‘Challenging behaviours’ challenging climate change

For the past six months, along with a colleague, Arooj Khan, I have been working in a secondary school for young people who have been excluded from mainstream schools. The school is situated in an inner suburb of Birmingham, the second largest city in England. Most of the young people are boys, aged 11-16, and the majority come from Black or South Asian backgrounds. Most of the young men present behaviours that are deemed to be ‘challenging’ for mainstream schools (what are sometimes referred to as ‘Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties’).

I have worked in over 60 alternative education spaces in the course of my research over the past 15 years. However, this particular space is very different. The ratio of teachers to pupils is very high, as the staff spend considerable time both managing students’ behaviour and working with them to change their disposition to learning – and, indeed, to institutions and to adult ‘authority’. The school has recently decided to move away from teaching traditional subjects, including science, in order to focus on more vocational forms of learning – from brick-laying to car mechanics.

In this context, with the school, we have been co-delivering a programme of experimental, sometimes artistic activities that have been designed to encourage the students to think and learn about climate change. In particular, given Birmingham’s heritage as an industrial city – and therefore a key hub in the generation of what some term the Anthropocene or Capitalocene – our activities are focused around energy.

Our principal aim was – and in many ways still is – to explore diverse forms of energy. We wanted students to not only learn about but to experience different forms of energy, so that the sessions went beyond imperatives to save energy by turning off lights, or an appreciation of different forms of renewable energy technologies. As Johnson et al. (2014) and many others have argued, both of these latter kinds of learning are wrapped up in lighter-green understandings of sustainability that see the very same (mainly powerful, mainly white, mainly Western, mainly male) actors proposing technological solutions to the problems for which, arguably, they and their ancestors are largely responsible.

In this light, our programme of work enabled us to articulate what Affrica Taylor (2019) frames as ‘small stories’, which ‘counter the conceits’ of the rich white male’s Anthropocene. We took the students for walks around the school and the local community, encouraging them to identify challenges for living sustainably, and to acknowledge small, local acts (such as tree-planting) that might address climate change. We took the students to the Lapworth Museum of Geology at the University of Birmingham, where they had the chance to pick up and examine rocks and minerals and to think about the longer-term histories of the earth. We went to a local science museum where the students used LEGO to construct wind turbines (although see my reflections on this, including the ethics of learning about climate change through mass-produced plastics, here). We tried out a range of small devices that enable users to literally see the energy embodied in a piece of fruit, or in their own bodies.

Our collaborations led to the articulation, exercise and expenditure of a whole range of ‘energies’: embodied, elastic, gravitational, solar, wind, electrical, etcetera. But one thing that was so striking about our work was how it raised questions about the relationship between ‘challenging’ behaviours and climate change. If, as Peter Kelly writes in another post, notions of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘resilience’ are central to young people’s lives – and survival – in the Anthropocene, then what do those terms mean in the context of young men who are (at least) triply-disadvantaged by their age, their ethnicity, and by behaviours that have been identified as ‘challenging’?

Here, I suggest, we need to tread a very careful path. Some of these young men experience a range of mental health issues and/or disabilities, and the school and its staff do important and often difficult work in trying to find ways to support their students. And we know that these kinds of challenges (especially mental health issues) are faced by increasing numbers of young people, worldwide, for a range of reasons. At the same time, these young men are not, generally, the kinds of young people whose voices are routinely heard or accepted when it comes to debates about climate change. In the context of the #climatestrikes in recent weeks, it is not, generally, these kinds of young people who figure prominently. And this, I think, is because of the nature of the ‘challenge’ that different groups of young people present.

This observation is by no means a critique of Greta Thunberg and the likely millions of young people marching for our (and their) earthly future. Indeed, Greta talks about her own ‘challenging behaviours’ and mental health issues openly. Nor am I suggesting that all of those young people are taken from narrow segments of rich societies – they are not. The challenge they present is legitimate, urgent, and of fundamental importance. It is, instead, a broader attempt to question what we mean by challenge when it comes to how we think about climate change, climate-related injustices, and climate action, and to intersectionalities of youth with ‘challenging behaviours’ and race.

