33 million people in its first month. This autumn, the BBC will broadcast Seven Worlds, One Planet, the 19th blockbuster series he has written and presented (add a zero and then some if also counting his pre-70s series, short series and one-offs). The television executives who keep offering this 93-year-old freelancer bountiful employment agree that he is more powerful than ever.

Attenborough and the Queen are more than just contemporaries. I see them quite a lot, Attenborough said of the royal family when I met him at his home in Richmond earlier this year. He first encountered the Queens children, Charles and Anne, in 1958, when they toured the BBCs Lime Grove studios and the young presenter introduced them to his pet cockatoo, Cocky. In 1986, the year after Attenborough was knighted, he produced the first of six Christmas broadcasts for the Queen. Earlier this year, he was interviewed by Prince William on stage at Davos; the future king asked him for advice on how best to save the planet.

David Attenborough on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in June. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In our fractured age, Attenborough is the closest we have to a universally beloved public figure. Last year, a YouGov poll found him to be the most popular person in Britain. The crowd at Glastonburys Pyramid stage roared when he appeared on stage this summer. Viewers of Love Island expressed outrage when one contestant declared she found his programmes boring. But Attenborough transcended national treasure status some years ago. He is a truly global figure now. So many Chinese viewers downloaded Blue Planet II that it temporarily slowed down the countrys internet, according to the Sunday Times. The premiere of his new series, which took place earlier this month in London, was broadcast live in South Africa and India, where rapt schoolchildren held up signs: Thank you for being you Sir David A and Sir David please come to India please. As he moves from the White House to the World Economic Forum, urging presidents, businesspeople and the public to better protect the environment, he has come to be viewed, in a way he sees as overblown, as a keeper of humanitys conscience. That man who saves the world, is how my seven-year-old daughter describes him.

There will never be another David Attenborough. What makes him special, apart from all his personal qualities, is the timing of his life, said Fothergill. When Attenborough began travelling the world in the 1950s, Fothergill noted, we were in a different geological epoch, the Holocene. Today, we live in the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by Homo sapiens disruptive dominance of the planet. Hes seen more of the natural world than any human being that has ever lived on the planet and hes also seen more change than anyone else. And he feels a responsibility.

Despite the adulation, one charge has dogged Attenborough for decades. Critics argue that he has built himself a unique storytelling platform, only to fail to tell the most important story of all: the destructive impact of people on the planet. But one reason Attenborough has thrived on screen for seven decades is because he has always sensed how attitudes are changing, and moved with the times. For a long time, he maintained that his programmes must showcase the wonders of the natural world, and not speak of the human one. Now his newest series are filled with urgent messages about environmental destruction. Still, he resists the idea that he has changed; he prefers to say that it is the public mood that has transformed. After a lifetime of caution, almost despite himself, he has become a leading champion for action.

Attenborough fell in love with the natural world as a boy, exploring his way through his neighbourhood in Leicester, looking for bugs, insects and amphibians. The middle child of three brothers, he grew up in a family of teachers. His father was principal of University College, Leicester. His mother was a talented pianist. Education was revered. When I met Attenborough in the spring, he spoke of his boyhood passions keeping tanks of tropical fish, venturing across northern England on his bike as a young teen, alone, in search of fossils.

To this day, Attenborough is still a collector of tribal art, books and music but although more than a dozen species are named after him, including a flightless weevil, Trigonopterus Attenboroughi, and a genus of dinosaur, Attenborosaurus, he is not an authority on natural history. Everyone thinks hes an amazing naturalist, said the producer and writer Mary Colwell, who worked with him at the Natural History Unit in the 2000s. He isnt at all. Hes a great storyteller. Everyone thinks he makes these programmes. He doesnt but without him they wouldnt sparkle in the way they do.

Attenborough agrees. Work and reputation get separated, he said. Forty years ago, he travelled around the world three times in order to make his groundbreaking series Life on Earth. He wrote the script, and every page of the accompanying book. But now I just write and speak the words. And people say: What was it like when you saw that animal charging in? And I say: I wasnt there. Thirty cameramen worked on this thing. Im given credit for things I dont do. I am grateful, but Im also embarrassed.

Attenborough with a bird-eating spider in 2005 during an episode of Life In the Undergrowth. Photograph: BBC/Bridget Appleby/BBC

It is even worse, he said, when viewers assume he is a source of scientific wisdom. OK, I was a biologist once, but Im a hopeless birder. If I go out with a birder I keep my mouth shut. I just nod. Mmmm. Mmmm. So to use a horrible word, Ive become a kind of icon. Using it in its original meaning, Im the image of what they think of as a naturalist. Im a reasonable naturalist, but Im not the great all-seeing source of all information, knowledge and understanding. At times, Attenboroughs self-deprecation almost sounds like imposter syndrome. When I asked him to list his failings as a person, he narrowed his eyes. Im too convincing, he laughed, comparing his own expertise unfavourably to other wildlife broadcasters such as Simon King and Liz Bonnin. When it comes to, as it were, conning your way through, Im not bad at it. Never identify things unnecessarily.

Even so, plenty of colleagues recall Attenborough relishing his ability to surprise them with his knowledge. Jonny Keeling, the executive producer of Seven Worlds, One Planet, was excited to show his presenter never-obtained-before footage from China of a golden snub-nosed monkey. Oh yes, Rhinopithecus roxellana, remembered Attenborough instantly: he knew all about it and had tried to film it many years before.

The only praise Attenborough will accept is for his skill as a storyteller. Robert Attenborough, Davids son and an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, remembered, as a teenager, watching him in the raconteur role as a host of a dinner party and admiring the skill with which he would tell a funny story. Sometimes they get slightly improved. Thats something we used to tease him about. Of course he wouldnt do that, then or now, when making a serious point.

Attenboroughs storytelling has been honed over seven decades in television and he is, above all, a TV man. After studying natural sciences at Cambridge, he married his university sweetheart, Jane Oriel, and ditched his boring junior publishing job for the glamorous new world of television. He started off behind the camera, after one of his first bosses decided his teeth were too big for a presenter. In 1954, Attenborough travelled to Sierra Leone with Jack Lester, London Zoos curator of reptiles, to film a new series, Zoo Quest. The concept was simple: they would catch wild animals their bounty from Sierra Leone included pythons, bird-eating spiders and their big prize, the bald-headed rockfowl and bring them back to London to add to the zoos collection. At the outset, Attenborough was the producer, director, sound man and animal-wrangler. He only ended up being the presenter because Lester was taken ill after the first episode.

Zoo Quest was broadcast in black and white, but the original colour footage, which was later discovered by BBC archivists, is beautiful. Attenborough narrates his encounters in clipped, 1950s, BBC-issue received pronunciation, with little trace of his more expressive later style. Although the colonial animal-snatching conceit of Zoo Quest is extremely dated, each episode focuses as much on the human worlds he visits as the exotic animals. Attenboroughs script is factual, respectful and open-minded; his films unsensationally depict nudity, polygamy and other cultural traditions, alongside the animal hunt.

Over the next few years, new series of Zoo Quest appeared and Attenboroughs reputation grew. With his keen eye for the perceptions of his TV audience, he adapted cannily to a rapidly expanding industry. By the dawn of the 60s, as he admitted in his autobiography, Zoo Quest was looking increasingly antiquated. He realised that it was time for a new approach. His next Quest series, filmed in northern Australia, eschewed attempts to bring animals home and instead depicted the cultural lives of Aboriginal peoples.

David Attenborough with an armadillo on BBC TV in 1963. Photograph: BBC

The trip to Australia inspired him to take a part-time postgraduate degree in anthropology, but he was tempted back to full-time TV work before he could complete it. In 1965, he became controller of BBC Two, an appointment greeted with scepticism by TV professionals quoted in newspaper columns of the day. At first, he was considered lightweight, a youthful bit of eye-candy, but he was soon hailed for his unexpected success, as a Daily Express profile put it. Everybody forgot I wasnt just a naturalist I was always a trained TV man, he told the paper in 1965. Hell, I love it. I watch everything. Straight home from the office switch to BBC Two see all my babies.

As the channels controller and then director of programmes for both BBC channels, Attenborough was a great innovator. In 1967, the government decided that BBC Two would become the first channel to switch to colour, and he set about exploiting this advantage. He put snooker on the channel and helped devise new forms of sport: one-day cricket and rugby league under floodlights. Programmes that emerged under his watch include Dads Army, Porridge and Monty Pythons Flying Circus. In 1972, he championed community programming that included what has been described as the first sympathetic portrayal of transgender people on British television; he even suggested phone-ins to widen audience participation, years before they became a staple of TV and radio.

