Last Days of the Anthropocene
Last summer started early in Australia. In November a heatwave struck northern Queensland, pushing temperatures to record heights in many places. In Cairns the temperature reached 42.6 degrees, more than five degrees higher than the previous record for November. Over 12 days fire crews attended more than 1200 fires, including devastating blazes in rainforest areas that had always been regarded as natural firebreaks. In parts of Queensland, fire conditions were designated catastrophic, the first time the rating—which was only created in 2009—had been used in the state.
November’s record temperatures in Queensland were only the beginning. In December and January, heatwaves of unprecedented length and severity blanketed much of the continent, shattering records around the country. January was Australia’s hottest month ever. The three months of summer were also the hottest ever recorded. Average temperatures were more than two degrees above the 1961–90 average, and beat the old record, set in 2012–13, by almost a degree. During the heatwaves in December and January, temperatures reached 47.7 degrees in parts of Adelaide and almost 50 degrees in numerous other locations. In Sydney the train network struggled to cope with the heat, causing delays as tracks threatened to buckle. In South Australia thousands of chickens were killed by the heat and stone fruit cooked on trees. In two days in northern Queensland, 23,000 spectacled flying foxes—or one-third of the entire population—fell from the trees and died from heat exhaustion.
With the record temperatures came more catastrophes. In Tasmania blazes triggered by dry lightning strikes devastated unique ecosystems in the west of the state, destroying alpine forests and temperate rainforests. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of fires, the Tasmanian Forest Service implemented a triage process, concentrating their efforts on houses, farmland, infrastructure and areas of unusual environmental significance.
Meanwhile, on the Barwon–Darling millions of fish and other riverine species died as a result of long-term drought and mismanagement. Confronted by graphic scenes of waterways choked with the upturned bodies of dead fish and the bloated remains of 100-year-old Murray cod, farmers and journalists struggled to retain their composure. ‘We are witnessing an ecosystem in collapse,’ said Griffith University’s Professor Fran Sheldon.
Finally, in February, a one-in-1000-years rain event dumped 12 month’s rainfall on North Queensland in a matter of days, breaking records in many locations. In the floods that followed, four people died, thousands of homes were inundated, and up to half a million cattle and countless native animals perished. Politicians touring the devastated area were forced to wear face masks to deal with the stench.
I was in Townsville shortly after the floodwaters receded. A few days earlier I’d sat in my car in Sydney listening to a woman on the radio describe the torrent of water that had cascaded through her house and swept everything away. She’d lost furniture and appliances, but it wasn’t them that mattered to her. ‘I lost a little girl when she was three and a half,’ she said, her voice breaking, ‘and I can’t replace those photos.’ On the day I arrived, I drove through the streets of the suburbs along the river that had been the worst affected. Water still lay on the ground here and there, and mud carpeted the grass and footpaths. But if it were not for the smell of mildew and the heaped mounds of ruined furniture, mattresses and sodden clothing that lined the verge—each one the sum total of some family’s personal possessions, damaged beyond repair by the filthy floodwater—it might have been possible to ignore the fact that less than a fortnight earlier this whole area had been underwater.
Indeed, it was only when I headed inland a couple of days later that I really understood the sheer scale of the disaster. On the road to Charters Towers, I passed over the Burdekin River, a channel several hundred metres wide in which the water had risen as high as the road. The banks were scoured and scattered with upturned trees; elsewhere, in a testament to the almost unimaginable volume of water that had passed through the area, debris hung from the branches of those that still stood, many metres from the ground. And in the distance, where the river spread out and the land shimmered with the heat, its sheening breadth seemed to merge with the horizon.
• • •
I want to say I had some kind of epiphany as I stood on that bridge. But I didn’t. I remember feeling physically ill when I first learned about the bleaching events that struck the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, but as the disasters have grown more frequent, I have grown less and less able to process them. It is not that I have been inured to what is going on: I am so angry about the squalor of our politics and the weakness and wickedness of our politicians I can barely speak. Instead I feel heartsick and desperate and—perhaps most of all—terrified.
