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It’s Been, It’s Here: Tony Birch on Climate Change’s Past and Present

Read Tuesday, 24 Mar 2015

Weather Stations writer-in-residence Tony Birch reflects on some themes that have taken hold in common narratives of man-made climate change.

He argues that while it’s commonly considered a future threat, it’s a problem many communities have been grappling with already — and that to consider the situation ‘too depressing’ is to misunderstand our ability to act.

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A recent Guardian article (‘Losing paradise: the people displaced by atomic bombs, and now climate change, 9 March 2015) provides a sad reading about communities suffering the devastating effects of climate change now. The people of the Pacific Marshall Islands and Kiribati are dealing with ‘food shortages, droughts and floods’ while rising sea levels will ensure that their land and homes face certain oblivion.

Aerial view of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, 2011. Tuvalu is a remote country of low lying atolls, making it vulnerable to climate change. Photo: Lily-Anne Homasi / DFAT
Aerial view of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, 2011. Tuvalu is a remote country of low lying atolls, making it vulnerable to climate change (Lily-Anne Homasi/DFAT)

These are the same communities who have previously dealt with environmental degradation, and the resultant poisoning of their soils and their bodies due to US atomic testing that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War Two.

Similar experiences of colonial violence have impacted on Indigenous nations across the globe for hundreds of years (and more). In Australia, for instance, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have witnessed the destruction of land, water systems and the delicate ecological balance of country — across the mainland and surrounding islands from the moment of the permanent arrival of the British in 1770.

Are these narratives of impending apocalypse something of a Western fetish?

For Indigenous people, the impact of climate change is not a future event. It has occurred in the past, and it is occurring now. In fact, it is not a future event for any community — although we know that so-called ‘third world’ nations, and the poor more generally, are being impacted on more severely and immediately as the impact of climate change gathers speed. It is also certain that the same communities will suffer to a greater extent in the near future.

While this is a sorry reality, it is also the case that Indigenous communities previously faced with environmental challenges — due to forced external circumstances — have been innovative and resilient in their responses to the immense difficulties faced. I am not attempting to be unduly or strategically optimistic on this point. Clearly, in Australia alone, not only have particular environments and ecologies been completely destroyed … but some Indigenous nations themselves have been exterminated. That other Indigenous communities across Australia have recovered from the threat of obliteration and continued to nurture precious natural and cultural resources is a testament to courage, ingenuity and creativity.

Image: Maldives by Alexander Brown (CC-BY-SA:
The world’s lowest-lying nation, Maldives, will be amongst the first to flood (Alexander Brown/CC-BY-SA)

It’s worth noting that many discussions around the birthdate of the Anthropocene … privilege a benign, even accidental intervention on the warming of the planet, allowing us to abrogate our responsibilities.

Of late, I have been reading quite a lot of speculative fiction — some of it quite a ‘good read’. But I do have a couple of questions. Are these narratives of impending apocalypse something of a Western fetish? And do these stories lull people into thinking that a fictional future ravaged by climate change (by each of us, actually) is nothing more than a disaster narrative produced for our entertainment? The scenario presented in these stories is often the stock one of impending weather catastrophe, famine, violence, and a more or less dog-eat-dog existence (or in the case of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, people eating newborn babies and young children). The scenarios present in speculative fiction, in addition to some science fiction and disaster movies, have never been fictional entertainment for some communities. They are part of history. And not only colonial history — with the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — but one example of the environmental, as well as the human toll of war. (How will areas of the Middle East ever recover from the ferocious attacks on the natural and physical environment?)

Current debates on climate change include a discussion on the beginning of a new human epoch’ (Guardian, 11 March 2015) — the Anthropocene, described as a ‘geological time-point at which humans came to dominate the earth’, and the marking point in a dramatic increase in the warming of the planet. Generally, it had been agreed that the Anthropocene began around 175o (or a little later) as a result of the birth of the Industrial Revolution, and the rapid increase in the burning of fossil fuels. New analysis questions this date and puts it at around 1610, relating the shift in human dominance of the planet to the ‘irreversible transfer of crops and species between the old and new worlds’. This may be the case. But there is something missing in much of the journalistic coverage of the issue (and within academic writing as well).

Not to raise the point as an exercise in the ‘blame-game’, but it is important to also note that not all societies and not all humans ‘came to dominate the earth’ — be it in 1610 or 1750 (or within the project of modernity, for that matter). The Anthropocene grew out of rapid industrialisation coupled with the rise of capitalism and global colonisation. It was made possible by the exploitation of particular societies and cultures — Indigenous people and peasant cultures, to name two — by those seeking to expand and profit at the expense of others. Currently, global society, but particularly more affluent communities within global society, faces a challenge that in historical terms it has previously avoided. It’s worth noting that many discussions around the birthdate of the Anthropocene — focussing on migrating crops or the invention of the steam engine, perhaps — privilege a benign, even accidental intervention on the warming of the planet, allowing us to abrogate our responsibilities. But we are not spectators. We are active agents. Our environmental interventions were not the result of some scientific accident. They been conscious, proactive and at times, violent.

At a meeting I attended earlier this week, several people expressed the view that even talking about climate change, let alone acting on it, was too ‘depressing’ a thought to contemplate. I find this odd … and harshly, perhaps, I also find it to be a luxurious indulgence. There are people and communities across the world that spend their entire lives dealing with not only surviving, but striving to replenish themselves and their badly wounded countries, their homes, as a result of destructive human intervention in their lives. Then there are those who have never faced such difficulty. Worse, they are often the members of societies that have materially benefitted from the exploitation of others. And yet they cannot bring themselves to act in a preemptive way.

I do not mean preemptive in that climate change is yet to visit us. As I have stated above, climate change is here. But surely, why do we sit around waiting on the apocalypse to turn up over the hill, like it often does in the movies? Why live with such a sense of hopelessness?  I suspect that deep down, many of us have been tricked. We do think we’re in a movie, and that just when we think it’s all over, another type of human will ride over that same hill, muscled up with a set of sparkling white teeth.

We will call him The Hero. And he will save us.

Image by Corey Seeman (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
(Corey Seeman/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Tony Birch is currently the Wheeler Centre’s Weather Stations writer-in-residence. You can read more of his writing (including in Polish and German translations) on the Global Weather Stations blog, where this piece first appeared.

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