One of his lasting innovations was the all-you-need-to-know documentary, beginning with Kenneth Clarks Civilisation. Attenborough designed this epic, 12-part series about the history of art and culture to showcase the glory of colour television. These monumental series became known as sledgehammers, and there followed uncompromisingly highbrow treatments of human evolution, economics and US history. But Attenborough believed the best subject for sledgehammer treatment was yet to come: natural history.

Attenboroughs achievements at BBC Two made him a prime candidate for director-general, the top job at the corporation. But he was tiring of the senior executives life desk-bound, constant meetings and in the early 70s he resigned. The fact he didnt want to stay as an executive and wanted to go back to programming says something very important about him, his son Robert told me. Attenborough yearned to be more creative, and had seen the thankless politics involved in the top job. The Archangel Gabriel couldnt do the DGs job, he remarked to me.

Instead, he persuaded the BBC that he could create a Civilisation-style treatment of the evolution of plants and animals. This series took three years to make, and the budget was so big that Attenborough had to pitch to US networks for funding. (He still enjoys impersonating a sceptical American TV man aghast at the prospect of funding a series that opened with slime mould.)

Life on Earth was broadcast for 55 minutes on 13 consecutive Sunday evenings in 1979. It started quietly, according to Mike Salisbury, a former producer who worked on the programme. Despite the presence of a safari-suited Attenborough, binoculars around his neck, skipping between exotic locations, the early episodes often feel like a lecture with moving pictures. Our handsome presenter tries to make the best of diagrams of DNA, micro-organisms and 200m-year-old fossils. A whole lot of worms have left this delicate tracery of trails in what was mud, he enthuses in the Grand Canyon. Salisbury chuckled at the difficulty of bringing this to life on television: Fossils, for Gods sake. They dont even move.

But as its epic story slowly unfolds, the series warms up. The writing is often superb: Four million animals and plants in the world, says Attenborough, four million different solutions to staying alive. The penultimate episode, on primates, features the first memorable Attenborough two shot, where he appears alongside another animal. He joins a grooming session among mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and still has the presence-of-mind to whisper: There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. Although some facts have changed we now know there are more than 8m species, not 4m the series stands the test of time; one Cambridge professor still shows his undergraduates the primates episode each year.

Attenborough introducing Prince Charles and Princess Anne to his cockatoo, Cocky, in 1958. Photograph: PA

For old-timers at the BBC, history is divided into before and after Life on Earth. We hadnt realised what a game-changer it was going to be, said Salisbury. By the end there were 14 million people watching it. The series established what television executives call the blue-chip natural history blockbuster. While the BBC has relinquished its dominance over most genres, it remains the pre-eminent maker of natural history programmes, according to Fothergill. So much of that is down to David, he said. Much imitated, these blockbusters are still a huge global export: the BBC will not reveal what profit, if any, these series make, but Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II were sold to more than 235 territories.

After the success of Life on Earth, Attenborough spent much of the 80s completing what became a triumvirate of blue-chip behemoths, with The Living Planet exploring ecology and The Trials of Life revealing animal behaviour. He also turned his attention to series about less fashionable subjects: plants, spiders, stick insects and other invertebrates. Audiences liked his enthusiasm, his quick wit and his affection for animals, already evident from his early days bottle-feeding a tiny African bush rat in Zoo Quest.

From Natural History Unit veterans such as Salisbury to colleagues today, everyone paints the same picture of Attenborough in the field: a team-player, carrying kit, energetic, curious, without vanity, funny, not suffering fools and preternaturally lucky. Everyone has a story about him joining a crew that has lucklessly staked out a target species for two weeks, only for that creature whether Hungarian mayfly or polar bear to suddenly hove into view. I dont like presenters on the whole. I dont think they are particularly nice people, one producer told me. But Attenborough was different. Hes not a prima donna. Hes not an ego on a stick. He doesnt need to be now.

By the early 80s, Attenboroughs programmes had been broadcast around the world and he became recognised wherever he went. But he was not yet, to use another label that vexes him, a global superstar. Until recently, when Attenboroughs series were shown on US television, broadcasters would replace his narration with voices they thought an American audience would prefer. In 2010, when Life was broadcast in the US, Oprah Winfrey was the narrator.

Viewers tend to assume Attenborough writes every word he says on screen, while TV people think his lines are written for him. The truth is somewhere in between. Attenboroughs scripts are written by production teams, but he is an unusually rigorous editor and rewriter. Even today, Attenborough rewrites each script to fit his own turn of phrase and checks for accuracy. If I send him a script, he goes through it with a fine-tooth comb. More than any other presenter, said Mary Colwell. His attention to detail is incredible and he wont say anything he doesnt want to say.

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When filming, according to Mike Gunton, Attenborough does not learn his lines precisely. He looks at it and comes back and says: What do you think if I say it like this? His turn of phrase and the way he delivers these turns of phrase its got such power. He has the same genes as his brother, meaning Richard, the Oscar-winning actor-director, who died in 2014. Ive often said hes as good a performer as his brother, Gunton said.

You change the pace, you change the timbre, you change the mood, and the commentary has organic flow, Attenborough told me. If the last sentence ended 10 seconds ago rather than one minute ago, you start in a different kind of way. I dont think other people do that. Its a craft, and I quite enjoy it, actually. His colleagues think his voice has improved with age. If you go back to the older programmes, even on Blue Planet [from 2001], its quite a clipped voice, said Fothergill. Its now the voice of an older man, but its become even more powerful, with a timbre and an emotional resonance.

By his own admission, it took some time for Attenborough to realise just what a threat humankind posed to the environment. When he was younger, he said, people knew of species that had gone extinct, such as the Arabian oryx and the dodo, but you didnt perceive it as a major ecological problem. And in point of fact, lets be honest, if the Hawaiian goose disappears, the world doesnt actually judder in its revolutions. It wasnt until Life on Earth that he came to see that species decline was systemic and actually the disappearance of the giant panda represented some major change.

For most of his life, Attenboroughs environmentalism has been the old-fashioned, off-screen variety, lending his support to numerous green charities. Ever since he was asked, as a bit of a joke, to open a visitor centre at a nature reserve by the village of Attenborough in Nottinghamshire, in 1966, he has given rousing speeches (I have seen several) at hundreds of events for nature charities across Britain. It is hard to find a visitor centre at a Wildlife Trust nature reserve that does not feature a silver plaque declaring that it was Opened by Sir David Attenborough.

To his critics, these good deeds do not make up for what they see as Attenboroughs great failing as a broadcaster. Putting the case for the prosecution, the journalist George Monbiot has accused Attenborough of knowingly creating a false impression of the world by making films that underplay humanitys impact on the planet and fail to identify the forces driving mass extinction and the climate crisis. Another environmentalist told me that Attenborough possesses irreproachable integrity, but his long silence on extinction and global warming in his television work has contributed towards a popular knowledge deficit.

Richard Mabey, a naturalist who worked in television before almost single-handedly reviving British nature writing, has long made a version of this argument. When Life on Earth came out in 1979, and The Living Planet five years later, I was concerned about the fact that this wasnt a place I recognised, Mabey told me. What one saw was magnificent, but it was what one didnt see no humans, no environmental degradation. It was like an idealised biosphere on another planet. Once, in the early 80s, Mabey bumped into Attenborough at a lunch. I asked him, genuinely curious, why this picture of the planet was so devoid of environmental strife? He said, very simply: We wouldnt have got the viewers, they would have turned off. I was quite distressed.

TV executives repeat Attenboroughs argument today. A blue-chip series costs millions to produce and requires global funding. BBC programme-makers are terrified of being seen as political. At the launch of Seven Worlds, One Planet, Keeling insisted that its not preachy. As Miles Barton, a long-standing Attenborough producer, put it: The more preachy you are, the lower the numbers are going to be. The lower the numbers, the less money the series will make, the less funding for the next. Mabey understood this equation. Attenborough has power over the audience, he said. Im not sure he has power over the money men. My initial worry about him not including environmental disasters in his early series may have been less his personal choice than corporate pressure.

Attenborough taking part in a discussion with Christine Lagarde, managing director of the Internation Monetary Fund, in Washington earlier this year. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

As a young producer, it was drilled into Attenborough that private convictions must not be aired in public. He has always upheld the values of the liberal establishment avowedly internationalist and anti-populist in his veneration of expertise and taken the traditional BBC line on party-political neutrality. Im not a political chap, I know about bugs, he protested when asked about Brexit in 2017. (When pushed, he revealed that he voted to remain.)

Like most in the Natural History Unit, Attenborough has also long defended his work with a show the wonders and then people will care argument. When we spoke earlier this year, Attenborough put it more bluntly: People ought to be concerned because they think the natural world is important. If they know nothing about the natural world they wont care a toss.