After all, none of what is happening is a surprise. We have been warned, repeatedly. In 2006 the climate scientist James Hansen said we had at most a decade in which to stop dangerous climate change. Not a decade to decide upon action or plan what we were going to do, but ten years ‘to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global green-house emissions’.
More recently, in October 2018, the IPCC released its special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, a document that sought to map differing greenhouse emission pathways and their impacts. The findings of the report were unequivocal. Warming of two degrees will have catastrophic effects on the planet and human life. Heatwaves and extreme weather events will increase significantly. Close to 400 million people will be affected by water scarcity. Food production will decline markedly, especially in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Central and South America, contributing to what is described as ‘a disproportionately rapid evacuation’ of people from tropical countries, as extreme heat, decreased food production and social breakdown make them unviable, resulting in population increases of up to 300 per cent in the tropical margins and subtropics. The distribution and incidence of tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will increase significantly. The impacts on the non-human world are even more drastic. Extinction rates, already running at thousands of times the background average, will soar to levels not seen since the last of the mass extinctions that have periodically devastated Earth’s ecosystems. Recently observed collapses in insect populations will accelerate, severely disrupting ecosystems and food production. Coral reefs, which sustain almost 25 per cent of marine species, will all but disappear. Warming and acidifying waters will severely impact the fisheries that provide one-third of the world with their principal source of protein.
By contrast, a world that warms by only 1.5 degrees will be severely damaged but still liveable. Half as many people will be affected by water scarcity. Food shortages will be significant but less frequent. There is a chance we might save 10 per cent of coral reefs, and smaller rises in ocean acidity will place less stress on ocean ecosystems. The Arctic will be ice-free in summer once a century instead of once a decade.
The catch is that to have any hope of keeping temperatures below this threshold we must reach net negative emissions by the middle of the century, with close to half that reduction occurring in the next decade. This will require us to reduce global emissions by close to four per cent a year, or 1 per cent per quarter, a process that will demand an economic transformation of unprecedented complexity and rapidity, affecting almost every aspect of human life, especially in the developed world. This transformation will have to take place against a backdrop of rapidly rising population: on current projections there will be 10 billion humans on Earth by 2050, considerably increasing the amount of food, water and energy we require.
Despite the efforts of the United Nations and a series of international agreements, there is no sign of a drop in emissions. In fact, emissions rose 1.6 per cent in 2017, 2.7 per cent in 2018 and will almost certainly rise again this year. If emissions continue on this path, we can expect temperature rises in excess of four degrees by the end of the century, a scenario many scientists believe will trigger a cycle of runaway warming that will devastate ecosystems and wipe out millions of species, render large parts of the world uninhabitable, and reduce the number of human beings the planet can sustain to less than a billion.
Worse yet, the arithmetic of climate change is utterly inexorable. The planetary processes that regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide and the climate are vast and slow, meaning the effects of our actions take time to percolate through the system. In other words, the disasters of the past summer are not the result of the emissions released last week or last year, but those released decades ago. Likewise, the impact of the greenhouse gases we are releasing today will not be felt for a generation or more.
This time delay is the reason it is so imperative we decarbonise rapidly: the accumulated effect of emissions already released will drive temperatures higher no matter what we do, and each year—each month—we delay reduces our room to move. Worse yet, this process is accelerating. Of the nearly 1600 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions humans have released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, approximately a quarter were released across the first 200 years or so, another quarter between 1968 and 1991, another quarter between 1991 and 2007, and another quarter between 2007 and 2018. So we have released as much CO2 into the atmosphere in the past decade as was released in the first 200 years, and half of all emissions have taken place since 1991. This means large amounts of warming—and the consequent disruption and damage—are already locked in, irrespective of what we do now. Or, as Elizabeth Kolbert has observed, ‘We are living in the climate of the past, but we’ve already determined the climate’s future.’
