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Writing on the Precipice

Quelccaya Glacier located in southern Peru in the Cordillera Vilcanota.

Quelccaya Glacier located in southern Peru in the Cordillera Vilcanota. Image credit: Edubucher

Late last year, in the dying days of the American presidential campaign, the World Wildlife Fund published its most recent Living Planet Report. Published biennially, these reports have long made sobering reading, but 2016’s took that to a new level, declaring that between 1970 and 2012 close to 60 per cent of the world’s wildlife had disappeared, and that without concerted action that figure was projected to reach 67 per cent by 2020. In other words, humans were close to having wiped out more than two thirds of the world’s wildlife in just half a century.

As somebody who has spent most of their adult life thinking and writing about animals and the environment, I found this story physically distressing. As with last summer’s bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef it felt like a tipping point, a moment when it had become clear we could not continue down the path we are on, a moment when things would have to change.

In fact the world’s media greeted the story with a collective shrug. A few articles here and there mentioned it — and then it was gone, swamped by the drama of Donald Trump’s terrifying rise to power.

It is difficult to know what to do in such circumstances. The climatologist James Hansen once said being a climate scientist was like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall: being a writer concerned with these questions often feels frighteningly similar. Because although it is difficult to understand how one could not be writing about these questions, the ethical urgency one feels is tempered by a sense of the futility of the gesture in the face of such enormity, a feeling one’s tools are not fit for purpose. What is the point of stories in such a moment, one wants to ask. How can one poem or one song or one novel make a difference?

The answer, of course, is that they can’t. As Auden famously observed, poetry makes nothing happen. But that doesn’t mean stories and songs and poems are useless, or pointless. Language and stories are our species’ way of making sense of the world, of ordering its meanings in ways that make them comprehensible, manageable. This process isn’t neutral, of course: some stories – the good ones – seek to show us the world as it is, insisting on complexity, on fidelity to what is. Others seek to obscure complexity, to reassure us by telling us what we want to hear. Yet either way, stories help us understand who we are, give shape to our understandings about the world.

There are moments though, when our stories fail us, moments when the world’s complexities exceed their power. We can all point to moments in time when the power of stories, of words, seemed to be burned away, the certainties they encoded disrupted.

There is little doubt we stand at such a juncture now. Climate change, habitat destruction, extinction, pollution, all are transforming our world in ways that would have seemed unimaginable only a generation or two ago. And this is only the beginning: however hard we find it to hold the idea in our heads the brutal truth is the processes we have set in train are now unstoppable, and the world we know is already gone. As Elizabeth Kolbert observed recently in an essay about the hastening collapse of Greenland’s glaciers, ‘It’s just the ice in front of us that’s still frozen’.

In recent years we have taken to calling this new world in which we find ourselves the Anthropocene. I have to confess a degree of resistance to the term, the way its assertion of human primacy reiterates the blindness that got us here. Better perhaps we had chosen E.O. Wilson’s term Eremocene, or ‘Age of Silence’, a construction that memorialises the victims rather than the culprits. Yet whatever we call it, there is no question the new world the human race is creating offers profound challenges to almost every aspect of our societies, not just destabilising our assumptions about ecology, economics, social justice and politics, but altering our ideas about what it means to be human, and the relationship of the human to the world.

For writers and artists these challenges are particularly acute. Not only must we confront the inhuman scale of the transformation that is taking place around us, its temporal, physical and moral enormity, we must find ways of making sense of its complexity and interconnectedness. We must begin to find new ways of representing its effects, new imaginative and lexical vocabularies capable of naming and describing concepts and experiences that exceed the human. We must learn to talk about grief without being overwhelmed by it or descending into bathos. We must find ways of recording and memorialising what is being lost, of resisting not just the assumptions of hypercapitalism but the amnesia it induces, the constant Year Zero of a post-fact society. And perhaps most importantly, we must find ways to communicate ideas that are not just uncomfortable and frightening but actively difficult to comprehend because they demand we accept the ideas and ideologies that structure our world are, as Marx had it, no more solid than air.

