The climate apocalypse hangs over us—so how should we write about it?

A quotation commonly attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood... but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." Nature writers should learn
December 7, 2020

The hospital looks, at ground level, like any other hospital. Newer, perhaps. Shinier than what one might be used to, with its gleaming white partitions, armchairs of royal blue, and a radiant strip-lamp atop each of its 300 beds. But look up, and the artifice is revealed. Above the rows of neat cubicles, the hall’s roof hangs cavernously overhead: exposed pipework, spotlights, vast glowing exit signs.

You could be forgiven for mistaking it for the set of a hospital drama, but the NHS Louisa Jordan is one of Britain’s emergency field hospitals, hastily thrown up in Glasgow’s expansive Scottish Events Campus (SEC) during the April lockdown. At the time, it was feared that the health service’s intensive care units would be overwhelmed—though, in the end, ordinary hospitals just about coped and no Covid-19 patients had to be treated here. These vast halls, instead of being packed with Harry Styles, Stormzy and Paloma Faith fans, have since played host to thousands of orthopaedic, plastic surgery and dermatology patients in a bid to reduce the waiting lists whose lengthening has been a nasty side-effect of the virus. Some emergencies jolt us into finding creative solutions and galvanise us to put them quickly into effect.

All the venue’s cancellations brought disappointment, but few had the global significance of 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). The annual get-together under the auspices of the UN framework convention on climate, attended by representatives of 197 countries, was to take place in November 2020. Like so many other events in the year it has been delayed, in this case until late 2021—understandably, you might feel. Yet this one is a delay that we can ill afford.

Despite a sizable drop in emissions during the pandemic—a decline of nearly nine per cent in the first half of 2020, a greater fall than was seen during the global financial crisis or even the Second World War—there has been no dent in the total level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, pollution that has built up since the beginning of the Industrial Age. To actually stop (never mind reverse) global warming, we will have to stem the flow of new emissions more dramatically. In late November, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation noted that total atmospheric carbon had roared past 410 parts per million in 2019—a level not seen on Earth for millions of years—and since then its rise had barely slowed. The pandemic dip in emissions, it noted, was but a “tiny blip” on the upward graph.

If we are to keep average warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius—a critical point beyond which risks of drought, flooding and other climate-related crisis shoot up—scientists estimate that global emissions must be cut in half by 2030. When you consider that emissions within countries typically fell only by a quarter at the height of their lockdowns, which closed swathes of industry and brought transport grinding to a halt, the scale of the social and economic challenge here is thrown into sharp relief.

The COP26 of 2020 was widely held to be the first major test of the breakthrough 2015 Paris Agreement, at which national governments were to account for progress on emissions and announce new, and more ambitious, five-year targets. But with COP26 pushed back, these countries got another year’s reprieve. In the face of the clear and present threat that the pandemic poses to individual lives, the only process we have for tackling the climate emergency—a clear, if not fully realised threat to life as a whole—is shunted off once again. It’s just one more delay in tackling the elephant that stands in every room, in every city, in every country of the world.

*** Our relationship with climate change is a complex one. Almost all of us believe the risk to be real, and growing fast—and yet so few of us take steps to combat it. It is a disaster in slow motion: action is both deadly urgent and yet, somehow, infinitely postponable. Why is that? What makes climate change a subject so uniquely beyond our ability to grasp, and act upon?

Global warming was once memorably described as a “hyper object”—a concept so huge, so distributed across time and space, that it is impossible to conceive of all at once. Perhaps this is true. The consequences of our non-action are both diffuse enough and distant enough, in terms of a single human’s lifespan, that action on climate change falls to the bottom of our personal priorities—however much we wish the best for our children, children’s children, and all children after that.

