Notes From Underground is an ongoing series from Bella’s commissioning editor, Dougald Hine, reflecting on the deeper context of the new climate movements. The first six essays looked at what makes the current wave of climate activism different, how conversations about degrowth are reaching inside political institutions, and where we might look for hope – as well as the implications of ‘climate emergency’ declarations and the Green New Deal, and the common roots of Extinction Rebellion and the gilets jaunes. This week we move into Part II of this series: Knowing What We Know. These essays are also available as a podcast and on YouTube.
The walk from the station cuts through the modern shopping streets, then across the channelled river, its banks lined with the painted fronts of older buildings. The afternoon sky is a flawless blue, but there’s an edge to the air that wouldn’t have been there a few weeks earlier. On the steep path that runs up past the castle, you have to stay alert for the cyclists who come flying the other way. It’s the first of September, the first day of a new academic year in this old university town.
The lecture theatre is a cave, down a wide flight of steps, in the basement of one of the newest buildings. There are no seasons underground, here in the bright fluorescent light and the conditioned air. The rows of seats fill up with students, notebooks at the ready, phones set to silent, poised on the threshold.
I have been asked to give the opening lecture of the year at the centre for environment and development studies. During their courses these students will hear from researchers who work at the front line of climate change: earth scientists, ecologists, ethicists, engineers, political economists and economic anthropologists; people with PhDs and academic publications behind them. I am none of these things, and through the weeks of late summer, I’ve been wondering what I could say that might be some help as they grapple with the knowledge that is coming their way.
‘I want to talk about the future,’ I say, ‘but I’m afraid I don’t have any charts or projections. There won’t be one of those quadrant diagrams with four scenarios for how the world might look in 2050. This isn’t going to be the kind of talk which ends with a list of eight things we can do that will make it all turn out OK. In fact, I only have one prediction for you, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it, and it’s this …’
Click the remote control, the first slide hits the supersized screens behind me, big letters spelling it out: ‘WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.’
A gentle pulse of laughter passes through the cave, and something eases. Any audience faced with an unfamiliar speaker starts with the fear that it may die of boredom: the sooner you can allay this fear and establish shared signs of life, the more chance there is of going somewhere together. There’s more, though, as we ease into each other’s company: a sense that parts of us are welcome on this journey – parts that might not ordinarily show up in a room like the one in which we meet.
* * *
We are all going to die. You, me, everyone who either of us ever loved, our closest families, everyone who might remember our faces or our names: all of us, we are all going to die.
This is not an apocalyptic prophecy, it is only to state the quiet fact of our mortality, the undramatic reality of personal extinction that waits for each of us, sooner or later, somewhere down the road. Yet many of those who study or work with death have come to the conclusion that there is something strange about modern Western society and the way it handles this reality. The Canadian author Stephen Jenkinson, who worked for decades with patients approaching death, suggests that North America has become a ‘death-phobic’ culture. Across the developed countries, there seems to be a difficulty in facing death that sets our current ways of living apart from the ways in which people have lived in other times and places.
I want to suggest that this difficulty is tangled up with the difficulty we have when it comes to knowing, coming to terms with, and acting on our knowledge of a thing like climate change. Way down in the roots of the mess in which we find ourselves, there is a subterranean connection, a shared thread that I want to follow.
For that matter, those among us who have done the most to sound the alarm are not free of this root tangle. Western environmentalism is surely haunted by the same ghosts as the death-phobic culture out of which it came. When we look at that famous image of the Earth from space, I can’t help thinking that our sense of its fragility is overlaid with projections of an unreconciled fear of our own deaths. When we talk about extinction, we call up the shadow of another ending – smaller, yet seemingly total, voiced aptly enough in the words attributed to Ayn Rand: ‘When I die, the world ends.’