I want, then, to return to the ‘challenging’ behaviours exhibited by young, predominantly Black and South Asian heritage men at the school in Birmingham. I don’t want to romanticise these behaviours – as I mentioned above, we need to tread a very careful path here. Yet the approach we took – a progressive series of often very different activities, over a series of weeks and months, with no commitment to a ‘curriculum’ or teleological approach to learning – led to flashes of insight and challenging moments, which, in turn, might challenge how we think, teach about and take action on climate change. These were interwoven with both more conventional forms of learning about climate change (as the boys examined interactive maps that showed how much of the UK would become flooded if global temperatures continued to increase at the current rate) and behaviours that would challenge most of us (fights, misogynistic references to girls, constant attempts to undermine teachers). As I say, I am not seeking to romanticise these acts.

But a couple of vignettes stand out for me…

  • …as we walked through the community near the school, a local activist patiently pointing out trees recently planted to provide shade and mitigate the effects of Birmingham’s air pollution problem, one of the boys referring to the tree as a ‘gas-guzzling mother-fucker’…
  • …as we returned to school from the walk, in the middle of a session where the invited speaker was talking about the features of an eco-house, a group of boys suddenly decided to get out some Jenga blocks and build a huge tower, which they then proceeded to knock down, noisily, ‘like a tornado hit’…

…and these vignettes are just two of many, in which ‘challenging behaviours’ were entangled with challenges of and for climate change doxa, in all kinds of ways, opening out all kinds of questions. For instance, in the first, although the boys constantly swear, what are we to make of this kind of expletive-laden utterance? As Peter Kelly explores in a recent post, Greta Thunberg’s message is so striking because it counters a somehow fluffy, patronising, paternalistic sense in which adults must ‘give’ the next generation ‘hope’ for their future – something on which I’ve written at length elsewhere (Kraftl, 2008). Instead, the #climatestrikes are designed to disrupt, to shock, to draw attention to how awful things really are and could become. What, then, is the role of the expletive as part of this imperative?

Or, consider the role of play, imagination and small acts of violence, as in the destruction of the Jenga tower. Might we consider these small expressions of speculative fabulation (Haraway, 2016)? In particular, what if it became apparent that, that very same day, the boys had been learning about a tornado that hit the local area in 2005, causing millions of pounds worth of damage – in a country that is not prone to large numbers of destructive tornados, but where they and other forms of extreme weather are becoming increasingly common as temperatures continue to rise? In this context, the apparently silly, playful, impulsive, disruptive construction of the tower and its subsequent destruction might render a rather different challenge.

To repeat, my intention is not to celebrate any and all kinds of ‘challenge’. Rather, it is to raise questions about who is able to utter or perform a challenge, in and to the ways we think and act on climate change – and how.

References

Johnson, E. et al. 2014. After the Anthropocene: Politics and geographic inquiry for a new epoch. Progress in Human Geography, 38 pp 449-456.

Haraway, D.J., 2016. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Kraftl, P., 2008. Young people, hope, and childhood-hope. Space and Culture, 11(2), pp.81-92.

Taylor, A., 2019. Countering the conceits of the Anthropos: scaling down and researching with minor players. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp.1-19.

The Capitalocene, the Great Dithering, Greta Thunberg’s Plea for Action, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In March 2019 I was part of panel discussion hosted by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA Australia/New Zealand) on the topic of Social Climate Change.

This post presents the text of that presentation, which was prefaced with a discussion of the conference/program that we are developing.

Young people’s well-being, resilience and enterprise: Critical perspectives for the Anthropocene

Our present is marked by profound and highly consequential crises in multiple earth systems – oceanic, atmospheric, terran and capitalist. Feminist theorist of science and technology studies Donna Haraway (2016) highlights the crises of earth systems that situate us, all, ‘in the midst of the earth’s sixth great extinction event and in the midst of engulfing wars, extractions, and immiserations of billions of people and other critters for something called “profit” or “power” – or, for that matter, called “God”.’