Still, the strange tenor in which we tend to discuss matters of climate might not help. Earth system sciences are remarkably technical, and the reporting of the effects of rising carbon is necessarily complex and hedged with a great deal of uncertainty, in terms of magnitude and time to impact, if not their direction. The core evidence on climate has an abstract quality that can, to the extent that it jars with concrete experience, make its urgency difficult to convey. Extreme weather events, for example, have always existed; it is a rise in their frequency that is the alarming sign of changing climate. Though most British voters accept climate change and vaguely support doing something about it, it is a very limited segment that keeps a close enough eye on the science that spots patterns in the chaos—those who find illumination in probabilities, variables, margins of error. There is a gulf between the kind of language that best communicates the facts as we know them—calmly and precisely, in the measured and caveated tone of the scientific journal—and the words that most move us: move us emotionally, move us to action.

So how best to sound the alarm? Young Greta Thunberg has taught us the power of simplicity and symbolism. In a year that started with terrible fires in Australia, and ended with more in California, it is hard not to look back on her iconic appearance at the World Economic Forum in January 2020—a skinny child upon a podium, hair braided and her face set, telling us to act as if our house were on fire—and not feel ourselves in the presence of a modern-day saint. It is no coincidence that the writing of our most effective climate change campaigners take on a biblical quality: these are the eschatologists of our atheistic age, our prophets of doom.

David Wallace-Wells, the American journalist, caused a furore when he published his 2017 essay “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York magazine: a litany of science’s worst-case scenarios, one after the other. Viewed more than six million times, it was made up of several subsections with alarming labels: “heat death”; “the end of food”; “perpetual war”; “poisoned oceans.” It stunned a horrified public with its vivid imagery and merciless prose; when expanded into a book in 2019, it became a runaway bestseller.

In the UK, the University of Cumbria’s Jem Bendell has become a cult figure thanks to his darkly prophetic writings on what he calls “near-term social collapse”: a dystopian near-future in which we might expect “mass starvation, disease, flooding, storm destruction, forced migration and war.” Such events, he believes, will be the norm in most countries in the space of a decade. Bendell’s (contentious) paper outlining his proposal for “Deep Adaptation”—that is, for accepting the grisly truth, and battening down the hatches—was initially submitted to a mainstream journal. But the peer-review process produced demands for revisions to his argument so fundamental that they amounted—Bendell claims—to “a form of censure.” He withdrew the paper and self-published online in 2018. It went viral, and has now been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

There is hunger, in other words, for vivid writing that brings the reality of the crisis that we are facing home—writing that shocks us, that hits us where it hurts. But the question that concerns me is this: to what end? Wallace-Wells’s and Bendell’s writings are undoubtedly engrossing, even thrilling. I have read them both, and could barely rip my eyes away. They draw our rapt attention, but I sense in them something of the flavour of a disaster movie: a Hollywood director’s impression of our most gruesome end.

Both writers characterise their efforts as rallying calls. “I would like people to be scared of what’s possible because I am scared,” Wallace-Wells said in an interview. “And because I am motivated by fear, I also hope they will be motivated.” But what of those of us who find fear the most demotivating emotion of all? These Doomsday prophets spike my adrenaline, and afterwards I crash. After a surge of panic, my brain seems to blow—like a light bulb and its filament—leaving me dark and depressed. I can’t keep up that high-pitch of anxiety for long.

I don’t think I’m alone. Lurking in the social media groups that have sprung up in response to such cataclysmic narratives—where concerned members of the public come together to discuss climatological data and to make plans for the upcoming crisis—one gets the sense not of a community fired up for change, but of a support group in a palliative care ward. “I have spent the last three days in deep despair,” writes one woman online, prompting hundreds of responses in kind. Another correspondent, a man, reports “hope-free exhilaration and paralysing horror.” Yet another asks whether there is any point in saving money to buy a house; others question their desire to have children.