Finding ways of doing these things matters, and not just because if we do not we are failing in our role as writers and artists. Recent events in the United States, Great Britain and Europe have underlined what happens when the stories we tell are no longer anchored in reality, especially in societies in which civic institutions and social bonds have been so degraded by two generations of neo-liberal ideology they no longer function. In such a situation fantasy and reality become indistinguishable and the stories we tell ourselves first trivial and then poisonous, fantasies that deny the world around us. Likewise our thinking about the environment is structured not by reality but by denial, a misplaced belief the world is incapable of drastic change, when not just the science but our understanding of our planet’s history tells us the opposite is true.

In the face of such a challenge it is tempting to turn away, perhaps in the manner advocated by writers such as Paul Kingsnorth and his Dark Mountain collective, a collective of writers and artists who reject, with discomfiting eloquence and clarity, ‘the stories our civilization tells itself’ and instead ‘produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature’. As Kingsnorth wrote recently:

When I look at the state of the world right now, I see an arc bending towards something that dwarfs any parochial concerns about particular presidential elections or political arrangements between human nations, and which should put those events into deep perspective. I see a grand planetary shift that has not been seen for millions of years. I see that half the world’s wildlife has gone, and half the world’s forests, and half the world’s topsoil. I see that we have perhaps two generations of food left before we wear out the rest of that topsoil. I see 10 billion people needing to be fed. I see the highest concentration of carbon in the atmosphere since humans evolved. I see coming waves of political and cultural turmoil resulting from all of this, which makes me fear for my children, and sometimes for myself.

I have more than a little sympathy for Kingsnorth’s arguments, and for Dark Mountain’s larger project. Yet Dark Mountain’s rejection of our communal fantasies is also just one expression of a larger shift in sensibility and concern, as writers and artists strive to find ways to accommodate these new realities and speak back to a radically altered world.

What we should call this new literature – or literatures – is an open question. Most discussion has centred upon their fictional expressions, with some suggesting the term cli-fi, or climate fiction, and others, like Adam Trexler arguing we should call it Anthropocene fiction. My personal view is that neither term is sufficient. As I’ve written elsewhere, this view is partly informed by a desire to recognise the diversity of this writing (and indeed the degree to which much of it transcends traditional genre categories). But it is also because to speak in terms of genres or categories is to mistake the wood for the trees.

Instead we should begin to think of these new literatures as the embodiment of a deeper transformation, no less profound or pervasive than that engendered by modernity itself. They are, I would suggest, better understood and described as the embodiment of a tangible condition, perhaps one we might describe as post-naturalism, or the post-natural. Or, as McKenzie Wark quipped a while back on Facebook, all fiction is Anthropocene fiction now, some of it just hasn’t realised it yet.

Perhaps not surprisingly a lot of the best writing exploring this post-natural world is non-fiction. In part that is because of the degree to which our discussion of many of these questions is contained within the language of fact and science, but it is also because the situation in which we find ourselves is changing so fast and in such unprecedented ways that experience is no longer a guide, and it falls to journalists to capture the first draft of this new history of our planetary future. At its best, as in the work of writers such as Elizabeth Kolbert and Gaia Vince, this gives rise to work that is at once dense with information and immense in implication: certainly when Kolbert observes that ‘this summer’s fish kill was a product of warming that had become inevitable twenty or thirty years ago, and the warming that’s being locked in today won’t be fully felt until today’s toddlers reach middle age. In effect, we are living in the climate of the past, but already we’ve determined the climate’s future,’ one feels the geological immensity of our situation made suddenly, dizzyingly tangible.

Yet this writing from the frontline is only the most visible expression of a growing body of non-fiction that seeks to give shape not just to the physical and social reality of the post-natural world but something of its psychic and affective dimension as well. At least initially much of this work had its roots in the once-staid tradition of nature writing, a field that has experienced something of a boom in both public profile and creative vitality in recent years.

Exactly why nature writing has enjoyed such a sharp uptick in its profile in recent years is an interesting question. One answer lies in recent advances in our understanding of animal minds, and the degree to which these assumptions demand we rethink our assumptions about human exceptionalism. But is it also difficult to escape the suspicion it is also to do a deeper cultural and psychic dissonance engendered by our growing estrangement from the natural world.

