Living On A Planet With An Expiration Date
At the end of last year, countries all around the world came together in Paris to attempt to sign a real, binding agreement on climate change. The build-up was immense - with everyone from leaders of Pacific nations to executives at British Petroleum to Guardian journalists calling for action. It felt like there was finally a sense of collective imperative - a confusing combination of hope, terror, and frustration pushing us towards the conference; and through to an agreement that, despite its inadequacies, was framed as a success.
This imperative, this restlessness, feels like it’s been with me for a while now. I try to think of the moment when I decided I cared about climate change, but I can’t find one – all I know is that it’s grown from somewhere, and it’s always there. I’ve dedicated my studies to it (and will continue to do so come October), and right now I work in a place stuffed full of people just like me. As a twenty three year old born into the possibility of environmental collapse, there’s nothing more important – and more difficult – than fixing what generations before me have broken. Passion, urgency, and optimism are three words I associate with my relationship with climate change; so too are resignation, desperation, and sadness.
We frame climate change positively for a reason. We package it with hope for the future and dress it in windmills and horizons because those images are inspiring and empowering; but the more rhetoric I spout, and the longer I watch the planet struggle, the harder it becomes to reconcile the two sets of emotions. I don’t think I’m alone.
For most urban New Zealanders, climate change often doesn’t feel loud and dramatic. Its effects are quiet, insidious things like the increasing price of a good avocado, or the palpable lack of puffer-weather-days. Outside the city bubble, it’s buried in the dryer-than-usual soil or the unending rainy days. For people my age, it’s implicit in the question of morality that now accompanies the decision to have a child.
For me, it feels like a hangover – a rhythmic throb sitting behind my eyes, nausea, and a feeling of dread that I’m never quite sure is because of what I’ve done or what I’ve yet to do. It’s always there, shaping my work and study, but I’m trying to ignore it and pretend I’m not four seconds away from vomiting into an empty Tank cup.
In every scenario, there’s a disconnect, because it’s impossibly hard to link a colossal, long-lasting global occurrence with your trip to the supermarket without feeling overwhelmed. We, as people, aren’t built to think like that – it’s why we call life short and it’s why we feel a confusing combination of fear and insignificance when we think about space too much.
Because of climate change’s complexity, it’s mixed in everywhere from food, to weather, to house prices. As a result, it’s utterly alienating.
Last year, George Monbiot wrote an article for the Guardian that was, for all intents and purposes, a love letter to nature and a plea to rejuvenate Britain’s wild places. Amid its accounts of “truncated natural processes” and “cauterised ecologies”, it makes a compelling case for ‘re-wilding’. He concluded the piece by saying;
“When I’ve accompanied children from deprived London boroughs to the woods and rock pools for the first time in their lives, I have seen something similar: an immediate, instinctive re-engagement, the restoration of a broken ecological relationship.”
Monbiot explains that when we are surrounded by nature, we feel close to it. This has a flipside, too - to feel the urge to restore the forests and the fields, we need to be connected to them, and to form an emotional bond. Sometimes, this is difficult.
I am a white girl who grew up in central Auckland. The emotional significance of most beaches and parks lies in the people I remember being there and why – I don’t feel any inherent sense of self in more than a few particular spots, one of which is my childhood home - and its presence seeps as much from the human-made walls and carpet as it does from the now-overgrown hedge I used to leap through to get to school. I stare at the photos cascading across my walls and scrapbook filled with hand-written notes and ache for being there, but the there is as much about time as place; I find nostalgia swishing inside a bottle of my favourite cheap wine, not on the land where its grapes were grown.
In a day-to-day life that has me pitter-pattering back and forth on various types of concrete, I often forget what the places we could be giving up feel and smell and taste like, leaving me struggling to quantify what their loss will represent for me. I end up locking them up in a box along with my favourite memories.
‘Re-wilding’, in this light, feels like a political campaign, or a piece of admirable but ineffective legislation – I can talk all I like of the importance of rivers and lakes for our children, but the emotions are pushed down, tucked away, left in the part of my brain that still feels a painful tug at the bottom of my stomach when I think of Cornwall Park and the way it’s drenched in memories of my grandmother.