What those conversations reminded me of most was a psychological phenomenon reported among those who suffered most in the wake of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, a place that I recently visited. The number of deaths directly related to the incident has been highly contested; what is known, however, is that the huge number of people who were evacuated from the area, or who remain in its irradiated surrounds, suffer disproportionately from alcohol problems, poor mental health and suicide, and are more likely to exhibit reckless behaviour, such as knowingly eating food grown in contaminated soil (crops from Chernobyl have a higher concentration of radioactive isotypes) or engaging in “unprotected promiscuous sexual activity,” as one World Health Organisation official put it. This behaviour, experts say, will ultimately lead to far worse health outcomes than the accident itself. They describe it as a form of “paralysing fatalism.”

Our situation, of course, is very different, but I see an analogy. Where a terrifying prospect hangs over you constantly, it can be difficult to act calmly and respond appropriately. Think too much of it, and one finds oneself frozen with fear and helplessness, increasingly desperate to blow off the disastrous situation. Think too little of it, block it out, and—well. Such is the fix we are in.

*** I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently when writing my new book on how nature reclaims abandoned places—and how the long-lasting effects of human activities unfurl as an ecological shadow over these areas long after we leave. What fascinates me is how nature can recover and rebound in some of the most damaged of environments and become, if not what it was before, then something newly strange and beautiful, even a stronghold of biodiversity. In part, the project has been a conscious corrective. Some nature writers suffer from a form of wilful blindness in their insistence on focusing upon only pristine environments, shutting their eyes to the infringements of people. Sometimes we grasp onto simplistic narratives: Nature will set you free! Nature as cure-all! I have been as guilty as anyone of this in the past. Others lapse instead into the elegiac mode, and write only laments for vanished or vanishing species and habitats: songs for the departed. It can feel good to soak in a state of melancholy, to wallow in our sense of loss.

With my eyes attuned to hope and redemption in our damaged world—the wolves and bears creeping back into Europe by way of abandoned military bases, the carbon sink forests growing up over decades in abandoned farmland, the endangered species finding safe havens in no man’s lands and post-industrial wastelands—I came to realise that there were veins of possibility and potential recovery glinting through the cracks in some of the most hopelessly polluted settings. It is these stories—what I call “torches burning in a darkened landscape… beacons of hope in a world that sometimes feels bereft of it”—that motivate me. There is hope, they tell me. A broken world can recover, and surprisingly quickly, but only if given the chance.

A quotation, commonly attributed to the writer and pioneering French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, says: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” This, if I ever read one, is a manifesto for nature writing in the present day. This is our own task: to evoke the experience of being in this wild and beautiful world. To stir people to love the planet with a jealous passion, to act in a way more befitting of a custodian or even lover. Go in through the heart, and the head will follow.

We need to be roused. We need to feel. We need a siren song that lures unsuspecting souls to the cause: a song to enchant us, to put us to work. Look at the deep and long-lasting influence of writers like John Muir, whose passion for the wild Sierra Nevada would inspire the US National Park movement, or Rachel Carson, the biologist-bard whose landmark book Silent Spring did so much to change global attitudes towards pesticides.

Melissa Harrison, a writer who has done as much as anyone to re-enchant us with the natural world in recent years, declared not long ago that “it is hope, not despair, that will keep our shoulders to the wheel.” I concur. She, like Robert Macfarlane before her, is expanding into writing nature books for children—catching them young, in other words, and teaching them to yearn for the endless immensity of the sea. And, by extension, for the majesty of the whole: land, water and air, along with all that live there, including ourselves. Rediscovering our love of place, and our relation to it, makes the job of saving it urgent and personal, in a language rarely found in scientific journals.

To act, we must also believe that our actions might have consequences: that we have a chance to change the future, to save the world. We need, in other words, to hope. Hope might be told in numbers. If you are of that persuasion, here are some: 78 per cent of the British public believe that we are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly; a majority of Americans want to transition away from oil; China has announced plans to bring carbon emissions down to “net zero” by 2060. But it can be told, and perhaps more powerfully, in images too: in opening flowers, in fluttering wings, in the band of brightening sky that precedes the dawn.

Cal Flyn’s new book, “Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape” (William Collins), is published in January