Just as significantly though, this boom has coincided with a creative renaissance. Where once nature writing drew its inspiration from a tradition of pastoral literature and the rejection of the material world Thoreau enacted when he walked his mile and a half to Walden Pond almost 170 years ago, through the first two decades of the twenty-first century its boundaries have expanded, its once relatively homogenous forms and conventions discarded in favour of a new heterogeneity.

This heterogeneity is visible in the work of British writers such as Robert MacFarlane, Tim Dee, Amy Liptrot and Caspar Henderson, or closer to home in that of Iain McCalman, Ashley Hay and Kim Mahood, all of whom who draw upon the innovations that have enlivened memoir and non-fiction more generally in recent years to develop new ways of exploring the landscape, its history and the life that inhabits it.

Sometimes dubbed the new nature writing, this work is animated by a profound ethical urgency, an understanding that in the twenty-first century to write about nature is a political act, a way of bearing witness to the ecocide humans are inflicting on the biosphere. It is no accident, I think, that so many contemporary nature writers are deeply influenced by W.G. Sebald, or that Sebald’s novel, The Rings of Saturn, might be read as one of the foundational texts of the new nature writing. The same desire to resist erasure animates both, the same sense the past inheres in the landscape, the same unspoken presence of loss.

This negotiation with the reality and meaning of loss is vital, not least because, as Rebecca Solnit reminds us, hope inheres in memory in the same way despair springs from amnesia. But while it is acutely aware of the silences and absences in our increasingly denuded landscapes, the purpose of much of this new nature writing is not merely elegiac. Instead, it prompts us to rethink our relationship with the natural world, not just by recognizing other, older forms of knowledge about the landscape, but by emphasizing the continuities between the human world of social and economic relations and the natural world and the psychic violence we do to both by insisting on their separation.

Sometimes that may take the form of Helen MacDonald’s demand we think deeply about the meaning of extinction, or the connections between the vision of hawks and other raptors, the surveillance technologies that are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in our society and the history of violence encoded in the landscape by the engines of war. Sometimes it can mean celebrating the way the act of close observation is itself an ethical act, perhaps by observing a single patch of land across the seasons, as in Rob Cowen’s Common Ground, or David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. Sometimes it can mean thinking about connections across time and cultures, as Robert MacFarlane and Robert Moor do in their explorations of trails, and walking. And sometimes it can be about recognizing that in the twenty-first century technology and modernity are not necessarily in opposition to nature, as Amy Liptrot does when she allows us to glimpse the contiguity of the external world and the virtual worlds of the internet in her memoir of recovery, The Outrun.

These books are, of course, only the outcropping of a much larger, and even more diverse body of work that stretches from the microscopic wonders essays of Amy Leach’s exquisite Things That Are to the twenty-first century bestiary of Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings and on, through books such as Anna Tsing’s peripatetic ethnography of matustake, The Mushroom at the End of the World, and on, into other, even less easily classifiable works such as Robert Macfarlane’s haunted and haunting musical poems about the Orford Ness and the slippage of time.

To what extent it is useful to continue to think of these books as nature writing is a moot point. Certainly they to share affinities with the tradition from which contemporary nature writing springs. But simultaneously they seem to me to represent a new kind of writing, one whose formal innovations and use of diverse traditions allows it to capture and interrogate the meanings of a profoundly altered world. Time and again one sees the way attention to the small and the specific reveals the unseen whole, the way the disruption of traditional generic categories and conventions allows writers to address their subjects in new and enlivening ways, and, perhaps most importantly the degree to which an awareness of the natural world demands we move outside of a human frame of reference. And all are, despite their interest in the particular and the local, also books whose structures and outlooks embody the fluidity and complexity of globalization, emphasizing connections and resonances across time and space, and prompting us to think about unexpected – and often unnatural – conjunctions of forces and events.

