Can you think of any significant event that happened on 20 August? If you are Hungarian, you will know it to be the day when you celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian State by their King Saint Stephen. If you are a malariologist, you might recall that it was the day in 1897 when Ronald Ross finally showed that malaria parasites were transmitted by anopheline mosquitos; he called it malaria day.
If you are a cricket fan of a certain age, you may remember that it was the first day of the 1938 test match against the Australians in which the Yorkshireman, opening batsman Len Hutton, set out to make the then world record score of 364 (what a pity you didn't get one more, a Yorkshirewoman told him, one for each day of the year!). My father, who was both a malariologist and a Yorkshireman, would remind me on my birthday that this date, 20 August 1938, was also Len Hutton day.
But now there is another important association to play with. In 2018, I decided to mark my anniversary by writing a book about coal and how the transformative technologies associated with it had fuelled the Industrial Revolution but then led to the serious diseases of miners, the ill health associated with air pollution and ultimately the looming catastrophe of global climate change and extinction of species. Farewell King Coal
was published in time for my 80th birthday on 20 August 2018. This book, though kindly reviewed, has I fear had little impact, though several readers have told me that it has transformed their attitude to climate change.
Happily, and coincidentally, there is another much more important reason for us to remember this date, for it was the day that Greta Thunberg first sat down outside the Swedish Parliament to start her school strike. 'I have Asperger's syndrome,' she wrote, 'and to me almost everything is black or white. I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on as before'.
In little more than a year from her first demonstration, she has given rise to a mass movement of the young and not-so-young to make our leaders listen and perhaps even act. She and they have seized upon the urgency of the cause and will no longer be deterred from pressing the case for action.
Those words she spoke in her declaration of rebellion, delivered in Parliament Square on 31 October 2018, struck me forcibly. 'Everything is black and white.' How often, I wonder, is it the case that those who achieve change have this gift of clarity, to see the goal and to attack it without distraction, while most of us, beset by doubts and fears, hesitate and wonder what to do? Perhaps this is what characterised the founders of the great religions and their prophets, the conquerors and emperors, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. Perhaps it is what led so many, such as Jeanne d'Arc and the first St Stephen, to martyrdom, for such views are bound to attract opposition.
On 30 December 2019, Greta Thunberg had a short conversation on Radio 4 with David Attenborough in which both expressed admiration for what the other had done – Attenborough suggesting that in one short year she had achieved more than he in 20 years of filming and lecturing. Perhaps; time will tell but both will surely be remembered for their enormous contributions to understanding of the climate catastrophe and what we need to do to prevent it. The future of our children and the many people of all ages currently suffering from floods, storms, wild-fires and forced migration around the world depend on our hearing their message and acting accordingly. We must stop being those pretty strange people who cannot put two and two together.