I don’t mean to charge my friends in the environmental movement with Randian solipsism, only to own that we too come out of a culture whose attitude to death is skewed enough to make such a statement thinkable. To know a thing like climate change, with all that it implies, to see and speak clearly about it, I need to start with death: to come to terms with my own mortality, not as an inconvenient fact, a thing to try and avoid thinking about, nor as a world-ending event, but as an intimate knowledge, a mystery that makes me who and what I am. Knowing that the body in which these thoughts are cradled will someday be burned or buried, that the world will close quietly around my absence, that this is the ordinary course of events, releases me to be vulnerable and dependent as I always was, a part of processes whose time is vastly other than my own.
* * *
Almost a decade ago now, in a brightly lit office space one block from Trafalgar Square, I was introduced to a man who proudly produced a card which he carries in his wallet at all times. The card declared his Lifetime Membership in the Cryonics Institute. For around the cost of the flashy car another man might have bought to mark his midlife crisis, he had become one of the two thousand people worldwide signed up to have their bodies frozen cryogenically at the point of death so as to benefit from as-yet-uninvented medical innovations which will allow them to be restored to life.
On one side of the card was a set of phone numbers to be called immediately in the event of death, to summon the team that would collect his body; on the other side, instructions as to how the body should be handled in the meantime. This mostly involved ensuring that the head was surrounded with ice. I thought of the new layers of anxiety which this investment must introduce: what if no one finds the card? What if there is no ice on hand? What if the institute goes bankrupt and has the plug pulled on its freezers before the necessary technological progress can be made? I’d swear his hand was cold as I shook it, as though the process were creeping backwards and slowly freezing him alive.
Most of us have a gut-level reaction to this kind of scheme for cheating death. We feel that something is astray. There is some shared sense of the distinction, offered by John Michael Greer, between a problem and a predicament. A problem has a solution: you can fix it and it goes away, leaving the situation much as it was beforehand. A predicament has no solution; it is something you have to live with, and you can do a better or worse job of living with it, but you cannot make it go away. When we encounter someone who treats death as a problem rather than a predicament, we have a sense that he is making a category error.
Let Greer’s distinction sit with you for a while and you may come to suspect that we don’t have as many problems as we think we have, given that many things labelled as problems are more likely to be predicaments. In The Long Descent, Greer illustrates the difference with a thought experiment: suppose that you could go back in time to a prosperous agricultural village in the English Midlands, somewhere in the early years of the 18th century, equipped with the knowledge of the Industrial Revolution which lay around the corner; suppose you could convince the villagers of the scale and the speed of the changes ahead, the destruction that is coming:
Within a century, every building in the village will be torn down, its fields turned into pasture for sheep, and the farmers and cottagers driven off their land by enclosure acts passed by a distant Parliament to provide wool for England’s cloth industry and profits for a new class of industrial magnates. For the young men of the village, England’s transformation into a worldwide empire constantly warring with European rivals and indigenous peoples overseas prophesies a future of press gangs, military service, and death on battlefields around the globe. For a majority of the other residents, the future offers a forced choice between a life of factory labor at starvation wages in bleak urban slums and emigration to an uncertain fate in the American colonies. A lucky few will prosper spectacularly by betting on ways of making a living that nobody present on that autumn day has even imagined yet.
Suppose your listeners took all this on board and asked you what they ought to do. What would you tell them?
It is a question without an answer, Greer suggests, because what they are facing is a predicament. It’s not that there is no course of action worth taking, it’s that none of them resembles a solution. Many responses are possible, some wiser than others, none of them assured in its consequences, except for the assurance that they will not lead to the continuation of the way of living which these villagers have known.
The industrial society whose coming marked the end of that village world would prove more confident in its capacity for solving problems than any way of living that had gone before it. It would come to see the world as a puzzle, a set of problems to be solved; yet over time, more and more of the problems it encountered would be the consequences of its earlier solutions. Meanwhile, it seemed to lose the knack of recognising a predicament, or knowing what kinds of actions still make sense when faced with one. Even now, when its world faces forces of disruption quite as overwhelming as those which broke across that English village, the only responses it can imagine are solutions: innovations that would allow us to resume a pre-existing trajectory of progress, growth or development, only with solar cells and vat-grown meat.