For writers of fiction the challenges are even greater. As more than a few people, including myself,  have noted, climate change is not a subject that lends itself easily to fiction, or at least good fiction. Writing in 2005, Robert MacFarlane observed that while:

Apocalypse comes swiftly and charismatically … climate change occurs discreetly and incrementally, and as such, it presents the literary imagination with a series of difficulties: how to dramatize aggregating detail, how to plot slow change. Though the cumulative impact of climate change may be catastrophic, and may push us into a post-natural world, this is not yet scientifically certain. And so climate change does not yet have its millenarian icons: the grim brilliance of the nuclear flash point (a sudden sunrise which is really the last dusk), or the plump red button beneath its clear plastic flip-case, or the kitchen-table fallout shelter.

It’s a problem that’s amplified by the fact climate change is global in its effects and causes, an unboundedness that means any representation of it and its effects is only going to be a small part of a much larger story (see Dougald Hine on this point). This contradiction drives one of the central conundrums for any writer wanting to write about climate change, because to write about climate change in Australia is to ignore the degree to which these processes are themselves manifestations of much larger economic and historical phenomena, unable to be understood without taking into account the unequal distribution of wealth between nations, the role of global capitalism and consumer society, the legacies of empire and decolonization. Yet to write about those larger economic and historical phenomena is extremely difficult without ignoring the particularities of the experience of climate change for individuals and individual landscapes. Climate change is, to borrow the terminology and conceptual framework of the philosopher Timothy Morton, best understood as a hyperobject: a phenomenon so extended in space and time that it exceeds description.

This problem taken up with considerable eloquence by Indian novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh in his recent book The Great Derangement. Ghosh argues that to understand the inability of conventional realist fiction (and indeed the novel more generally) to accommodate the experience of climate change we need to look to the fact the realist novel is itself a product of capitalism, and as such serves to regulate and order our experience in ways that disguise the unpredictable and exceptional nature of the world we inhabit, and by extension the hastening convulsions engendered by climate change. Quoting Franco Moretti he argues that the realist novel is designed to keep ‘the “narrativity” of life under control – to give a regularity, a style to existence’ through ‘the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background … while the everyday moves into the foreground’. This, Ghosh argues, ‘is the irony of the “realist” novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. Or, to put it in cruder terms, novels and stories which emphasise the violent and exceptional effects of climate change – floods, fires, storms – are likely to seem awkward, vulgar, sensational, because they violate the ways in which realist fiction circumscribes reality, diverting our attention from a world that exists outside of our social relations.

Ghosh’s argument is fascinating and, I suspect, correct, as is his contention that this failure has been reinforced by the degree to which the literary novel has turned inward over the past generation or so, privileging a focus on inner states over an engagement with the world or the attempt to explore society at large, a problem that has been compounded by television’s colonisation of what has traditionally been the territory of the social novel. Yet it is also hamstrung by his decision to confine his discussion to what he describes as ‘serious fiction’, a category from which he excludes not just the literatures of the fantastic, but also genre fiction, commercial fiction, comics, indeed pretty much everything except realist literary fiction.

Unlike some who have taken exception to this distinction I’m not convinced Ghosh’s exclusions are the product of elitism or even narrow reading (not least since Ghosh began his own career as a writer of science fiction); instead I suspect they lie in a series of assumptions about the centrality of literary fiction to the culture, and by extension, its capacity to affect public opinion (and policy) about climate change.

This is a mistake, and not just because it radically overestimates the status and influence of literary writing, or because any study of climate change fiction that neglects the formal innovations of writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson is necessarily impoverished, or even because it fails to recognise the degree to which much of the best post-natural fiction elides conventional genre boundaries in precisely the same way much of the best post-natural non-fiction does. Instead it is a mistake because it blinds us to the degree to which anxieties about climate change and environmental change already pervade our contemporary consciousness, as visible in the silent forests, pressing green and raw, unprocessed (and unprocessable) grief of The Walking Dead as it is in films such as the sublimely stupid Interstellar or the denuded landscapes of novels such as Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, little of this work is narrowly realist, and even less falls into neat genre categories. Much of it is science fictional, either in subject matter or technique. In a way this is unsurprising: unlike social realism science fiction’s longstanding preoccupation with estrangement, experiences that exceed human scales of being, the alien and the uncanny means it offers a toolbox of tropes and techniques developed to allow it to represent and explore many of the new questions and experiences we are confronted with. Indeed one might go further and argue science fiction is equipped to deal with these questions precisely because it is, in large part, a literature of the exceptional, a genre whose core business is that of transformative change.