To a sympathetic observer, the lack of campaigning films in Attenboroughs oeuvre might look like a canny political calculation about the most effective way to shift popular opinion over the long-term. But it may just reflect his temperament. I made natural history programmes not because I was a rampaging proselytiser preaching about conservation, he told me. I like looking at animals and seeing what they do. Attenborough praises more outspoken broadcasters, such as Chris Packham. Chris is to be admired, actually, because he would sacrifice his career in the name of something that he thought was important about conservation. He would. And more strength to his elbow, he said. But that is not Attenboroughs way. He acknowledged that he would probably not ever risk getting banned from the BBC.

In public, he has always been reserved. Journalists have often noted his refusal to emote in interviews. This image of an emotionally repressed English gentleman, a man of his era, is not his private self at all, says his son. I regard him as an exception to all the rules of English maleness, said Robert. In personal life, hes not shy with his emotions. I would not see him as a classic English male in that sense hes a warmer person, a more expressive person than that. When Attenboroughs wife, Jane, died 20 years ago, his grief was intense and fully expressed, remembered Robert.

Even so, his public reticence and natural caution have made the final stage of his career all the more striking.

In November 2004, nearly 20 years after the phrase global warming was first coined, Attenborough attended a lecture in Belgium given by Ralph Cicerone, an American expert on atmospheric chemistry. The graphs that Cicerone presented, showing the rise in global temperatures, finally convinced Attenborough, beyond any doubt, that humans were responsible for the changing climate. Attenborough insists he was never a sceptic about man-made climate change; just cautious. Even after Cicerones lecture, he still believed his job was to make programmes about wildlife. He worried that people would think he was setting himself up as an expert on climate science.

Attenboroughs output changed, however. This distinction may mystify those beyond the Natural History Unit, but its film-makers distinguish between natural history and environmental film-making. The former focus on animal or plant biology and behaviour; the latter address environmental issues. Attenboroughs 2006 BBC two-parter, The Truth About Climate Change, was his first to address global warming explicitly. Three years later came How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?, which reflected his long-standing concern over the rising human population. (Attenboroughs position incurred criticism from some who argued he was focusing more on environmental harm caused by poorer nations rather than over-consumption by wealthier populations.) This year came a new Attenborough BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts. Next year, the BBC will broadcast another, Extinction: The Facts.

Extinction Rebellion protesters hold up an image of Attenborough in Parliament Square in April. Photograph: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty

The arrival of Blue Planet II in 2017 heralded a new urgency to Attenboroughs blockbusters, helping transform popular attitudes towards waste and pollution with its images of plastic enveloping a turtle, and albatrosses unwittingly feeding plastic bags to their chicks. When I interviewed Attenborough this spring, his Netflix series Our Planet had not yet been released. It was billed as a significantly more pressing appeal to save the world, and Fothergill, its producer, was keen to assert its environmental credentials. Attenborough, meanwhile, seemed equally keen to assert that it wasnt so different to his earlier work: If you forget the flummery and the propaganda and the press releases, what does it do? It shows the most breathtaking sequences youve ever seen beauty, wonder, spectacles filmed in a way that you never saw before, with drones and in fabulous colour, with surging music, and so on, and then at the end, it says its all in danger. Thats what they do. Im not ashamed of that. I think its a perfectly valid thing.

But the strange thing, when you sat down to watch Our Planet, was that it did not match Attenboroughs billing. Each episode began with him discussing the moon landing. Since then, the human population has more than doubled, his voiceover continued. This series will celebrate the natural wonders that remain, and reveal what we must preserve to ensure that people and nature thrive. The series returned, relentlessly, to this manifesto. It explained the importance of rainforest for a habitable climate, and almost no stunning sequence of wild animals came without Attenborough emphasising the precariousness of their continued existence. Likewise, in Seven Worlds, One Planet, the environmental messages are no longer restricted to an appeal at the end of each episode. The first story about the impact of climate change comes 16 minutes into the opening episode. Throughout, there are sequences that highlight the human actions climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, poaching causing Earths sixth great planetary extinction. We are a behavioural wildlife show and weve got a whole sequence without an animal in it thats a remarkable change, said the series producer, Scott Alexander.

This shift in Attenboroughs work reflects a response by film-makers, and particularly the Natural History Unit, to accusations that they have pulled punches in the past. Yet, as his protestations suggest, being environmental has not come easily to Attenborough. I dont think hes naturally an environmentalist at all, said one

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The adventurer and explorer has been to the Amazon and the Arctic. Now hes setting up a project in Wales as a personal response to the climate crisis

Eventually, even the most intrepid adventurer has to come home. In the past 20 years Bruce Parry has been initiated, for our viewing pleasure, into indigenous tribes in Congo, Venezuela and Mongolia. He has had thorns forced through his nose in Papua New Guinea and has hunted crocodiles in Ethiopia. He has navigated the Amazon and sledged across the Arctic. His latest adventure in assimilation, however, is perhaps his most formidable challenge yet. In October last year the BBC ethnographer, former Royal Marines fitness instructor and determined hedonist moved from his long-time base in Ibiza to an isolated hamlet in mid-Wales. He plans to be here for many years to come.

I met him for lunch in the only cafe for 10 miles around, Cwtch in Pont rhyd-y groes, which is built above a gorge of the Ystwyth river beside the old workings of a lead mine. Parry has cycled from his cottage beside a waterfall on the neighbouring Hafod estate. Its a significant lunch for Parry in that the salad leaves seven varieties at the cafe are the first crop from a community garden project that he has helped to establish in the walled garden of the demolished estate manor house.

Food was one of the reasons that he ended up here. Having spent 30 years as a professional nomad, he not only wanted to put down roots, he also wanted to pull some up. He grew up in Devon, has family in Scotland and a Welsh surname, but he wasnt sure where to settle. I wanted somewhere wild, he says, and I wanted to get into wild food as a way of reconnecting with the landscape. His first foraging outing brought him to Hafod: it felt so right that he ended up buying the old stone cottage that he stayed in.

Parry has an instantly likable and high-energy presence. He has made no secret of indulging in all the delights that Ibiza can offer as well as taking just about every hallucinogen under the sun in order to be fully accepted in different jungle communities. He turned 50 in March. How, I wonder, did he cope with his first wet Welsh winter?

I feel that was my initiation, he says, smiling. He has a wood fire. I spent most of the winter in a hat and scarf inside. I survived that OK, though I havent met the midges yet I think thats August.

Just in 10 minutes sitting in Cwtch the name means both cosy corner and hug you can see Parrys gift for connection with people. He knows everyone who comes in like an old mate. Dom, the chef and proprietor here, and now purveyor of walled-garden lettuce, is greeted with genuine affection, and each delicious vegetarian dish off the specials board he brings out produces fresh rapture from Parry. Youre on fire today, Dom!

There is more to Parrys return than any kind of homesickness. He believed, having had an immersive understanding of the wisdom of some of the oldest human communities, that he should now try to put some of that into practice in the place he fell to earth. Parry had spent four or five years up to 2017 making a very personal film, Tawai: A Voice From the Forest. It was both a portrait of the perilous, joyful existence of one of the last hunter-gatherer societies, the Penan people of Borneo, and a meditation on the ways in which we are destroying their world and our planet.

Tawai was the last project, he says. I guess I thought I had seen it all, but then I met the Penan and there was something completely different about them. It was not only that they had a genuine pre-agricultural existence, of the kind that humans lived for 85% of the lifetime of our species. They had no competition, no hierarchy. They were the only group I had been in that had no pecking order, no chief, no elders.

He was struck by what such an egalitarian heritage might mean. Parrys journeys along the Amazon and across the Arctic had long since impressed on him the crisis that our planet is facing, a crisis of climate, and of consumerism, and he felt it was no longer enough to report the issues, he had to try to live what felt like possible solutions. His plan is to open up his house and create a small experiment in communal living.

I have no doubt that human beings have problems ahead, he says. Really big problems. And we are not doing it right. The BBC was keen for him to carry on gallivanting: Lets go down the Mekong, we can talk about important things ! and there was no doubt some temptation in that. But the problem is not really how China is polluting its rivers. The problem is how we are all, mainly in the west, living our lives.

Bruce and Tim shared Dwarf bean, beetroot and feta salad 4; red pepper, courgette and olive shakshuka 4; spinach and mushroom filo parcels 4 They Drank Water; filter coffee 1.50 Photograph: Keith Morris/The Observer

Parry talks fluently about the issues around land ownership in Britain, which has caused the majority of us to be so disconnected from the living environment. He sees the recent One Planet development scheme in Wales which allows anyone to build on agricultural land if they follow certain self-sufficiency guidelines as a model of a future revolution.