Jason Moore (2015), a US based sociologist, argues that Neo-Liberal capitalism has gorged itself on what he calls the four ‘cheaps’: food, labour-power, energy and raw materials.

And it is now, I think, devouring its young and their futures.

Our present is also marked by a growing sense that our futures, young people’s futures, have already been used up, consumed, exploited. That the crises that we encounter in our presents both foretell more profound crises to come, and foreclose any sense that we can do anything about our probable futures.

The idea of the Anthropocene – literally ‘the human period’ – is firstly a geological discourse, then a discourse taken up by climatologists, biologists, ecologists and other earth systems sciences to examine and explain the impact of humans on the bio-sphere.

However, if ‘humans’ – in all their historical, cultural, social, economic and political diversity – are differently implicated in the emergence and consequences of the Anthropocene then the arts, humanities, social sciences and philosophy must critically engage and contribute to debates about these planetary wide changes. My means of engagement with these challenges – as a member of a number of groups and networks – is in developing ‘critical’ perspectives on young people’s well-being, resilience and enterprise.

Well-being, resilience and enterprise are key-words in many policy, academic and community discourses about contemporary populations of children and young people around the globe. These ‘states-of-being’ are frequently imagined as being able to ‘inoculate’ individual children and young people against many of the education, training, work and life ‘disruptions’ and ‘crises’ that characterise the start of the 21st century.

Most often these key-words take the form of psycho-biological based, encouragements for persons to care for their own physical, mental and social health and well-being, to develop their resilience, and to become enterprising in a world that is taken-for-granted as being challenging and ‘disruptive’.

The conference that we are organising emerges from a sense that we need to develop new ways of ‘troubling’ these keywords at a time when planetary systems are in crisis. Young people – proverbially and literally – will ‘inherit the earth’ that we, and history bequeath them. The fields I work in have, largely, yet to develop a critical vocabulary about the ecologies that allow well-being, resilience and enterprise to thrive (or not); or to critically engage with how humans – young and old – must re-imagine themselves as truly ‘networked’ with other humans and non-humans at scales from the bacterial to the planetary if the bios is to flourish in the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene? Or the Capitalocene?

In early 2017 the American novelist and playwright Benjamin Kunkel (2017) published a long essay in the London Review of Books titled The Capitalocene. In that essay Kunkel reviewed three recent books, alongside providing a sketch of some of the key moments in the development of the idea of the Anthropocene.

The books included: The Birth of the Anthropocene by Jeremy Davies (2016); Jason Moore’s (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital; and Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm (2015).

This is how Kunkel (2017) begins his essay: ‘How is the ecological predicament of the 21st century to be conceived of? Politically, how is it to be confronted, and by whom?’ As he suggests, the ‘basic features of the problem are plain enough, when you can stand to look. Universal carbon pollution, known by the mild term ‘climate change’, is already distempering the seasons with bounding extremes of heat and cold, and magnifying storms and droughts; increasingly, it will spoil harvests, spread tropical diseases, and drown coastlines’. The increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will turn ‘the oceans more acid…

The list of challenges could go on, and will likely grow, as we become more aware of the consequences of our individual and collective actions – and inactions.

From this opening Kunkel (2017) sketches the emerging usage of the concept of the Anthropocene to capture the collective impact of humanity on the planet in a way that constitutes a new geological epoch whose starting points, whose fingerprints or signature, and the consequences of these, are all much debated.

Kunkel (2017) uses these debates to introduce an initial summary of the contribution that Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life, and Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital, make to what Moore calls ‘the Anthropocene argument’. Kunkel (2017) argues that the major weakness of the concept of the Anthropocene ‘is to present humanity as a “homogeneous acting unit”, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state’.