More disturbingly again, many of the effects of climate change are non-linear, meaning that once we pass certain critical thresholds, the climate may change rapidly and uncontrollably no matter what we do. It is possible—even likely—that we are already seeing the first stages of this process: recent studies suggest the Greenland and West Antarctic icesheets have already passed the point of no return, making their collapse inevitable. As our experience in Australia brutally demonstrates, higher temperatures result in more fires; as trees burn they release yet more stored carbon dioxide, further elevating carbon dioxide levels and raising temperatures even higher; likewise, as forests die back, their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere diminishes. As rising temperatures melt the permafrost, it releases stored methane and carbon dioxide, raising temperatures further and causing yet more permafrost to melt. As the oceans warm, their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide falls, causing atmospheric levels to rise more rapidly.
The scale and speed of this transformation is almost incomprehensible. I was born in 1967. In the month I was born, atmospheric carbon dioxide was 325 ppm. In May this year I turned 52. In that same week, atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 415 ppm. The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was during the Pliocene, some 3 million years ago. Global temperatures were two to three degrees higher than they are now and sea levels were 25 metres higher. In other words, we are, quite literally, watching geological time collapse into human time.
• • •
There is a conversation I do not know how to have, a conversation about what happens if we are heading for disaster. It is not a theoretical question for me. I have two daughters. The older has just turned 13, the younger is nine. On current projections we will pass the point at which it is possible to hold warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels before the younger has finished school. By the time she is at university the coral reefs will be gone. By the time they are in their early thirties we will be committed to two degrees. By their forties they will inhabit a world in which the ice shelfs are collapsing, the Amazon is burning, and ecosystems around the world are collapsing. A world of massive refugee flows in which hundreds of millions will die of hunger, heat, disease and the accelerating effects of social and economic breakdown.
It is difficult to see how our society could survive in anything like its current form in such a world. Five million Syrian refugees deranged Europe, a fraction of that has dramatically affected the dynamic of Australian society. What happens when tens of millions head north and south from Indonesia and equatorial or sub-Saharan Africa? When Central America or parts of India become uninhabitable? When Bangladesh and Myanmar flood? What happens when that occurs at the same time food grows scarce, water resources dry up and economic activity contracts to less than nothing as global commerce collapses? Last year I interviewed one of the lead authors for the International Panel on Climate Change. When the formal part of our conversation was over, we talked a bit about emission pathways and the fact we remain on the outer limit of projections, suggesting we are heading for four degrees or more of warming. He laughed. ‘We’ll never get there,’ he said. ‘Look around yourself. Think about the level of disruption we’re experiencing at only one degree of warming. The reality is human society will collapse long before we get to four degrees.’ For weeks after-wards I couldn’t get his words out of my head. I still can’t.
I don’t know how to think about this, or what to do. Should I be teaching my kids to hunt and farm? To shoot? To fight? Should we sell our house, buy a place outside the city, somewhere we could be relatively self-sufficient? Should I be stockpiling food? A friend of mine studies preppers and bunker culture. The last time we spoke he said they have stopped talking about whether society will collapse or what is likely to tip us over the edge; instead they now assume it’s just a matter of time. ‘I’ve come at this so many ways,’ he said. ‘But the problem is I know they’re right.’
Even asking these questions makes me feel like a crazy person. But I know I am not alone. Although we talk about the climate crisis, we don’t really talk about it. I’m not sure we even know how. Instead we manage not to think about it, or when we do only briefly or glancingly. Instead we perform our despair on social media or make queasy jokes about rising sea levels, heatstroke, climate chaos, as if it’s possible to treat civilisational collapse as a punchline. And while there’s no question there’s sometimes an edge of hysteria to these sorts of conversations, a sense that while our jokes may help us paper over the cracks, they can’t entirely prevent the terror from leaking in, for the most part we manage to distract ourselves with the business of today and tomorrow and the day after that, carefully avoiding discussion of what happens in a decade or two.