At the centre of it all is fear. Fear that being permanently connected to nature in a way that isn’t defined by policy or rhetoric will leave me vulnerable as it is inevitably destroyed. What if we can’t ‘re-wild’ before climate change ravages it all? And what will I have lost if I let it slip away, before I can really embrace what it feels and smells and tastes like?
Conscious of this, I recently learnt to dive, a link to the ocean that connects me to the childlike wonder of seeing a starfish in a rock pool that Monbiot writes about. At five, ten, twenty metres below the surface, you’re muddled with the wildlife. The ocean inhales and exhales: it breathes out a current, and you’re breathing, floating, moving with it.
But back up the top, this ineffable sense of calm is tainted by concern for what comes next. You hear it in the awkward laughter when you say you’re working on perfecting your buoyancy before you go to somewhere with a coral reef, and the sadness in the response – that you better improve it quickly. You want to see the coral, you know, before it all dies.
It feels unfair that even the ocean, which will grow and take back the land as the temperature rises, isn’t safe.
Also last year, Esquire published a long-form piece about climate scientists. Its URL dubs it the “ballad of the sad climatologists”, which describes it perfectly – it’s an exploration into the ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’ that comes from working as a climate scientist. The narrative is clear, but it was a difficult read because it felt so familiar. As it traced scientist after scientist, through fierce anger and quiet resignation, the anxieties I’ve long felt nestled amongst my ribs expanded to press against my lungs.
“So even when you are driven to your desk in the middle of the night, quoting Norse proverbs, when you are among the most informed and most concerned, the ordinary tender mercies of the home conspire in our denial. We pour our energy into doing our jobs the best we can, avoid unpleasant topics, keep up a brave face, make compromises with even the best societies, and little by little the compartmentalization we need to survive the day adds one more bit of distance between the comfortable now and the horrors ahead.”
Compartmentalisation is a catch-22. It helps us forget what’s coming, and keeps us moving through the day; but when we compartmentalise, we isolate ourselves instead of finding comfort in knowing others feel the same.
Grief, like many things in suburban New Zealand, is quiet and lonely. It seeps into your bones and leaks out of your open mouth into a sob, which you stifle into your pillow for fear of a flatmate hearing you. In movies and TV shows there are support groups and life-altering scenes of cathartic release aplenty. I’ve still never seen one in person.
Searching for the most apt death-related metaphor to apply to the planet, I went through a few (suicide [no], murder [not quite], manslaughter [almost]), and eventually landed on a page called Saying Goodbye: Coping With a Loved One’s Terminal Illness.
It names a ‘five stage model’ for describing the process. It’s not dissimilar to the traditional Kubler-Ross ‘denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance’ model, but it has an emotional arc that I find more compelling. The stages the page describes are crisis, unity, upheaval, resolution, renewal; the emotions and actions littered throughout its instructional paragraphs are like a nonsensical acrostic poem I could’ve written myself.
Part of the struggle with these feelings is that it isn’t the planet’s fault this is happening, and it mostly isn’t my generation’s. But our ancestors ignored all the warning signs and instead collectively made the decision to bleed the earth dry until it cracks, and every piece of the extravagance we associate with the 21st century is soaked in that blood.
In my second year of university, I learnt that the word ‘decadence’, which I had only ever associated with chocolate cake and lavish Remuera mansions, once simply meant ‘decay’.
It’s one of those small pieces of information that stuck in my head, a factual titbit that pops into my thoughts every few months.
decadence / decay
The implication of the old word is that too much indulgence leads to “moral decline,” but we’ve cut the train of thought in half, and in place of one word we have two. It’s the marriage of our two words, and the way they allude to transformation from glitter and gold to waste and abandonment, that’s long captured my imagination.
They’re thick words, tongue words that stick in your teeth, and together they explain the timelapse of collapse I think of our generation as sitting in the middle of.
But they also imply inevitability, and that the hours, days, and years just facilitate the move from one state to another. That’s the part that feels cold, or sad - we are in the midst of a slow march towards decay, sufferers of an abstract illness that was diagnosed long before we knew we were sick. Our predecessors were decadent, and my generation will decay.