We are swimming so deeply in a world of competition and aggression and division that we dont even see it, he says. We are being fed this information that money and stuff will make you happy but I think that the right narrative can create a massive shift. We cant all have a Lamborghini, but maybe we could all have a bit of land and some joy and music and harmony.

In Ibiza, of course, those qualities were in generous supply. Where does he go to dance in Ceredigion? He mentions occasional late-night excursions up to the alternative communities in Machynlleth, 25 miles north.

I could have easily stayed in Ibiza, he says. We could have been having a long ros and seafood lunch on the beach, rather than Doms fantastic salads. It wasnt that all that fizzled out. But what I learned especially from the tribes is that there is an extra ingredient from knowing a place.

We talk about the upcoming engagements he has to discuss this thinking; one at the Port Eliot festival in the summer, another with the Canadian Stephen Jenkinson, the author of Die Wise, who has used the insights of a long career in palliative care to propose answers to our culture failure. If you are part of a tribe, says Parry, knowing that when you die you are going to feed the tree that feeds the fruit that feeds your community and that your life will be part of the whole ecosystem is a powerful thing.

Though Parry has more bucket-list ticks than most of the rest of us put together, he hasnt done some of the things that many men of his age have achieved. Having lived polyamorously for many years, he recently split from a long-term partner. He has no kids and, he says, no particular yearning for any.

Without question there is a lot of me that loves freedom, he says. But my driving force now is that I am madly trying to figure out what my role can be in moving this community idea forwards though maybe what I am proposing is only valid for what comes out of the ashes of the next big financial crash.

There is no doubt he will be well placed to survive catastrophe. He is trying to live mostly from what he can forage he loves cooking, he says, though he fears that love is not always shared by guests. I make my own bread, grind my own wheat, soak my own pulses. I have 25kg of wheat, huge tubs of chickpeas and lentils. If Im ever stuck for a couple of months, Ill be fine.

I wonder if the BBC are keen to film this latest venture? He suggests they would like to, but his new Welsh friends insist it will be over their dead bodies.

I definitely think I have more to share on this, though, he says, with a laugh.

We exercise that principle in the first instance by taking two forks to Doms lemon drizzle cake.

Bruce Parry is at Port Eliot festival, 25-29 July, St Germans, Cornwall;

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A relatively small number of fossil fuel producers and their investors could hold the key to tackling climate change

Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to a new report.

The Carbon Majors Report (pdf) pinpoints how a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions, says Pedro Faria, technical director at environmental non-profit CDP, which published the report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute.

Traditionally, large scale greenhouse gas emissions data is collected at a national level but this report focuses on fossil fuel producers. Compiled from a database of publicly available emissions figures, it is intended as the first in a series of publications to highlight the role companies and their investors could play in tackling climate change.

The report found that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. The scale of historical emissions associated with these fossil fuel producers is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change, according to the report.

ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, says the report, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4C by the end of the century. This is likely to have catastrophic consequences including substantial species extinction and global food scarcity risks.

While companies have a huge role to play in driving climate change, says Faria, the barrier is the absolute tension between short-term profitability and the urgent need to reduce emissions.

A Carbon Tracker study in 2015 found that fossil fuel companies risked wasting more than $2tn over the coming decade by pursuing coal, oil and gas projects that could be worthless in the face of international action on climate change and advances in renewables in turn posing substantial threats to investor returns.

CDP says its aims with the carbon majors project are both to improve transparency among fossil fuel producers and to help investors understand the emissions associated with their fossil fuel holdings.

A fifth of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions are backed by public investment, according to the report. That puts a significant responsibility on those investors to engage with carbon majors and urge them to disclose climate risk, says Faria.

Investors should move out of fossil fuels, says Michael Brune, executive director of US environmental organisation the Sierra Club. Not only is it morally risky, its economically risky. The world is moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy and is doing so at an accelerated pace. Those left holding investments in fossil fuel companies will find their investments becoming more and more risky over time.

There is a growing wave of companies that are acting in the opposite manner to the companies in this report, says Brune. Nearly 100 companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Ikea have committed to 100% renewable power under the RE100 initiative. Volvo recently announced that all its cars would be electric or hybrid from 2019.

And oil and gas companies are also embarking on green investments. Shell set up a renewables arm in 2015 with a $1.7bn investment attached and a spokesperson for Chevron says its committed to managing its [greenhouse gas] emissions and is investing in two of the worlds largest carbon dioxide injection projects to capture and store carbon. A BP spokesperson says its determined to be part of the solution for climate change and is investing in renewables and low-carbon innovation. And ExxonMobil, which has faced heavy criticism for its environmental record, has been exploring carbon capture and storage.

But for many the sums involved and pace of change are nowhere near enough. A research paper published last year by Paul Stevens, an academic at think tank Chatham House, said international oil companies were no longer fit for purpose and warned these multinationals that they faced a nasty, brutish and short end within the next 10 years if they did not completely change their business models.

Investors now have a choice, according to Charlie Kronick, senior programme advisor at Greenpeace UK. The future of the oil industry has already been written: the choice is will its decline be managed, returning capital to shareholders to be reinvested in the genuine industries of the future, or will they hold on, hoping not be the last one standing when the music stops?

Top 100 producers and their cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from 1988-2015

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The long read: Timothy Morton wants humanity to give up some of its core beliefs, from the fantasy that we can control the planet to the notion that we are above other beings. His ideas might sound weird, but theyre catching on

A few years ago, Bjrk began corresponding with a philosopher whose books she admired. hi timothy, her first message to him began. i wanted to write this letter for a long time. She was trying to give a name to her own singular genre, to label her work for posterity before the critics did. She asked him to help define the nature of her art not only to define it for me, but also for all my friends, and a generation actually.

It turned out the philosopher, Timothy Morton, was a fan of Bjrk. Her music, he told her, had been a very deep influence on my way of thinking and life in general. The sense of eerie intimacy with other species, the fusion of moods in her songs and videos tenderness and horror, weirdness and joy is the feeling of ecological awareness, he said. Mortons own work is about the implications of this strange awareness the knowledge of our interdependence with other beings which he believes undermines long-held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. For him, this is the defining characteristic of our times, and it is compelling us to change our core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is.

Over the past decade, Mortons ideas have been spilling into the mainstream. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of Londons Serpentine gallery, and perhaps the most powerful figure in the contemporary art world, is one of his loudest cheerleaders. Obrist told readers of Vogue that Mortons books are among the pre-eminent cultural works of our time, and recommends them to many of his own collaborators. The acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson has been flying Morton around the world to speak at his major exhibition openings. Excerpts from Mortons correspondence with Bjrk were published as part of her 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Mortons terminology is slowly infecting all the humanities, says his friend and fellow thinker Graham Harman. Though many academics have a reputation for writing exclusively for their colleagues down the hall, Mortons peculiar conceptual vocabulary dark ecology, the strange stranger, the mesh has been picked up by writers in a cornucopia of fields, from literature and epistemology to legal theory and religion. Last year, he was included in a much-discussed list of the 50 most influential living philosophers. His ideas have also percolated into traditional media outlets such as Newsweek, the New Yorker and the New York Times.

Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking. His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of nature. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls hyperobjects such as global warming or the internet that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we cant get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us our DNA contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that were already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some weird experiential chemicals in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.

Mortons theories might sound bizarre, but they are in tune with the most earth-shaking idea to emerge in the 21st century: that we are entering a new phase in the history of the planet a phase that Morton and many others now call the Anthropocene.

For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period.

The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, meaning human, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earths current transformation. Extreme weather, submerged cities, acute resource shortages, vanished species, lakes turned to deserts, nuclear fallout: if there is still human life on earth tens of thousands of years from now, societies that we cant imagine will have to grapple with the changes we are wreaking today. Morton has noted that 75% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at this very moment will still be there in half a millennium. Thats 15 generations away. It will take another 750 generations, or 25,000 years, for most of the those gases to be absorbed into the oceans.

A dried-up reservoir in South Korea. Photograph: Yonhap/EPA

The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. Were not only driving global warming and ecological destruction; we know that we are.

One of Mortons most powerful insights is that we are condemned to live with this awareness at all times. Its there not only when politicians gather to discuss international environmental agreements, but when we do something as mundane as chat about the weather, pick up a plastic bag at the supermarket or water the lawn. We live in a world with a moral calculus that didnt exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasnt true 60 years ago or at least people werent aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realised just how much a part of it we are.

Morton believes that this constitutes a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe on a par with those fomented by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. He is just one of thousands of geologists, climate scientists, historians, novelists and journalists writing about this upheaval, but, perhaps better than anyone else, he captures in words the uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of this extreme age.