This inability to discuss the question is the expression of a larger erasure, a desire not to engage with the conflagration that is already engulfing our world. A few years ago the writer and critic Amitav Ghosh wondered how our descendants might understand our culture’s ‘patterns of evasion’:
When sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.
Likewise, Delia Falconer has written eloquently about the ways in which our society’s passion for newness hides the darkness at its centre, a process she describes as the ‘narrative of glamour’:
For every book concerned with the fate of the world, there are a hundred, a thousand, films and books and ‘lifestyle’ television programs and advertisements and magazines offering an alternate universe that is already here on Earth. Glamour exists on a different time scale where nothing is permanent but can always be ‘made over’—houses flipped, dream homes located, ugly ducklings zhoozhed. In its alternate universe decisions are not moral, but only ever aesthetic, surfaces always gleam, and those who have glamour are ‘winners’—above the ruck, in their gilded sphere—while those who don’t are ‘losers’.
‘Glamour’, she concludes, ‘is the great enabler of a neoliberal logic, hiding its long-term and catastrophic damage with a glossy fluidity.’ It might also be ‘our most powerful and fatal fiction, the one that kills us all’.
These patterns of evasion are written deep into our culture, the way we think—and more importantly, don’t think—about the future we have already set in motion. They are embedded in the language we use, the way we hide behind conditionals to avoid truths we do not want, or cannot bear, to think about. We debate possible impacts and potential warming without acknowledging how much is already baked in, say ‘if sea levels rise’, not ‘when sea levels rise’, discuss water scarcity and collapsing ecosystems and societal fracture as theoretical possibilities when the reality is they are now only theoretical in the sense they haven’t happened yet.
We are not entirely to blame for this. The philosopher Timothy Morton argues climate change should be understood as what he dubs a hyperobject: a phenomenon so complex and so massively extended in time and space it exceeds human comprehension. Yet however we describe it, there is no question thinking about climate change is incredibly difficult, if only because our minds simply aren’t set up to make sense of the interplay of timescale and existential risk it involves. We can hold it in our heads intellectually, but making emotional, affective, lived sense of it is all but impossible.
This problem has been usefully explored by Norwegian sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard in her 2011 study Living in Denial, which draws upon her experiences living in the town she called Bygdaby across the winter of 2001. In a dress rehearsal for the rapid warming that has overtaken northern latitudes in recent years, the snow arrived late that year, making traditional activities such as skiing and ice fishing impossible. Yet while the townspeople understood the science of climate change, and the connection between it and the disruption to their lives, Norgaard was surprised to discover it was not a subject of discussion, at least not in any direct way, and neither had the town’s inhabitants taken steps to change their lifestyles or engage politically with the issue.
I suspect this contradiction will be familiar to many. We understand the idea of climate change, we appreciate the urgency of the problem and have a grasp of what action needs to be taken, yet we fall over when it comes to doing something about it. Even small sacrifices—spending more to buy green power, avoiding unnecessary air travel, donating money to environmental charities—often seem too difficult when it comes to the crunch. At some fundamental level we seem unable to integrate an intellectual understanding of the issue into our daily lives.
Norgaard is careful to draw a distinction between this failure, which she terms ‘integra-tive denial’, and the deliberate dishonesty and organised obfuscation we usually think of as climate change denial. Instead she sees it as a form of socially organised denial that evolves out of the inability of social conventions to accommodate these sorts of discussions.
[It] is not a question of greed, inhumanity or lack of intelligence. Indeed if we see information on climate change as being too disturbing to be fully absorbed or integrated into daily life … this response is the very opposite of the view that nonresponse stems from inhumanity or greed. Instead denial can—and I believe should—be understood as testament to our human capacity for empathy, compassion, and an underlying sense of moral imperative to respond, even as we fail to do so.