Rather, throughout history, in many different cultures, in all the possible places we have lived, humans have always had different relationships to, and understandings of what a resource is, and how it might be used or exploited.

Many of these groupings have had a very small carbon footprint, but may now carry the burdens and consequences of our very large footprints!

From Moore’s perspective, the Anthropocene should be re-imagined as the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture’.

In a similar, though slightly different vein, Andreas Malm, a professor of ecology in Sweden, argues that ‘the headwaters of the present ecological crisis’ need to be located ‘several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation’ (Kunkel 2017): ‘Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species…exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’

For Kunkel (2017), the work of Malm and Moore and others, suggest that ‘capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing’.

The message here is that to treat or respond to a problem we need to identify the root of the problem.

When we start to think in these terms then we can start to understand why so little is being done at this moment in time to act on what has become almost irrefutable evidence about the trouble that we are in!

For capitalism – as a globalising system whose core logics are about creative production, destruction and exploitation; are about the extraction of value from anything that can be commodified; are about the reduction of the concept of ‘value’ to that of purely economic gain or profit; are about the pursuit of individual interest at the expense of any sense of the collective good or interest – there is still so much to exploit in Canada’s tar sands, or at the Adani mine site, or in the Arctic as the sea ice melts, or… As Kunkel (2017) suggests: ‘The collective activity of humanity is sapping the ecological basis of civilisation – and no collective agency capable of reckoning with the fact can yet be discerned’.

The Great Dithering

This time of a profound lack of action in the face of global existential crisis has been given a name: The Great Dithering.

Gabriel Metcalf writes in a 2014 article from The Urbanist that

There is also a name for the period of historical time we have entered, which I suggest we take from Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the great writers of our time: the Dithering’. As seen from Robinson’s science fiction–imagined future in his acclaimed, award winning novel 2312: ‘this is the period of human history…in which humanity failed to act rapidly or decisively enough to avert catastrophic climate change.

We dither when we know we face a problem, when we know we should do something about that problem – but we don’t!

In an interview from The Atlantic monthly journal in April 2014 Kim Stanley Robinson, in the context of making claims for the power of the sorts of speculative, science fiction that he and others use in grappling with what it means to be human, with our possible futures, and our messy pasts and presents, suggests that:

Capitalism is a system of power and ownership that privileges a few in a hierarchical way, and it has in it no good controls or regulation concerning its damage to the biosphere, so to deal with the environmental catastrophes bearing down on us, we have to impose our will as a civilization on capitalism and make it do what we want civilization to do now, which is to create a just and sustainable human interaction with the biosphere and each other…So we are in quite a bit of trouble here, because capitalism is a cultural dominant and the current global way of conducting things, world law, and yet completely inadequate to the situation we face.

‘I want you to panic! The house is on fire!”

Greta Thunburg is the 16 year old Swedish young woman who started a very personal form of activism by going on strike from her high school and picketing the Swedish parliament to take more action on climate change. To stop dithering!

Through a number of serendipitous and improbable events and relationships her action has evolved into global strike action every Friday by thousands of young people around the world. And there is a large, co-ordinated strike to be held tomorrow.

Greta has since addressed various forums including the World Economic Forum at Davos, and a UN session on climate change in Poland. Her Davos speech and a TEDx talk have been viewed by more than 600,000 people on YouTube.

This is some of what Greta had to say at Davos:

 

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire.

We are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people. And now is not the time for speaking politely or focusing on what we can or cannot say. Now is the time to speak clearly.

You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t.

Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

But of course, the very fact that Greta has been on strike, the very fact that hundreds of thousands of other young people will join her tomorrow, indicates that to this point we haven’t been acting in that way, and many, if not most of us, think that the crises of earth systems, if we acknowledge these crises, can be addressed in a ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

At the very end of her TEDx talk Greta further highlights the follies we continue to engage in during the Great Dithering:

Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day.

There are no politics to change that.

There no rules to keep that oil in the ground.