There you are, turning the ignition of your car, he writes. And it creeps up on you. Every time you fire up your engine you dont mean to harm the Earth, let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet. But harm to Earth is precisely what is happening. Part of whats so uncomfortable about this is that our individual acts may be statistically and morally insignificant, but when you multiply them millions and billions of times as they are performed by an entire species they are a collective act of ecological destruction. Coral bleaching isnt just occurring over yonder, on the Great Barrier Reef; its happening wherever you switch on the air conditioning. In short, Morton says, everything is interconnected.

As Mortons work spreads beyond cultural hierophants such as Bjrk to the pages of major news outlets, he is arguably becoming our most popular guide to the new epoch. Yes, he has some seemingly crazy ideas about what its like to be alive right now but what its like to be alive right now, in the Anthropocene, is pretty crazy.

In the course of its young life, the Anthropocene has grown into a concept as grand in its scope as any other world-historical paradigm worth its salt (which, if its sea salt, now includes a good dose of synthetic waste in tiny particles called microplastics). What began as a technical debate within the earth sciences has led, in Mortons view, to a confrontation with some of our most basic ways of understanding the world. In the Anthropocene, he writes, we are undergoing a traumatic loss of coordinates.

The Anthropocene idea is generally attributed to the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the biologist Eugene Stoermer, who started popularising the term in 2000. From the outset, many took Crutzen and Stoermers concept seriously, even if they disagreed with it. Since the late 20th century, scientists have viewed geological time as a drama punctuated by great cataclysms, not merely a gradual accretion of incremental changes, and it made sense to see humanity itself as the latest cataclysm.

Imagine geologists from a future civilisation examining the layers of rock that are in the slow process of forming today, the way we examine the rock strata that formed as the dinosaurs died off. That civilisation will see evidence of our sudden (in geological terms) impact on the planet including fossilised plastics and layers both of carbon, from burning carbon fuels, and of radioactive particles, from nuclear testing and explosions just as clearly as we see evidence of the dinosaurs rapid demise. We can already observe these layers forming today.

For a couple of years, a lively debate over the usefulness of the concept unfolded. Detractors argued that humanitys geological signal was not yet loud enough to justify the coronation of a new epoch, or that the term had no scientific use. Supporters wondered when they should date the Anthropocenes start. To the advent of agriculture, many millennia ago? To the invention of the steam engine in the 18th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? To 5.29am on 16 July 1945, the moment when the first-ever nuclear test exploded over the New Mexico desert? (Morton, in his all-embracing way, treats each of these moments as pivotal.) Then, in 2002, Crutzen set out his arguments in the scientific journal Nature. The idea of a moment in planetary history in which human influence was predominant seemed to tie together so many disparate developments from retreating glaciers to fresh thinking about the limits of capitalism that the term quickly spread to other earth sciences, and then beyond.

Since then, at least three academic journals devoted to the Anthropocene have been founded, several universities have established formal research groups to ponder its implications, Stanford students have started a popular podcast titled Generation Anthropocene, and thousands of articles and books have been written on the subject, in fields ranging from economics to poetry.

Some thinkers object to the term, arguing that it reinforces the human-centric view of the world that has led us to the verge of ecological catastrophe. Others say the blame for the despoliation of the Earth should be laid at the feet not of humanity in general, but of (predominantly white, western and male) capitalism. Several alternative designations have been minted, including Capitalocene, but none has caught on. They dont have the disquieting existential ring of Anthropocene, which stresses both our culpability and our fragility as humans.

Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Photograph: Reuters

Around 2011, the Anthropocene began to crop up regularly in newspapers for the first time, according to the scholar Jeremy Daviess recent history of the concept. The BBC, the Economist, National Geographic, Science and others covered the idea. Planetary changes had increasingly led journalists to set their environmental reporting in the context of geohistory atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million? Not seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago and the Anthropocene became a useful shorthand for placing human activity in the perspective of geological deep time. For Morton, who had recently begun writing about it, it captured his concern with the way beings of different kinds, including humans, depend on each other for their existence a fact the various calamities of the Anthropocene drove home.

In 2014, the Anthropocene was inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, and last year, the epoch was formally endorsed by a working group within the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official keeper of geological time. As a tentative start date, they chose the year 1950, when one of the clearest markers of human activity shows up globally in the earths crust: plutonium isotopes from widespread nuclear testing. The working groups announcement was considered so significant that it made the front page of the Guardian. (Across the media, the Anthropocene is now used to frame everything from fiction reviews to discussions of the Donald Trump presidency.) As Jan Zalasiewicz, the chair of the group and one of the leading scientists studying the Anthropocene, said at the time, the new epoch sets a different trajectory for the Earth system and we are only now realising the scale and permanence of the change.

There have been periods of intense climate fluctuation coupled with mass extinction before. The most recent was 66m years ago, when a meteorite six miles in diameter struck what is now the Yucatn Peninsula. The impact released an estimated 2m times the energy of the most powerful atomic bomb ever detonated, altering the planets atmosphere and wiping out three-quarters of its species. But that was a comparatively simple event, which the physical sciences are well-equipped to understand.

To make sense of an epochal change that is being driven by human activity, we need more than geology, meteorology and chemistry. If this is a reckoning for our species, we need an intellectual guide someone to tell us just how panicked we should be, and how our recognition that we are transforming the planet will change us in turn.

The awareness weve gained in the Anthropocene is not generally a happy one. Many environmentalists now warn of impending global catastrophe and urge industrial societies to change course. Morton stakes out a more iconoclastic position. Instead of raising the ecological alarm like some Paul Revere of the apocalypse, he advocates what he calls dark ecology, which holds that the much-feared catastrophe has, in fact, already occurred.

Morton means not only that irreversible global warming is under way, but also something more wide-reaching. We Mesopotamians as he calls the past 400 or so generations of humans living in agricultural and industrial societies thought that we were simply manipulating other entities (by farming and engineering, and so on) in a vacuum, as if we were lab technicians and they were in some kind of giant petri dish called nature or the environment. In the Anthropocene, Morton says, we must wake up to the fact that we never stood apart from or controlled the non-human things on the planet, but have always been thoroughly bound up with them. We cant even burn, throw or flush things away without them coming back to us in some form, such as harmful pollution. Our most cherished ideas about nature and the environment that they are separate from us, and relatively stable have been destroyed.

Morton likens this realisation to detective stories in which the hunter realises he is hunting himself (his favourite examples are Blade Runner and Oedipus Rex). Not all of us are prepared to feel sufficiently creeped out by this epiphany, he says. But theres another twist: even though humans have caused the Anthropocene, we cannot control it. Oh, my God! Morton exclaimed to me in mock horror at one point. My attempt to escape the web of fate was the web of fate.

The chief reason that we are waking up to our entanglement with the world we have been destroying, Morton says, is our encounter with the reality of hyperobjects the term he coined to describe things such as ecosystems and black holes, which are massively distributed in time and space compared to individual humans. Hyperobjects might not seem to be objects in the way that, say, billiard balls are, but they are equally real, and we are now bumping up against them consciously for the first time. Global warming might have first appeared to us as a bit of funny local weather, then as a series of independent manifestations (an unusually torrential flood here, a deadly heatwave there), but now we see it as a unified phenomenon, of which extreme weather events and the disruption of the old seasons are only elements.

The Yueyaquan Crescent Lake in north-west China. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

It is through hyperobjects that we initially confront the Anthropocene, Morton argues. One of his most influential books, itself titled Hyperobjects, examines the experience of being caught up in indeed, being an intimate part of these entities, which are too big to wrap our heads around, and far too big to control. We can experience hyperobjects such as climate in their local manifestations, or through data produced by scientific measurements, but their scale and the fact that we are trapped inside them means that we can never fully know them. Because of such phenomena, we are living in a time of quite literally unthinkable change.

This leads Morton to one of his most sweeping claims: that the Anthropocene is forcing a revolution in human thought. Advances in science are now underscoring how enmeshed we are with other beings from the microbes that account for roughly half the cells in our bodies, to our reliance for survival on the Earths electromagnetic heat shield. At the same time, hyperobjects, in their unwieldy enormity, alert us to the absolute boundaries of science, and therefore the limits of human mastery. Science can only take us so far. This means changing our relationship with the other entities in the universe whether animal, vegetable or mineral from one of exploitation through science to one of solidarity in ignorance. If we fail to do this, we will continue to wreak havoc on the planet, threatening the ways of life we hold dear, and even our very existence. In contrast to utopian fantasies that we will be saved by the rise of artificial intelligence or some other new technology, the Anthropocene teaches us that we cant transcend our limitations or our reliance on other beings. We can only live with them.