Norgaard’s distinction between integrative denial and the organised and well-funded denial of the far right is useful, suggesting at least some of the inertia around the issue stems from the absence of an effective framework for discussion. Yet the problem runs deeper than mere social convention or a lack of desire to discuss things that are too disturbing. We cannot talk about the problem because we are caught between our desire to act and our awareness that we are part of the problem.
English academic Daisy Hildyard probes this dissonance in her recent book The Second Body, in which she argues we each possess not one but two bodies. The first is flesh and blood, corporeal, individuated, divided from the external world by the impermeable barrier of the skin. The identification of our self with this first body is embedded in our language and culture, and it is energetically—and often anxiously—policed by our insistence on the importance of physical, social and psychological boundaries. Yet Hildyard argues climate change requires we let go of this idea and recognise we also have another body, one that is radically unbounded, connecting us to the world at large. ‘What do an American barn owl, a Zimbabwean hippopotamus and a Norwegian reindeer have in common?’ she asks.
They all have a relationship with your body—they are all, in some sense, your responsibility. There is a way of speaking that implicates your body in everything on earth. Dead whales have something to do with you, the disorientation of the waxwing is indirectly your problem, the freak storm and the changing seasons are consequences of actions performed by your body. Mean-while there are car bombs going off in Baghdad every day. Does this have anything at all to do with you? Moreover, a teenager in Kolkata is missing a thumb and you are wearing an inexpensive pair of gloves. Is there any connection there?
Hildyard’s notion of the second body echoes not just Ghosh’s description of the ‘insistent, inescapable continuities of the Anthropocene’, but also Morton’s arguments about the ways in which the climate crisis forces us to recognise the complexity and interconnectedness of many seemingly unrelated phenomena, confusing our understandings of scale and erasing the boundaries between things. In so doing it presents us with a profound conceptual challenge. But as Hildyard recognises, it also demands we acknowledge our personal responsibility for the disaster unfolding around us.
This is a deeply confronting idea. Most of us are at least a little bit aware of the degree to which our lives affect the lives of others less fortunate than ourselves, but we are careful to keep the implications of that awareness at bay. We buy cheap clothes without letting ourselves think too much about the manner of their production, eat meat without thinking too much about where it comes from, catch planes without thinking too hard about the impact of them, or of the materials that went into building the plane, or the road, or of making the power that runs the lights. For those of us in the first world, any reckoning with these questions is likely to be particularly painful, demanding we learn to see the invisible legacies and ongoing trauma of colonialism and exploitation, dispossession and destruction that surround and enmesh us. Seen like this our resistance looks less like moral cupidity or wickedness than self-preservation. As T.S. Eliot recognised almost a century ago, there is only so much reality most of us can bear.
As a result we inhabit a weird duality, a world in which we know but do not know, and where these mechanisms of evasion and denial allow us to avoid staring into the eye of what is coming. It doesn’t always work: I am a skilled compartmentaliser, but still there are moments when it overwhelms me, when the knowledge of what is coming is too much to deal with, moments when I look at my kids and wonder what I have done by bringing them into the world. Like most parents, I want them to live full and happy lives. I want them to grow up believing the future is a place of possibility. I want them to have hope. Yet I know that is not what awaits them. Instead they will inhabit a world progressively poorer, less stable, more violent, a world where hundreds of millions and possibly billions of people are likely to die from the effects of global heating and environmental collapse by the end of the century. They will endure fear, chaos and deprivation. Their future lives will not be better but significantly worse than their lives now. Because like Wile E. Coyote running in the air, not yet aware the ground beneath his feet is gone, we have already stepped out into the void; all that remains is the fall.
• • •
Perhaps your mind recoils from this idea. I know mine does. I don’t know how to think about these possibilities, let alone talk about them. Yet I also know we have to find a way of doing so. Because unless we find a way of saying the unsayable, there is no way we can begin to prepare for what lies ahead.