So, we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed.

Everything needs to change

And it has to start today.

Quality Education, Gender Equality and Decent Work for All: Critical Encounters with the UN Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs)

Which brings us to a possible framework for action. In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) agreed and endorsed a series of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under the banner of a resolution titled Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As a global framework for action the SDGs have yet to make a significant impact in policy, commercial, educational and labour market debates and discussions in Australia (and possibly in other ‘over-developed’ countries of the EU and OECD.) Which raises the question: Is sustainable development still seen as a problem only for developing economies?

As part of the work that I do in leading the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre at RMIT, and in the collaborations I am part of in the School of Education and elsewhere, we want toexplore how we – those who live in the over-developed neo-Liberal democracies – critically entangle with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Particularly:

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning;

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and

Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.

Along with our collaborators, we want to play a role in changing these conversations through a variety of discussions that are informed by some of the following questions/provocations – which is where I want to leave this presentation tonight:

*       Does adding the ‘c’ word (capitalism) to the SDGs produce an oxymoron – or a further series of contradictions and paradoxes to an ‘earth system’ already in deep crisis?

*       What is the promise of the SDGs for joining social justice concerns to development and sustainability on a global scale (not just in Australia)

*       At the other end of the scale, can the SDGs provide a warrant for shaping ‘place-based’ interventions into communities to critically re-imagine issues related to quality education and training, gender equality, development and decent work for all?

*       How can the SDGs help us to imagine ourselves and our communities as being truly inter-connected, as being-in-this-trouble together, as having to figure-this-out together?

Climate Fiction: Cli Fi

 

Over the past decades a new genre of fiction -Climate Fiction or Cli Fi – has emerged at the intersection of sci-fi and ‘speculative fiction’ (SF, Haraway 2016). Cl-fi entangles, in ways that are only available to these genres, with many of the themes that energise this blog, our conference, and the programs of research that we want to develop.

Interestingly, the genre traverses and constitutes a sense that our futures, fundamentally embedded in and shaped by our pasts and presents, might range from the utopian to the dystopian. In this way, there is also often a sense of hope and of possibility in these probable futures – even if that hope and possibility is tempered by our presents. James Bradley, an Australian author of novels that have been called ‘cli-fi’ – even if he, himself, is a little wary of the ‘tag’ – suggests that the genre is about:

“…making space for change”. “You can say the world is ending… but as soon as you have to write a story about it, you can see that that’s a hopelessly simplistic response,”… “People will still be alive, people will still be going on with their lives and doing things, and that forces you to engage with what it might actually be like. “The world is not actually going to end; it’s going to be transformed…

In this post we provide some links to a number of stories about Cli-Fi, which include reviews of some of the more important, significant, popular authors and books in the genre.

10 Cli-Fi Novels for the Dark Days Ahead

From The Drowned World to the Broken Earth trilogy, the books that imagine catastrophic futures for our already-imperiled natural world

October 22, 2018, By Book Marks

‘…The end is nigh, unless we drastically reduce the rate of our greenhouse gas emissions within the next few years that is. The landmark report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, released earlier this month to a combination of shock and abject terror, revealed conclusively what many in the scientific community have been saying for years: that the immediate consequences of climate change will be vastly more devastating than previously thought.

Though it is technically possible to achieve the rapid adjustments required to an avoid atmospheric temperature rise of 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels (the new threshold for the most severe and potentially irreparable effects of climate change), having men like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro at the helms of two of the largest greenhouse gas emitting countries in the world pushes this already remote possibly into the realms of fantasy.

Now if, in 2018, you require a science fiction novel to remind you of the single greatest threat facing humanity, then you really have not been paying attention and should probably turn on the (not Fox)news once in a while (ideally before November 6th). Still, cli-fi may very well end up being the defining literary genre of our era, and it’s interesting to look back at the ways in which some of the most inventive and prophetic authors of recent decades imagined the kinds of futures that may lie in store for us if we continue down our current path….’