That might sound gloomy, but Morton glimpses in it a liberation. If we give up the delusion of controlling everything around us, we might refocus ourselves on the pleasure we take in other beings and life itself. Enjoyment, Morton believes, might be the thing that turns us on to a new kind of politics. You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure, the tweet pinned to the top of his Twitter timeline reads. Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.

Those words are typical of his thought, which often sets out from the dismal familiar, but then veers wildly off the beaten track. Theres something truly hopeful in his work, Hans Ulrich Obrist says of Morton. Hope and maybe even optimism are somehow in there. Morton has a story about converting his home outside Houston, where he holds a chair at Rice University, to wind-generated electricity. After a day or two of feeling very righteous and holy, he realised he could now have full-on strobes and decks and people partaying for hours and hours, all day, every day, while causing far less damage to the planet. And thats the ecological future, actually.

One Saturday morning last autumn,I went looking for Morton at the Serpentine Galleries annual festival of ideas, where he was to speak later that day. Over the previous few weeks, he had been in Seoul to help Olafur Eliasson open a solo exhibition; in Singapore, to speak at the Future Cities conference; in Brussels, to give a talk titled Nature Isnt Real in a public park at night (he said 250 people showed up); at the University of Exeter, where he outlined rocking, his new theory of action, which he described as a queering of the theistic categories of active versus passive; in Rome, where he spent his time, among other things, drinking martinis; and in Paris, where he went raving with his friend Ingrid and was so overcome with emotion and exhaustion that he spent some of the night lying in the middle of the dancefloor.

If you had to select an avatar for the Anthropocene, Morton might be an appropriate choice. He has arctic-blue eyes that at once shock and appear shocked. Combined with a slight pudginess that suggests physical vulnerability, an eczematic redness to his face, and a thistle of thin blond hair, he looks as if he has survived some kind of fallout. Indeed, he is something of a man afflicted. Among other things, he suffers from severe sleep apnoea, severe depression, severe migraines, and, it seemed to me over the course of our conversations, the occasional bout of mild paranoia. Obrist, who has recorded more than 2,500 hours of interviews with artists and philosophers, told me that Morton is the only one who became so emotional that actually he starts to cry.(They had been discussing mass extinction.)

Earlier in the year, when I had spoken to Morton on video calls, he had been ebullient. Now, sitting at the back of the gallerys restaurant, which had been converted into a performance hall, he seemed to be running on fumes. He had already published 14 essays that year, while continuing work on his two upcoming books. In the next few weeks, he was speaking in Chicago, at Yale, in Seoul (again), Munich and, finally, convening with members of Nasas Jet Propulsion Laboratory to contemplate the kinds of messages we should be sending into space on a potential reboot of the Voyager mission. (The original, launched in 1977, sent two spacecraft hurtling beyond our solar system; each contained a 12-inch gold-plated record engraved with sounds and images representing humanity and other earthly beings.) By the end of 2016, as he later wrote on his blog, Morton had racked up 350,000 air miles.

Mortons itinerary was an index of how popular the notion of the Anthropocene has become, and how deeply his approach to it resonates with our increasingly disquieting experience of the world. Poring over his books, or speaking to him in person, one starts to suspect that what is outlandish in his thinking and personality actually reflects something truly strange about the world. Over lunch, Morton ordered a chicken salad sandwich an earlier experiment with veganism had lapsed and we discussed the development of his thought. As he ate, I was reminded of a recent report that almost 60bn chickens are slaughtered globally every year, which, in the words of Jan Zalasiewicz, means that their carcasses have now been fossilised in thousands of landfill sites and on street corners around the world. That thought leads immediately to another one: about the bacterial superbugs we have created through widespread use of antibiotics, especially in industrial livestock production. From there, its only a short jump to thinking about other strange phenomena in our new epoch, like rocks formed from plastic and seashells, and changes in the earths rotation caused by melting ice sheets. Once you start listing these unsettling Anthropocene facts, theres no end to it.

Its possible, when one encounters Morton for the first or second time, to wonder if theres something concocted about his hippie disposition, his emotionality, his intellectual flair. But his childhood friends and relatives say that his visceral engagement with ecology, and his academic prowess, go back to his childhood. Morton was born in north-west London, in 1968, in the midst of a period when a growing awareness of ecological threat still went hand in hand with the sense that people could change the world for the better, possibly under the influence of LSD. After his parents, who were both concert violinists, divorced in the late 1970s, his father sailed off on a Greenpeace protest trawler; his mother was a committed feminist who was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

I like to think of myself as the corniest, most awful thing you could possibly imagine Tim Morton. Photograph: Max Burkhalter for the Guardian

From early on, Morton was an academic standout. He received the top scholarship at the elite St Pauls School in London five years in a row, and then went to Oxford to read English. He got the highest marks in his subject across the university in his first-year exams, and a first in his finals. Doing well academically was important to Morton, but eventually he came to the realisation that its actually secondary to this other thing, called being alive. His life took on something of the shape his work would later adopt. It was about more than accumulating knowledge; it was also about pursuing pleasure and intimacy. In his second year as an undergraduate, he and his roommate, Mark Payne, who is now a classicist at the University of Chicago, would do acid and listen to Butthole Surfers and talk about Blake. (Payne says they did acid and talked about Milton.) He also fell in love for the first time. As a graduate student, Morton wore his hair long, with a suede jacket, and decked himself out in beads. His PhD thesis, which is recognised as an important contribution to the study of Romanticism, showed that the vegetarianism of Percy and Mary Shelley was intimately entwined with their politics and art. Paul Hamilton, who supervised some of Mortons graduate work, told me that, when it came to the Shelleys, Morton changed the lights for everyone.

Despite the success of his dissertation, Morton struggled to land an academic position, and even contemplated killing himself. Eventually, he found a job at the University of Colorado, Boulder, before moving on, in 2003, to the University of California in Davis, north-east of San Francisco. Being in northern California seemed to season his thought, and he began focusing on explicitly ecological questions, such as what we write about when we write about nature. In a canny bit of self-branding, he also took to calling himself Professor of Literature and Environment.

Over the next few years, Morton published his book challenging the idea of nature, as well as a follow-up asking what it means for us to rely in unfathomably complex ways on a countless number of other beings. He also joined a small, contentious philosophical movement called object-oriented ontology, or OOO, which holds that every being, including humans, can only ever grasp the world in its own limited ways. (In other words, we will never know what flies know, and vice versa.) Then, in 2012, Morton left California for his current chair at Rice, one of the most well-regarded universities in America.

With the security of tenure and the successive infusions of Buddhism and OOO into his thinking, Morton started to write in a more riffing, personal style. His talk of discos in his wind-powered home and the cringey way he elongates partaying arent incidental to his project. Inevitably, ecological awareness has this kind of 70s flavour to it, he says. Its an aesthetic he embraces, in all of its flared weirdness. Theres a bell-bottomed capaciousness to his intellectual style, too. He may well be the only person ever to grace a list of the most influential living philosophers and have a songwriting credit on an album that reached No 4 in the UK charts (Stacked Up by Senser, from 1994).

He has followed in the footsteps of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Edward Said in giving the prestigious Wellek Lecture, at the University of California in Irvine but he has also performed at Glastonbury, playing music for fire-juggling performance artists, and served as a consultant on the Steve Coogan series The Trip to Italy. Although hes about to publish a book attempting to fuse dark ecology with Marxism (The tweak is pretty intense, and not everyones going to like it, he says), he also has one forthcoming for Pelican books, Being Ecological, which is meant to enchant the general public. The first sentence is: This book contains no ecological facts whatsoever. Though several of his books are dedicated to the customary people (spouse, children, siblings), he has also dedicated one to his cat, the late Allan Whiskersworth. One of the most engrossing posts on his blog, which he updates regularly, is a critical inquiry into giant penises drawn on rooftops so they can be discovered via Google Earth. Hes deep into Shambhala Buddhism and has circumambulated Mount Kailash in Tibet. Not long ago, he received a very moving Tarot reading.

If people find most of this ridiculous, all the better. I like to think of myself as the corniest, most awful thing you could possibly imagine, he told me. He has achieved the usual trappings of academic success; now that hes through the metaphorical metal detectors of polite society, he has a different aim. I can get quite well known, and then I can unleash this kind of anarchist-hippie thing that Ive been holding like a very precious liquid, carefully, without spilling any, for years and years and years, he said. And now Im going to pour it everywhere.

When it was time for his talk at the Serpentine, Morton appeared in a tight-fitting, silver Versace shirt of the sort a camp Bond villain might wear. His lecture was titled Stuff Can Happen.