There are versions of this conversation I dislike, versions that arrive freighted with a particularly self-regarding and peculiarly masculine performance of intellectual honesty, as if congratulating yourself on being the only one brave enough to face the truth makes you admirable rather than a bit of an arsehole. Only slightly less objectionable is the godlike equanimity of those who seek comfort in the fossil record and deep time by declaring there have always been extinctions, and while we may not survive, the planet will. ‘Reefs have gone extinct many times, but coral is still with us,’ they will tell you, as if that somehow makes what is happening now okay. At the heart of both lies an ethical vacuum and an indifference to the fate of billions of human and non-human lives that I find abhorrent.
I am also deeply suspicious of the brand of environmental thinking that simply turns its back on these questions. Paul Kingsnorth is correct when he writes ‘our stories are cracking: the things we have pretended to believe about the world have turned out not to be true.’ But while there is no question his work and that of others who share his outlook offer a vital and profoundly troubling counter-narrative to modernity, demanding we engage with the impermanence of all human cultures and the occluding fantasy of progress, there is also an unpleasantly reactionary sheen to its barely sublimated misanthropy. To speak of ‘uncivilisation’ or to treat a return to pre-industrial conditions as not just inevitable but desirable in a world in which more than half the population lives in cities is petty at best and grotesque at worst.
In my darker moments I wonder whether my resistance to these positions is simply a more sophisticated form of denial. In the middle of last year, Jem Bendell, a professor of sustainability at England’s University of Cumbria, published a profoundly important paper in which he argues his colleagues have failed to grapple with the true implications of climate catastrophe. Arguing that near-term societal collapse is now inevitable, Bendell sets out to understand not just the implications of this for his profession, but also the institutional and ideological factors that prevent many in the environmental and sustainability sector from admitting the intractability of our predicament. Central to them, he contends, is the fear that admitting the truth will cause people to lose hope and give up.
Am I guilty of this same refusal to inhabit reality? It is possible. But I think—I hope—it is more than that. In the notebooks Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci kept while imprisoned by the Fascists, he spoke of the dual necessity of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. We must, he said, be ruthless in our intolerance of wishful thinking, yet we must never lose sight of the potential for change and human possibility.
Perhaps we should begin with a similar abandonment of illusion and fantasies of control. Addicts sometimes talk about needing to hit rock bottom before you can really face up to what you are. Until you do, the argument goes, you will continue to find ways to lie to yourself and to justify your behaviour. Rock bottom is the end of excuses. The final stripping away of illusion, the acceptance of reality.
Yet while it is the lowest point, rock bottom is also the beginning of recovery. It is about admitting the truth of what you are. It is about attempting to live ethically and honestly. It is about acknowledging the damage you have done, and attempting to repair it. Maybe we need to do something similar. As Roy Scranton has observed, the real challenge
is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realise there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
Doing this is terrifying, because it demands we reckon with the enormity of what is happening, its geological immensity and indifference to the human. It demands we open ourselves up to unspeakable grief. It demands we recognise the impossibility
of saving the world we know.
So where might we begin? One starting point might be temporal. In a very real sense the true challenge of the climate crisis lies in its overlapping and collapsing temporalities, not just the way in which geological time intrudes into human time, but also the conflict between the delayed impact of past emissions, the narrowness of the window for action, and the much slower processes of social and economic change.
We might, of course, reframe these in terms of the much longer fight for justice, the movement towards a world in which all share equally and possess the power of self-determination. But we might also go further, and recognise the ways in which an appreciation of the scale of the changes taking place around us demand we reimagine our own relationship to time. This is an idea Robert Macfarlane takes up in his most recent book, Underland. Rejecting the idea that the immensity of geological time renders ‘all life … equally insignificant in the face of eventual ruin’, he argues we would do better to see
deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.
A similar awareness is embedded in the culture of Indigenous Australians and the complex webs of knowledge and obligation that define their relationship to Country. Acknowledging the significance and sophistication of these systems of understanding is not just about beginning to redress the horrific legacy of the colonial project, it is a first step towards reshaping our attitudes to the land and our relationship to it more generally.