The scientists in the Esquire piece were acutely aware of this dichotomy - just one of a mess of dichotomies and inequalities that infect climate change - and the frustrations that come with knowing the students they teach and the children they have will bear the brunt of what’s to come.
What’s worse is being the student or the child.
I, and my peers, have been charged with caring for the earth as it dies. We barely speak of the effect this has in such plain terms, but I think the awareness is there - in the off-the-grids and the compulsive, neverending YOLOing OEs and the performative obsessions with outdoor sports and the Instagramming every gorgeous sunset, because who knows how many fiery evening paint strokes across the horizon will stay tricks of the light before turning into real fire in a summer hellscape. We barely speak of it, but I don’t think anyone could argue we don’t know.
“...and little by little the compartmentalization we need to survive the day adds one more bit of distance between the comfortable now and the horrors ahead.”
Dealing with the emotions associated with climate change means unpacking the compartments, letting the grief seep in, and confronting a future that is both uncertain and terrifying. For those of us who’ve obsessively tracked every UNFCCC COP and become angry at the ‘hottest [month] on record’ articles that must be a template saved in the Fairfax common drive by now, that means stripping back the intellectual barriers we’ve built around our work. It means setting down the inspiring, empowering images we use to make climate action exciting and positive (wind farms, lush waterfalls, smiling tots) in order to let the creeping, terrifying thoughts that sit behind them (we’ll never win; we’re doomed; the planet is imploding and burning and we’ll die with it) fly free.
I think part of the problem is that we’re still stuck trying to break through the fourth stage in the ‘five stage model’ - resolution. How do we resolve our frustrations and accept a reality that we’ve been working our whole lives to change?
When I first started university and began to grasp at a political consciousness, I used to complain that the politicisation of climate change was the movement’s downfall. “How can we accomplish anything,” I used to say, “if the accomplishments are tied to a political spectrum?”
The truth is, climate change was always political, in the way it stretches and exacerbates issues and events. No matter how many ridiculous political candidates deny its existence, climate change has a way of working itself into the issues they do care about. In some ways, those who simply minimise climate change - acknowledging it exists while refusing to accept that the changes we ought to make are considerably more dramatic than chucking money at agricultural research - are even worse. Compared to the deniers they seem reasonable, and measured; whittling down climate change to an inconvenience, placating people who might start to get worried. But climate change doesn't think or work that way - it's indiscriminate in whose lives it ruins.
Look at foreign policy - a concern that always frames the American presidential races, and therefore everything we talk about too. Candidates talk constantly of ISIS and Syria and extremism, but few if any mention that climate change caused the drought and food shortages and famine that affected the way people responded to political unrest in their countries, like where and how they fled or fought.
There’s no more obvious way to see our inability to connect world issues with climate change than with the refugee crisis. We feel empathy for the refugees who’ve arrived soaked and broken in Calais, but not for the hundreds of thousands that will set sail because their homes are sinking.
In fact - we’re not even allowed to call climate refugees ‘refugees’. Instead, they’re “people displaced by climate change”, if that. To lawmakers and politicians, they’re different, unrelated issues.
This is the way we often choose to characterise climate change. As an undercurrent or an epilogue to world events. It’s an Instagram filter or an italicised font, as though we’re hesitant to embrace the full implications of what it means and what we’ve done to get there in case it frightens people or tunes them out.
In truth, the causes and effects of climate change aren’t always quiet, or slow, they’re incredibly violent. We’re hemorrhaging species at an alarming rate, bleeding out our biodiversity onto the living room carpet as the earth loses colour and struggles to stay conscious. We’ve picked up a scalpel in our dirty fingers and gouged it into the soil, reaching elbow deep into its open chest to syringe oil from its fattest veins. We’ve put the planet in the boot and closed the garage door and revved and revved and revved, leaving it to choke on the carbon dioxide or gently sweat into a coma. We’re burying it alive or we’re burning it alive, with plastic bags or palm oil, watching as its skin peels back and blisters and blackens, all in the name of our favourite peanut butter.
The storms that will rage are as bad as airstrikes, like little cluster bombs our parents accidentally scattered, When they explode, whole cities will be reduced to the splintered wood we hacked at to build them. Each centimetre the ocean crawls means another family forced to set sail into its depths, but life under the surface is dying or mutating its way to extinction too. Whole ecosystems, food chains, slowly boiling or plucked for cat food. It’s not instant, like the mines that litter the trenches we scarred the soil with, but doesn’t that make it worse?