You wouldnt believe how many philosophers are afraid of movement, he began. He went on to discuss two strands of thought in the work of the philosopher Hegel. One problem with Hegel, Morton said, the problem I call macro-Hegel, is that macro-Hegel makes the slinky move up the stairs, improbably. And at the top of the stairs, like the killer in Psycho, is waiting, drum roll, you guessed it, white western patriarchy in the guise of the Prussian state. (I had not guessed this; should I have?) So macro-Hegel blows it.

It seemed an odd way to approach a lecture to a motley crew of artists, activists, students and musicians. Even as someone with an interest in Mortons work, I soon felt bored and distracted. The man standing next to me, an American scholar with an acerbic sense of humour, rolled his eyes and whispered a comment to the effect of What is this bullshit?

Despite Mortons popularity, this isnt an uncommon response to his work. The Morton detractors with whom I spoke accused him of misunderstanding contemporary science, like quantum mechanics and set theory, and then claiming his distortions as support for his wild ideas. They shared a broad critique that reminded me of the sceptical adage, If you open your mind too far, your brains will fall out. The slurry of interesting ideas in Mortons work doesnt hold together under scrutiny, they say. The philosopher Ray Brassier, who was once associated with OOO, has charged Morton and his blogging confrres with generating an online orgy of stupidity.

Tim Morton giving a speech at the Serpentine Galleries in London in October 2016.

Other critics, especially on the left, complain that Mortons conception of the Anthropocene glosses over issues of race, class, gender and colonialism by blaming the entire species for the damage inflicted by a privileged minority. The focus on the human enshrined in the term Anthropocene is a particular target for critics. By referring to humans as a unified whole, they argue that Morton effaces distinctions between the affluent west and the other members of humanity, many of whom were living in a state of ecological catastrophe long before the notion of the Anthropocene became trendy on campuses in Europe and North America. Others say that Mortons notion of politics is too woolly, or that the last thing we need when facing ecological challenges are abstract musings about the nature of objects.

Mortons defenders, however, see him as something of a Ralph Waldo Emerson for the Anthropocene: his writing has value, even if it doesnt always stand up to philosophical scrutiny. No one in a philosophy department is going to be taking Tim Morton seriously, Claire Colebrook, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has worked extensively on the Anthropocene, told me. But she teaches Mortons work to undergraduates and they love it. Why? Because theyre like, Shut up and give me an idea!

Not everything that Morton said to me in the course of our conversations struck me as philosophically or ecologically plausible. (You and me, and our computers and that painting behind you and maybe one of the pigeons in the street were going to get together and make a little anarchist collective, and the focus of this anarchist collective will be reading, um, the letters of Beethoven.) But what attracts many to his ideas are not their cogency so much as their profusion and playfulness. Hans Ulrich Obrist and the artists Philippe Parreno and Olafur Eliasson all used the same word to describe his oeuvre: its a toolbox, they said, from which they can pluck useful ideas.

That toolbox may be useful to the rest of us, too. As global warming and other features of the Anthropocene intensify, our experience of this grave new age is bound to become ever weirder and more fraught. When that happens, more and more people are likely to seek out writings such as Mortons that echo their experiences of alienation, as well as their yearning for hope. Some other thinkers seem to believe we can tidy up the world if we just have better, more logical, more rigorous ideas. Morton says we can tidy up our ideas all we want, but the world is going to remain a fundamentally messy place that will always resist our philosophical decluttering. What we need to do instead is get comfortable with this weirdness. During one of our earliest conversations, I told Morton I appreciated his work, to the extent I thought I understood it. I think I understand it too, sometimes, he replied.

Theres nothing like the prospectof an authoritarian strongman to make intellectuals, hippies, and, above all, hippie intellectuals appear hopelessly ineffectual. Compared to organising protests or setting up a recurring donation to the American Civil Liberties Union, talk of deep time or of effacing the false ontological divide between humanity and nature risks seeming rather fatuous.

In November, the week after the election of Donald Trump, Morton flew to New York to confab with the Nasa group about what a new Golden Record might contain. He was devastated by Trumps victory, but not necessarily surprised that America had opted for what he called the political equivalent of a diet of vicodin and cinnamon buns. In his hotel room, he had a private weeping session while reading the David Malouf novel Fly Away Peter. Later, he went for a bite of sushi in which mercury from coal-fired power plants, smelting metals and burning trash tends to accumulate, occasionally leading to poisoning and got swept up in a large crowd. I was in that first protest, man, he told me. I was in that first fucking anti-Trump protest at Trump Tower. He quipped to his Twitter followers, and to the Nasa meeting, that he wanted to put the president-elect on the next Voyager probe.

I wondered how potent Mortons animistic politics would seem under the new dispensation. The day after his talk at the Serpentine in the autumn, I had eaten lunch with him, the performance artist Kathelin Gray and John Polk Allen, AKA Johnny Dolphin, the prime mover behind Biosphere 2, a planetary microcosm built inside what is essentially a gigantic test tube in the Arizona desert. The conversation, in the course of meandering from places on the globe with special energy (the Himalayas, Chaco Canyon) to the lunatic asylum for clever people that is Oxford, turned toward solidarity with other species.

If you believe Taylor Swift is a satanist, Ted Cruz is the Zodiac killer and Hillary Clinton died in September, this was your year

If 2016 was the year facts didnt matter, when Oxford Dictionaries declared we went post-truth, it makes sense that conspiracy theories flourished. These are some of the most outlandish (and, we feel fairly confident in saying, all untrue).

The Earth is flat

B.o.B (@bobatl)

The cities in the background are approx. 16miles apart… where is the curve ? please explain this

January 25, 2016

You might think that this one was put pretty conclusively to bed around 330BC, but it persists into 2016, championed by the radio-friendly rapper B.o.B.

The Atlanta musician resurrected the argument that the Earth may, in fact, be flat with a storm of tweets in January that seemed to lean heavily on the fact the horizon appears straight in photos (where is the curve? please explain this).

Neil deGrasse Tysons public putdown prompted B.o.B. to release a diss track, which was not very good, but did show how far the bar has fallen when it comes to prompting diss tracks these days.

That was about the last time anyone spoke of B.o.B. in 2016.

Taylor Swift is a satanist

Taylor Swifts similarity to the daughter of Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan, delighted social media this year, coinciding as it did with the pop stars downfall.

MAX IM A KOOPA (@meakoopa)

Taylor Swift is probably NOT the secret scion of America’s foremost Satanist family but like how can we be sure

January 5, 2016

Katy Perry is JonBent Ramsey

This theory dates back to 2014 but resurfaced this year alongside a CBS documentary about the girls murder.

In a video posted to YouTube, a truther refers persistently to the Katy Perry character (You can see that thats just an older JonBent Ramsey, right? You can see that) and puts forward the physical similarity between the two sets of parents as evidence (same people).

He then laboriously and not entirely successfully, on a technical level morphs Perrys face with Ramseys.

Embed endorsement.

Never mind that Perry, born in 1984, would have been 12 when Ramsey died aged six in 1996. Other YouTubers taking up the theory have pointed out that, in photos, their eyebrows look similar.

Perry has done nothing to address the rumours but did go paddle boarding with her new boyfriend, Orlando Bloom.

Ted Cruz is the Zodiac killer

Griffin (@NotGriffinNope)

Wake up America #ZodiacTed

February 2, 2016

The traction this got evokes a simpler time in the 2016 US election campaign.

Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn)

Remember when we would say Ted Cruz was the Zodiac killer and laugh and laugh? Remember laughing?

November 6, 2016

The theory meme, joke, whatever that the aspiring Republican presidential candidate was, in fact, the unknown killer operating in northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s was inescapable on social media earlier this year, and eventually made its way into the real world.

Maureen Johnson (@maureenjohnson)


October 9, 2016

In February a poll of 1,012 registered voters found 38% of Florida voters thought it was possible Cruz was the Zodiac killer. From the press release:

10% say he for sure is, and another 28% say that they are just not sure. Cruz is exonerated from being a toddler serial killer by 62% of the Sunshine State populace.

Jim Young (@jimography)

@pattymo @tedcruz This is pretty damning

January 16, 2016

But not all of the evidence adds up, BuzzFeed noted astutely: Cruz was born in Canada in 1970. The earliest confirmed victims of the Zodiac killer were murdered in 1968.

Kylie Jenner is secretly fronting a pop band

The singer of the US pop trio Terror Jr is known only by the alias Lisa Terror, and hides her face behind her hair in promotional images. The only account the band follows on Twitter is that of Kylie Jenner: the teenage socialite/makeup mogul, a Kardashian by any other name.

Terror Jr (@terrorjrmusic)

So close

September 8, 2016

In March, Jenner featured a song by Terror Jr in a promotional video for her lip glosses; that same day, Terror Jr launched its social media presences. (As far as conspiracy theories go, this one is admittedly low stakes.)