Seen through the industrial lens, even death cannot be recognised as a predicament. We react to the category error of cryogenics, but a more diffuse version of the same logic has shadowed modern medicine, which starts by seeing death as failure and ends in drawing out the lives of its beneficiaries at all costs, hooked up to every kind of machine, in the earthly limbo of the dying. Meanwhile, the rest of us – the living – defer the encounter with the predicament of mortality as long as we can, keeping ourselves distracted, until it catches us unprepared, well along the journey of a life, in a phone call bringing terrible news, or among the magazines and posters of a hospital waiting room. It is this deferral of the encounter with death that marks us out, that makes our ways of living seem so strange.
* * *
The novelist Alan Garner was born in rural Cheshire in 1934. His memoir of a wartime childhood, Where Shall We Run To?, is a testimony to the lived experience of a world too easily romanticised. What struck me reading it was the unremarkable presence of death. A group of American GIs march past the front porch of the family cottage where Alan is playing with his toy gun, and their officer commands them to salute the delighted little boy. In a sentence, at the end of the chapter, we learn that their homebound ship was sunk and all those young men lost at sea. Yet it is not just the war that brings death to the village. Another chapter tells the story of one of the evacuees, urban children billeted with local families for the duration, a bright girl who becomes a favourite playmate. Again, almost in passing, we learn that she dies of a common childhood illness. In a world where penicillin had not yet reached mass production, this was the ordinary course of events, that at some point in childhood one of your friends would be off sick from school and not come back.
Any reckoning with the deferral of death, the distance we keep from the knowledge of mortality, must start with the remarkable achievements made in the prevention and treatment of common diseases as old as human civilisation. The greatest part of the changes in life expectancy over the 20th century came from public health rather than high-tech medicine. Any sane response to the predicament our societies face in this century surely includes the attempt to bring this knowledge and practice with us into whatever futures lie ahead.
Modernity has two faces, suggests the decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo, as inseparable as the faces of a coin. He calls them ‘the shine’ and ‘the shadow’. If the changes in the prospects for surviving childhood are among the brightest aspects of the way that death has changed in the era of industrial modernity, their shine is not the whole of the story. Seen from elsewhere, what defines this era may not be the triumph over death so much as its systematic outsourcing. The world system which made industrial society possible was founded on the destruction of worlds, not only in rural England, but more brutally across the globe. The conquest of the Americas involved the extinction of 80 to 90 per cent of the indigenous population, a multi-generational genocide in which the impact of introduced diseases was compounded by military, economic and biological warfare. The raw materials that fed the new industrial economy were grown and mined by victims of the new industrial slave trade, black bodies bought and sold and disposed of at will. This systematic savagery was not a side story to the main drama of industrialisation, still so often presented as a history of ingenious white men and the unforeseeable consequences of their inventions: it was a necessary condition for the viability of the industrial economy, and it is a process that persists, in varying forms, to this day.
Small wonder, then, if the discovery of the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch which names the dawning recognition of our predicament – appears from elsewhere as the return of the outsourced. As Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena write in A World of Many Worlds:
The world of the powerful is now sensitive to the plausibility of its own destruction in a way that may compare, at least in some ways, with the threat imposed on worlds sentenced to disappearance in the name of the common goods of progress, civilization, development, and liberal inclusion.
As the Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Simpson told Naomi Klein, ‘It’s been the end of the world for somebody all along.’
There is a further sense in which industrial modernity stands outside the frame of all other ways of being human together, as a uniquely death-fuelled society. All life feeds on death. All enduring human cultures have been shaped by the need to be worthy of what we take. Much of the ritual and story by which humans have found their bearings in the world has at its heart the cultivation of awareness and gratitude for the deaths of the animals and plants that give us life. The need to be worthy is not just a moral aspiration, a desire for a sense of dignity or self-justification, but a practical necessity. Either we make our lives a part of a cycle of gift, or we become an engine of depletion, bringing about a desolation from which we will not escape. The tapestry of myth carries memories of the ways we have ruptured this cycle and the work that has gone into mending it, time after time.