Equally importantly though, to speak of deep time is to remind ourselves of the contingency of the human and of human culture. Part of the reason we find the crisis that surrounds us difficult to think about is that it confronts our most fundamental ideas about progress and history, demanding we recognise not just the violence upon which our culture is founded, the slaughter and dispossession and cruelty, but also how brief and fragile its ascension has been. Set against the depth of Aboriginal occupation of Australia, or that of the indigenous inhabitance of the Americas and Asia and Africa, industrial society’s two and a half centuries are little more than a blip.
Yet in a moment when—to borrow Mark Fisher’s phrase—‘capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’, this emphasis upon contingency matters, and not just because it reminds us that the reality we inhabit is neither inevitable nor the end of history, but because it allows us to slip free of the past. As Fredric Jameson famously observed, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. But perhaps that is only half right. Perhaps it is only by imagining the end of the world that we can begin to imagine the end of capitalism. Perhaps it is only by imagining the end of the world that we can begin to imagine a better one.
• • •
What might such a world look like? Perhaps the answer is not as far away as we think. In August last year, 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg walked out of school and went and sat on the steps of Sweden’s parliament. Sweden is one of the most progressive countries in the world. Almost all its political parties support a transition to a fossil-fuel-free future. Yet Thunberg rejected their assurances, pointing instead to the fact that despite the high-blown rhetoric of Sweden’s politicians and the international community, emissions continue to rise. ‘The first time I heard about global warming, I thought: that can’t be right, no way there is something serious enough to threaten our very existence,’ she wrote at the time. ‘Because otherwise, we would not be talking about anything else. As soon as you turn on the TV, everything would be about this issue. Headlines, radio, newspapers. You would never read or hear about anything else. As if a world war was raging.’
Perhaps not coincidentally, Thunberg has Asperger’s; like many people with the condition, her intellectual clarity makes her impatient with the niceties of conventional discourse and unafraid of who she offends or upsets. ‘I don’t care if what I’m doing—what we’re doing—is hopeful,’ she said in a recent interview. ‘We need to do it anyway. Even if there’s no hope left and everything is hopeless, we must do what we can.’
Over the next few months, Thunberg’s lonely figure became a beacon of hope for many. Inspired by her vigil, school students in Europe, America and Australia organised strikes of their own. I attended those in Sydney with my children; they were noisy, incoherent but oddly joyous events, animated by a youthful sense of possibility and newfound purpose. The demands of the protesters echoed Thunberg’s in their simplicity: This is our future you are destroying. The time for talk and evasion is done. We need change now.
Many in government and the media attacked the protesters, deriding them for their failure to understand the complexities of the issues or suggesting they were being manipulated by adults with agendas of their own. ‘What we want is more learning … and less activism in schools,’ said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a man whose government has presided over rapidly rising domestic emissions and whose chief of staff once worked for coal lobby group the Minerals Council of Australia. ‘We’ll be less activist when you start being less shit’, read one of the signs at the protest.
Meanwhile, in Britain, another movement was coalescing: a loose coalition of people that argued the time had come to stop talking, and act. Calling themselves Extinction Rebellion, they demanded action proportionate to the crisis, calling on governments to tell the truth and act. Within months the movement had spread, as local chapters of Extinction Rebellion sprung up around the world.
The school students and Extinction Rebellion are not the first to fight for climate justice; their movements build upon the work of the tens of thousands of activists, artists and scientists who have devoted their efforts to the same goal for the past 40 years. But while it would be a mistake to underestimate the forces arrayed against them or the difficulties inherent in translating their energy into substantive change, their arrival suggests a shift in the debate. Capitalism imprisons us in the belief we are individuated and helpless, telling us the world is out of our control. Yet history shows us that when enough people fight for change, not only is it possible, but it often comes suddenly. Thirty years ago the collapse of the Soviet Union happened almost overnight; a decade ago the Arab Spring transformed the Middle East almost without warning.