Jenner has denied being Lisa Terror on Snapchat, but then came the smoking gun: a Twitter user apparently found her listed as a performer on the track 3 Strikes by a music licensing organisation.

The entry has since been amended, and when Teen Vogue put the theory to the band, it replied only with its trademark grape emoji. But lets be honest, its not like a Kardashian to shy from the spotlight.

Terror Jr (@terrorjrmusic)

u kno wat it iz

October 24, 2016

Fidel Castro is Justin Trudeaus dad

Josh Centers (@jcenters)

Forget pizzaghazi, the best conspiracy theory going is that Justin Trudeau is Fidel Castro’s biological son.

December 9, 2016

This theory emerged on Reddit after the Canadian prime minister raised eyebrows with his obituary for the remarkable leader on Twitter.

User George_Rockwell said Trudeaus parents had visited Cuba on several occasions, pointing to a photograph of Margaret Trudeau happily allowing the tyrant to hold her four-month-old baby as evidence. (The baby was, in fact, Justins late brother Michel. Details, details.)

Dionysos (@arlaqin)

HOW DID I NOT KNOW OF THIS EARLIER. This is my fav conspiracy theory atm, justin trudeau is fidel castro’s son.
Face swap:

December 8, 2016

The Redditer also remarked on the similar appearance between the Canadian prime minister and the now-deceased Cuban leader, with a photograph morphing their two faces presented as DAMNING EVIDENCE.

Trudeau subsequently defended his initial remarks on the passing of a former head of state but did not say whether or not he was his father.

Hillary Clinton is dead and was replaced by a surrogate

The theory that Hillary Clinton had died was the logical extension of rumours of her ill health, and beloved by her detractors during the US election campaign.

YouTube user Confederate Marshell presented 100% PROOF that Clinton had been dead since at least 11 September this year and replaced by CGI and multiple body doubles.

Again, the Guardian does not endorse the views expressed in this video.

Hillary Clinton is running a child abuse ring from a pizza restaurant

You might want to be sitting down for this one: the Democratic presidential candidate and her campaign chief John Podesta are running a child sex ring from the backroom of the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington.

A dinner party or a possibly satanic ritual, depending on who you believe thrown by the performance artist Marina Abramovi and a napkin with a pizza-related map on it are also involved.

Homeboy Chris (@TheHomeboyChris)

@johnpodesta this Russia conspiracy ain’t gonna get you out of explaining your “map that seems pizza related” on a handkerchief. #PizzaGate

December 12, 2016

Given that the fact the restaurant has the same initials as child pornography is put forward as evidence by believers, the truly shocking detail of this completely baseless conspiracy theory is that even one person believed it.

Yet in early December, a 28-year-old man was driven to self-investigate the reports, wielding an assault rifle at a employee and firing it inside the restaurant. After his arrest Edgar Welch said he wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way. I regret how I handled the situation, he added.

That outlandish allegations posted to the online message board 4Chan and Reddits The Donald thread for Trump supporters could translate into real-world aggression exacerbated anxiety over the impact of fake news.

DJ Pop A Titty Out (@PizzaPartyBen)

The medias reaction to #PizzaGate made me believe it 10x more

December 8, 2016

Certainly theres no subject its more vital that you self-investigate only on trusted news networks. Google Pizzagate and youll find websites such as Truthlibrary.Info that promise all the facts in one spot with the user-friendly advice: WARNING: Turn away now if you do not want to be incredibly disturbed. This is real. Pay attention to pizza and cheese references throughout, as these are highly likely to be code. (No, Im not linking to it.)

If you feel strong enough to venture further down this rabbit hole, the Reply All podcasts summary is excellent.

RAMZPAUL (@ramzpaul)

The same people that call #PizzaGate fake news sure seem to push the #RussianHackers conspiracy. The former actually has more evidence.

December 10, 2016

Climate change is a hoax engineered by China, or maybe the UN

The president-elect of the US seems to subscribe to this one.

In 2012 Donald Trump tweeted that global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

November 6, 2012

He later said this was a joke. If so, China didnt seem to think it very funny.

In Australia Senator Malcolm Roberts has suggested that climate change is in fact the work of the United Nations and called for an Aus-exit.

Donald Trump is a Democratic party plant

This one, at least, we can safely disprove.

Read more:

Obama and the pope feature in documentary, Before the Flood, that hopes to influence presidential election

He struggled through the frozen wastes of North America in his Oscar-winning performance in The Revenant. Now Leonardo DiCaprio is starring in a different role taking his powerful new eco-documentary to the White House, in the hope it can help restart President Obamas battle against global warming.

Its an issue of importance to both men. Obama, who appears in the documentary, Before the Flood, is using the last days of his presidency to make environmental protection a central pillar of his legacy. Last month he created the worlds largest ecologically protected area when he expanded Papahnaumokukea, a marine reserve in his native Hawaii, to encompass more than half a million square miles. He also gave marine national monument status to 4,913 sq miles off the New England coast.

Two years ago, DiCaprio who has raised money for protecting tigers, orangutans and elephants was designated a UN messenger of peace, with a special focus on climate change.

The White House screening of Before the Flood, which follows DiCaprio as he travels to parts of the world including Greenland, the Pacific islands, Sumatra and industrial regions of China, precedes a global release via National Geographic later this month. DiCaprio and the films director, Fisher Stevens, hope to use it in the run-up to next months US presidential and Senate elections. They plan to show the film on college campuses and across swing states, including Florida, where Senator Marco Rubio is up for re-election.

Rubio is a climate change denier, and we want to get these deniers out of Congress, to make them understand the Paris [climate] accords are important and that we need to do more, Stevens said. The film-makers claim 38 US senators accept money from the energy industry, in effect blocking the passage of environmental legislation.

These people are not necessarily climate deniers. Theyre just in the pockets of the energy industry, even though thats at the expense of all of us, said Fisher. And [Republican presidential candidate] Donald Trump has said hes going to try to kill the Paris accords if elected.

Last month DiCaprio told the audience after the films world premiere at the Toronto international film festival: We cannot afford, at this critical moment in time, to have leaders in office that do not believe in the modern science of climate change.

Before the Floods release comes as statistics relating to the health of the planet worsen. Last week the Scripps Institution of Oceanography announced it was safe to conclude that global CO2 levels will not drop below 400 parts per million this year or ever again for the indefinite future. The figure is seen as the point at which global warming becomes irreversible.

DiCaprio and Stevens came up with the idea to make the documentary while in the Galpagos islands with the oceanographer Sylvia Earle. We were frustrated with our government, and I felt if the media isnt getting to the population about climate change, maybe Leonardo can, said Stevens. So the message is, its up to all of us. Its a simplistic message but it really is.

Despite the intransigence of US legislators, Obama is using his last months in office to establish his legacy as the most environmentally effective president since Theodore Roosevelt created national parks. In Obamas reading of the issue, climate change is as much a national security issue as an environmental one.

He tells the film-makers: In addition to the sadness Id feel if my kids can never see a glacier the way I did in Alaska, even if you were unsentimental about that, youve got to be worried about national security and the capacity of the world order to survive the kinds of strains climate scientists are predicting.

Sixty-one countries, including China and the US, representing about 48% of global emissions, have adopted the Paris accords. Countries representing at least 55% of emissions have to adopt the accords for them to be ratified.

The film-makers visit Pope Francis in the Vatican, Obama in Washington, political leaders in the Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Kiribati, climate scientists in Greenland and the Indian conservationist Sunita Narain, who explains to DiCaprio that access to energy is as much an issue as climate change for 300 million Indians.

Im sorry to say this to you, as an American, but your consumption is really going to put a hole in the planet, Narain tells DiCaprio. We need to put the issue of lifestyle and consumption at the centre of climate negotiations.

DiCaprio responds that its difficult to present to Americans the argument that they need to change their lifestyle. I would also argue that its probably not going to happen, he says. If the climate crisis is to be solved, it will be because renewables will become cheaper the more we invest into them, and that will solve the problem. But Narain shakes her head.

The film-makers have enlisteded Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the pair behind the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for the soundtrack. They use Hieronymus Boschs triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights which made a strong impression on the young DiCaprio to frame the progress of humankinds impact on the planet, from innocence to Boschs final panel of darkness and ruin.

How far off are we now, they wonder? What haunts me is the last panel, with the planet in ruins, charred and blackened skies, DiCaprio muses. If this was a movie we could write our way out of this mess, but real life isnt a movie and we cant pretend we know how this is going to end.

He adds: What we can do is control what we do next, how we live our lives, what we consume and how we vote, to let our leaders know that we know the truth.

One passage of the documentary takes place during the filming of The Revenant, when director Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu was forced to move production 9,000 miles from a snow-free Canadian location to Argentina in search of a snowy landscape.

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