Something similar is true of the other literatures of the fantastic. In 2015 Robert MacFarlane wrote about the rise of the eerie in recent British culture, noting the growing presence of the ghost story and the anti-pastoral, and suggesting that it ‘coincides with a phase of severe environmental damage’, that is, ‘the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.’ And while the context is different, work by writers such as Alexis Wright and Ellen Van Neerven here in Australia attempt something similar from an Indigenous perspective.

Yet the generic restlessness of these post-natural fictions is only the outward expression of a deeper sea change. Around the world, fiction writers are shaking themselves free of old assumptions about subject matter and form in an attempt to find new forms, new strategies and new vocabularies capable of giving shape to the world in which we find ourselves.

Sometimes that involves a decentring of the human, whether through an awareness of the presence of animals, as in Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, a book which constantly threatens to slip free of its human concerns and enter the world of the wolves at its centre, to embrace the ‘shale flame’ that dances behind their ‘glacial eyes’, or through an awareness of the landscape. Sometimes it involves a disruption of unitary narrative and our assumptions about narrative time in an attempt to articulate an awareness of the inhuman scale of what is taking place around us, either through narrative structures that cover centuries, like that of Annie Proulx’s monumental Barkskins, or through discontinuous and mosaic structures like those employed by David Mitchell in The Bone Clocks, or by myself in Clade. Sometimes, as in novels such as Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, or The Swan Book, it draws upon Indigenous and non-Western perspectives. Sometimes it involves an attempt to capture something of the way these forces disrupt our ideas about the natural and the unnatural, or demand we recognise connections between phenomena that unsettle us, a process that lies at the heart of Jeff VanderMeer’s remarkable Area X Trilogy.

Yet it is also possible to discern the emergence of new preoccupations and new ways of thinking. In the constant images of erasure and loss, the repeated motifs of disrupted families and missing children that recur in books such as Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us, Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point and Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came, we see something of our own grief and dislocation about a world terminally disrupted by human agency. In the unsettlements and sublimated violence of writers such as China Miéville we see something of the way late capitalism obtrudes into the world, unhinging social relations and rendering the familiar strange. And in the inversions and repetitions of the uncanny we see something of the way we have made the world around us unnatural, and, as Jeff VanderMeer has suggested, an intimation of the way the experience of human time and geological time have begun to overlap and intrude upon each other.

It’s perhaps not surprising that so many novels that seek to explore post-natural themes end up focussing on questions of time, and in particular deep time: the inhuman scale of climate change and the Anthropocene demand we find ways not just of talking about geological timescales but also of making sense of human life and agency in the context of such timescales. Nor is it surprising so many seek to suggest new spaces for social change by emphasising openness and possibility in the way the final chapters of The Wolf Border or Clade do. These two are not unconnected, after all: to talk about deep time is to remind ourselves of the contingency of the human, and human culture, an act that forces us to recognise that however hegemonic the present moment may seem, it too will pass.

This might seem a trivial thing. But it matters. For although many of the worst effects of climate change and overpopulation are now unavoidable that doesn’t mean we are powerless, or that there is no longer anything to be done. There is a difference between saving some of the coral reefs and saving none of them, a difference between sea levels rising 50 metres and them only rising a metre, a difference between a world in which we confront the forces that are driving the destruction of our world and a world in which they continue unchecked. But in order for that to be possible we must possess the imaginative tools to describe and discuss the world we are making, to step outside what we know and imagine ourselves in new ways. For as Rebecca Solnit has observed:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable.

This is an edited version of a keynote given at the Sixth Biennial Conference of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ) in collaboration with the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI), Global Ecologies – Local Impacts, in November 2016.