Similarly, acts of resistance can ripple out in unexpected ways: Rebecca Solnit has observed that just as Thunberg’s lonely figure inspired students around the world to take matters into their own hands, the protests against the pipeline at Standing Rock inspired Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to stand for Congress in the United States, a decision that moved proposals for a Green New Deal to the centre of American political debate.
In Solnit’s words, ‘the consequences of an uprising or a movement are not linear. Success and failure are often premature measures and over-simplifications; actions, interventions and conversations change beliefs and create new values, alliances and possibilities.’ Likewise, research demonstrates that in order to be successful, mass movements need to mobilise less than 5 per cent of the population, suggesting the bar for change is much lower than we often assume.
Of course it is vital we recognise the ways in which our current predicament differs from those of the past. The mass movements of the past were, most often, focused on specific outcomes: universal suffrage; labour reform; civil rights; an end to the war in Vietnam; democracy. And as such, their aims could be achieved by forcing governments to act in often quite specific ways. The battle against climate change, by contrast, is diffuse, complex and vastly more urgent. Although the goal—the reduction of greenhouse emissions and a shift to a sustainable economic model—is relatively easy to define, the path towards it is not, and the changes it demands are far-reaching and fundamental. If, as McKenzie Wark has observed, we now live in a moment in which human and natural forces are so entwined that the fate of one determines the fate of the other, then reimagining our relationship with the environment also means reimagining ourselves, not just by recognising that we do not and cannot exist in separation from the natural world, but by placing that recognition of connectedness at the centre of our thinking.
Transforming our economies and ourselves so fundamentally might seem impossible, especially in such a terrifyingly short space of time. Yet we already possess many of the tools we need. Some of these are technological: the cost of new solar power is already lower than that of new coal power, and improvements in battery technology make the transition to a low-carbon economy increasingly possible. Others are economic: while the world’s richest 10% produce nearly half the world’s emissions, the poorest 50% are responsible for less than 10%. Similarly the ecological footprint of the average Australian or American is three times that of a Costa Rican and eight or nine times that of the average African. But the fact it is also double that of the average European underlines this imbalance is a matter of choice; indeed a 2015 study by Oxfam suggests that were the world’s richest 10% to reduce their per capita emissions to the same level as the average European it would reduce global emissions by a third.
At one level these inequities simply reflect the degree to which the challenge of climate action is inseparable from questions of global and historical justice. But it should also remind us that the world’s failure to act on climate change is not accidental. Just as in Australia the the fossil fuel industry has corrupted our government, economic decision-making around the world has been distorted by the hastening concentration of wealth and power in the hands of global elites. Reducing the corporate influence on policymaking that underpins this realignment is difficult, but far from impossible: even without redistributive policies greater public transparency, restrictions on the power of lobbyists and donations and more effective anti-corruption regimes will help. Meanwhile we must also find ways to empower the poor, whether through fairer trade, investment in more sustainable farming techniques or improved education for women to stabilise population growth.
Yet none of this will happen until we find the courage to let go of evasions and half-truths, and begin to speak openly and honestly about where we are and what lies ahead. This will not be easy. It demands we fundamentally rethink our relationship not just with the future, but with the past and the present. It demands we find ways of living with impossible grief without breaking or turning away, and of supporting those around us while they do the same. And perhaps most profoundly, it demands we confront our assumptions about the limits of political possibility, and our relationship to power.
Will it be enough? I don’t know. What I do know is that doing something—doing anything—is better than doing nothing. That action is the best antidote to despair. And that in the end we have no choice but to try. For as Greta Thunberg has observed, ‘Change is coming, whether you like it or not.’ Whether that is a threat, a promise or both is up to us.
James Bradley is a writer and critic. His books include the novels Wrack, The Resurrectionist and Clade, and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. His new novel, Ghost Species, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in 2020.