If we characterise climate change right, it’s incredibly, overwhelmingly violent. If we anthropomorphise the planet, compare our actions to a gruesome torture scene on Game of Thrones, does it make it real?
I think, too, that our insistence on relegating climate change to local colour - an inconvenience akin to inter-party squabbling and a sluggish economic recovery - means we’re unable to grasp how our issues now and our issues in the future are one and the same. We find it impossible to reconcile our iPhones and Netflix accounts with the artistically directed but tame hurricanes and drought we watch on them.
Even then, what’s missing is the sheer magnitude of the desperation that will unfold before us. Because soon enough, the disaster movies will become real; we’ll see for ourselves that the more people become desperate to feed their children, the more it’ll bubble over into war and death, and the more people will want to be anywhere anywhere than the home and the soil they’ve only ever been able to associate with conflict.
decadence / decay
What’s that old Chinese proverb? The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is now.
When we get to the peak of human suffering, will we even be able to plant in the barren earth?
But we struggle with justice between generations, so it’s easier to treat each crisis as an isolated incident, and it’s easier for me to continue to pitter-patter on my daily concrete than plunge into the ocean I’m desperate to connect with, and see the faces of the children who will end up there.
Climate change is a Big Topic – it’s intersectional, it’s intergenerational, it’s gendered, it’s political, it’s global, and it’s devastating. It affects whole countries and whole species, and it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it.
It’s also impossible not to feel as though I don’t really have a right to complain, when there are people suffering so much worse than me. And because I still fly home for Mother’s Day, aren’t I a huge hypocrite?
But also maybe not.
Grief is relative. We don’t tell someone whose cat has died to be grateful it’s not their dad, nor should we tell each other not to ache over a fallen tree where a childhood treehouse once stood simply because whole forests are being burnt alive.
It’s natural to think of yourself, and the people around you, more closely than you think of people you haven’t felt and smelt and tasted. Just like connecting with the earth makes it more painful to lose, connecting the dots between what climate change is and what it means for you makes it more real.
I have a complex and academic relationship with climate change, which sits squarely in the crucible of incomprehensible acronyms and emissions reductions percentages. The whole time, it’s the quiet, personal questions that I find the most complex and incomprehensible. I have always wanted children - but with the planet as it is, I’m not sure I feel comfortable bringing any into it. Just like the earth, the future I have always planned for myself is slipping away.
It turns out my most vulnerable thought, the one that you have to strip back the intellectual barriers and the inspiring, empowering images to get to, is absurdly simple.
Breathing underwater is a surreal experience. You feel pressure in your ears and the only noise is a gentle stream of bubbles. You inhale and you exhale to move up and down, and on Wellington’s South Coast, the murky water that swirls around you feels like a storm.
On your left, there’s rippled sand and nothing else, no life, just nothingness; on your right, there’s a colossal rock teeming with fluorescent seaweed and as you stare a tiny jellyfish huffs its way over your shoulder.
The ocean breathes again, and you’re fighting, paddling, pushing against it because you got carried away on the way out and now you’re far enough from shore to be nervously watching your air gauge with every dry, shallow inhale.
But then you surface, rolling and floating the last five metres as the water squeezes you out, and you’re spitting out your regulator and licking your salty lips and you can hear your dive buddies laughing again.
In the water, even while you’re loaded up with tanks and wetsuits and fins and equipment, you’re learning to re-wild. You’re fixing your broken ecological relationship, and you’re moving from that fourth stage of ‘saying goodbye’, resolution, and into the fifth - renewal.
For Monbiot, re-wilding “offers the hope of recovery, of the enhancement of wonder and enchantment and delight in a world that often seems crushingly bleak.”
The resignation and sadness will probably be with me the rest of my life, sitting at the periphery of any work I do. Climate change has taken away an aspect of my future, and my agency, but in some ways, it has given me a purpose.
Grief is quiet, and grief is personal; but with loss as great as this, it shouldn’t be.
Because we grieve, and then we rebuild.