The fossil economy breaks the possibility of such a cycle. How many million years of dying in the forests and seas of the ancient world goes into one generation of living the way we have been doing around here lately? How could our lives ever be worthy of so much death? What could we possibly give back? Committed to dependence on these vast underground reserves of death, the only response that remains to such questions is to silence them, to extinguish the ways of living which embody them, to make them unthinkable.
This is where the geological story of a death-fuelled economy converges with the outsourcing of death, the elimination of indigenous cultures and the reduction of black bodies into factors of production. The argument is powerfully made by Kathryn Yusoff in her book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None:
The movement of energy between enslaved bodies in plantations, plants, long-dead fossilized plants, and industrialized labor is a geochemical equation of extraction in the conversion of surplus.
The story of our predicament cannot be told without recognising these violent connections and the economic drive that links them.
* * *
One evening in the first days of the year, between the news of Australia burning and an assassination in the Middle East, my partner sees a story about a meteor shower that’s due. Outside, the sky is clear and I catch sight of one straight away, a bright flash travelling across the sky, like a silent firework. So we pull out the sun-lounger from my in-laws’ conservatory and lie under blankets, staring up. While we wait, my son wants to be told the names of the constellations. He’s not yet five, but he knows there are two names for everything, Swedish and English, even when these are only two ways of pronouncing names older than the languages we speak: Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades. The last time I saw Alan Garner, he told me there’s new research on the resemblance between the Greek constellations and the figures seen in the sky by Aboriginal people in Australia, the similarities strong enough to hint at common threads of myth leading deep into prehistory, stories carried out of Africa.
‘How does it work when you wish on a falling star?’ my son wants to know. ‘Does the thing you wish for just pop up, out of the ground?’
His eyes are wide with recent memories of Father Christmas and the cartoons he’s been getting to watch on his grandparents’ TV. Suddenly I understand why he was so keen on this impromptu astronomic outing.
‘I’m going to wish for a Paw Patrol fire engine,’ he announces.
I don’t know how to disentangle myself or my family from this way of being, this web of extraction that surrounds us with objects that seem to pop up, magically, out of the ground. I don’t even know how to frame the question, how to name the work that’s called for. (It’s not a problem, I remind myself, it’s a predicament.)
One thing I know that helps – one piece of the work – is to gather and share the embers of other ways of being, blowing them gently into flame together, knowing how much unfinished history we carry with us. Listening to those who have more experience than I do of the ways life has been made to work in other times and places, one theme I hear is how much work goes into making a grown-up. It’s not just something you become by virtue of surviving childhood, or sitting out enough years in schoolrooms and lecture theatres. When the time comes, it takes a work of initiation on which much of the life of your community is focused. You have to be cooked in the flames, I’ve heard it said, and the frame of initiation which your culture builds is the vessel that gives you a chance of coming through the fire.
Among the stories and skills acquired in such a process, among the experiences described by those who have gone through it, a common element is some form of ritual death. On the threshold of becoming a grown-up, you are taken through a staged encounter with your own mortality, an encounter which is taken with the utmost seriousness. I’m thinking about this, and about the clumsy, risk-filled encounters that bridged this gap as I stumbled into adulthood, and a thought comes: so that you do not meet your death for the first time, when it comes for real.
To be a grown-up, it seems to me, is to live alert to consequences; to know the cost of your living. It is hard to be a grown-up in the world that we have made. The cost is almost unbearable. No wonder our culture seems built to keep us distracted, to postpone the encounter with consequences until the last possible moment.
If I set a lot of store by the ways in which people have made life work in other times and places, this is not to romanticise the lives of others. There is no way back, nor would we want one. The lives of our ancestors were hard in ways we do not like to think about – and for this reason, they could not afford the kind of carelessness to which we have been accustomed. Cushioned on millions of years of fossil energy, veiled by the impersonal logic of commodity exchange and the Emerald City magic of the shop window display, the level of detachment from consequences which has been normal, even necessary, for participation in our death-fuelled societies of consumption was until quite recently the preserve of mad emperors. Our ancestors could not afford this carelessness – and nor, it turns out, can we.
Image: The Fortune Teller, Albert Anker, 1880