There’s a heartrending article in today’s Guardian. A mother looks at her child playing with a broken toy picked up by the roadside, symbol of a sick, collapsing world. In tears, she asks why he was ever born. She speaks of her fear of dying, her paralysis, her sense of hopelessness.
Aleppo? Haiti? The Yemen?
Nah, this is the Guardian environment page, and the woman is someone called Missy Higgins, currently on an orchestral tour around Australia. She’s clearly someone important; since the video I clicked on to learn more had already been clicked on by 2.7 million people.
I looked down at my son, playing with an old plastic aeroplane we’d found on the side of the road. Its propellers rusty and brown, its wings cracked and bent. “Why did I bring you into this world?” I thought. “How could I possibly have thought that was a good idea?” A surge of tears pushed against my throat. I swallowed and turned away. In my hand was my iPad…
Hang on, don’t go away, she hasn’t finished. She’s going to tell us about her obsession with post-apocalyptic literature.
The obsession began with a friend’s recommendation for Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a book about a travelling theatre group who journey from scattered camp to camp, performing Shakespeare to anyone who survived the flu pandemic. I fell in love with this disease-ravaged, post-electricity world where artists were the saviours…
…because these post-apocalyptic Thespians were by chance all trained medics from Medecins sans Frontières – but I mustn’t give too much away…
The next book recommendation I received was Clade by Australian author James Bradley. Clade begins with a scientist working in Antarctica while his wife is trying to conceive via IVF in Sydney…
Logical. Some things you just can’t do by Skype
He becomes increasing frustrated…
Well, yes, one would. Perhaps he should take a cold shower. In the Antarctic, perhaps not…
…with society’s refusal to heed the warnings of climate change, which leads him to feeling more and more anxious about the idea of bringing a child into this world.
But hang on, he’s not. He’s in Antarctica. It’s being done by a syringe in Sydney, right?
The book goes on to span multiple generations, showing the slow but devastating results of climate change on future generations.
At a rate of about 0.5°C per generation, the results must surely be slow. The protagonists might like to counteract the effects by moving from, say, London to Northampton. Or they might not.
It is epic.
Is it? An increase of several hundredths of a degree per year hardly suggests the pace and passion of the Iliad. In that epic the river Scamander attacks Achilles who is only saved when Hephaestus boils the river into submission. Even GISS and HADCRUT are far from predicting such events.
Right there is where the seed was planted for me… As I continued on this cli-fi bender, a creature grew inside of me. It started off small and restless in my belly, and over the months it grew teeth and claws.
That’s the trouble with borrowing books from the public library. You never know who’s had them before.
One day, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything entered my periphery
Belly? Periphery? Should that be Perineum?
and something twigged.
The seed was planted and something twigged. Missy is a proponent of radical reforestation.
I realised all the post-apocalyptic cli-fi books had led me to this moment. Enough of the fiction. Enough of the hinting. If the world was going to end, I wanted to read the facts.
And if the world is not going to end? Missy doesn’t say. What she says is:
Hit me in the face with them, fuck it, let’s do this.
Accompanied by a photo of the attractive Ms Klein
If you do nothing else, just read the introduction to this most terrifying of apocalyptic non-fiction books. To learn that the very thing that drives our culture – profit and growth – is the very thing that is going to kill us was more terrifying than any flu pandemic story I’d read thus far.
Now both Ms Klein and Missy Higgins are – how can I put it? – rich. Others in “our culture” are – not to put too fine a point on it – poor. And all of us, whether victims of profit and growth, or victims of the lack of it, are going to die. Isn’t that horrid?
Then, when Klein spoke about the very real prospect of our children having to battle serious environmental collapse in their lifetime, I just fell apart.
Missy fell apart
The periphery cannot hold..
The creature inside me was thrashing about. “What have I done?” There my son was, glowing in all his angelic innocence, playing with the product of this sick, disposable dream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to collapse down to my knees, hold him and tell him I was sorry. That I didn’t know what the future held and I was scared. So scared. But instead, I watched him in all his wonder, in his blissful little bubble and I stayed there. If only for a sweet, sweet moment, I stayed there and I forgot.
We’re back inside Missy again, and something about my elderly white middle class male upbringing tells me I Shouldn’t Go There. But she invites us, fuck it. So let’s do this.
Somewhere inside her belly or periphery or possibly mind, Missy Higgins regrets having a kid. It cuts you off from your friends, social life, cultural environment for ten, fifteen, maybe many more years. You’re no longer a free radical, an ion in the super-saturated solution of our wonderfully complex culture. And, being the sort of sensitive soul who writes songs that appeal to millions, perhaps she perceives dimly the fact that her beloved sprog may himself one day decide to cast aside the broken aeroplane, product of our sick disposable dream, and go into the reproduction business himself, where there are no royalties or copyright laws, but only the awful realisation of total responsibility for the future – at least of one’s offspring.
Unlike 99% of the population, weighing up their likely pension against the likely costs of old age, sickness, and possible need for care, Missy Higgins need not worry about her future. It is natural therefore that she should worry about her child’s future, and maybe his children’s and children’s children’s.
But here’s the rub. She will never see her children (and even less her grandchildren) old, wrinkled and incontinent. For all her wealth and fame, she is mortal.
Amitav Ghosh, no popsinger airhead, has recently opined that “climate change is like death, no one wants to talk about it.” Well, not many people, I’ll grant you. But the Guardian has more than eighteen thousand articles on the subject and someone must be reading them, apart from me.
Amitav Ghosh is no fool. He’s the sort of thoughtful writer one would love to agree with (though I doubt he gets 2.7 million hits on Youtube.) Perhaps he could call on the aid of another thoughtful writer, Mark Twain, and reword his dictum on the weather:
“Climate change is like death, everyone talks about it, but no-one knows the fuck what they’re talking about.”