Could cli-fi help inspire real climate change action?

By Monique Ross and Julie Street for Late Night Live

‘…Climate fiction novels catapult readers into a future ravaged by the catastrophic effects of global warming.

Survival is a struggle amid dwindling food and water supplies, extreme weather and pandemics. Environmental emergencies are slowly unfolding: animals dying, forests vanishing, sea levels rising.

The genre — variously dubbed ‘cli-fi’, ‘slow apocalypse’ and Anthropocene fiction — has become a publishing phenomenon, with Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan among those conjuring up dystopian near-futures.

“You could say it’s because it resonates with a culture on the verge of collapse,” says Australian author Alice Robinson, whose cli-fi novel Anchor Point was longlisted for the Stella Prize in 2016.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

For some the genre is simply a new take on science fiction, but for others it’s a timely wake-up call that could inspire real change…’

How Climate-Change Fiction, or “Cli-Fi,” Forces Us to Confront the Incipient Death of the Planet

 

By Katy Waldman

November 9, 2018

‘…There is something counterintuitive about cli-fi, about the fictional representation of scientifically substantiated predictions that too many people discount as fictions. The genre, elsewhere exemplified by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” brings disaster forcefully to life. But it is a shadowy mirror. Literature has always been a humanist endeavor: it intrinsically and helplessly affirms the value of the species; its intimations of meaning energize and comfort. But what if there is scant succor to be had, and our true natures are not noble but necrotic, pestilential? We have un-earthed ourselves. Yet we claim the right to gaze at our irresponsibility and greed through fiction’s tonic filter. The stories in “Warmer,” which possess the urgency of a last resort and the sorrow of an elegy, inhabit this contradiction. They both confront and gently transfigure the incomprehensible realities of climate change…’

 

Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre

Perhaps climate change had once seemed too large-scale, or too abstract, for the minutely human landscape of fiction. But the threat seems to have become too pressing to ignore, and less abstract, thanks to a nonstop succession of mega-storms and record-shattering temperatures. Several new novels make climate change central to their plot and setting, appropriating time-honored narratives to accord with our new knowledge and fears. Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Summer 2013

Books discussed in this essay:

Far North
by Marcel Theroux
Picador, 2010, 320 pp.

I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet
edited by Mark Martin
Verso, 2011, 208 pp.

Back to the Garden
by Clara Hume
Moon Willow Press, 2012, 271 pp.

The Healer: A Novel
by Antti Tuomainen, Henry Holt and Co., 2013, 224 pp.

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Novel
by Nathaniel Rich, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 320 pp.

Solar
by Ian McEwan,
Nan A. Talese, 2010, 304 pp.

Wild Ones:
A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America

by Jon Mooallem
Penguin Press HC, 2013, 368 pp.

‘…Makepeace Hatfield, the heroine of Marcel Theroux’s 2009 novel Far North, is one of the last survivors of a Siberian settlement. Her father was an early settler: an American Quaker who fled a decadent world for a frontiersman’s life. In the Siberian summer, he discovered fertile terrain, purple and brown, and water that “heaved with salmon,” as Makepeace recalls. “Nothing I’ve known in the Far North resembles the land of ice that people expected him to find here.”

We are in the future, or, at any rate, a future. The settlement has collapsed under the pressure of an influx of starving refugees. Makepeace—a stoic, androgynous woman—forges her own bullets and hunts wild pigs. When she witnesses the crash of a small plane, she sets out on her horse to find the rump of civilization that must have produced it. She is welcomed into a small religious community, then imprisoned at a work camp, and eventually makes her way to a dead metropolis.

Far North, hailed by the Washington Post as the “first great cautionary fable of climate change,” is one of the strongest of a recent crop of similar books, most of which are also post-apocalyptic or dystopian. But the novel is no straightforward eco-parable. Indeed, at one point, Theroux seems to have a little fun with green pieties. In the book, knowledge about the origins of the crisis is fuzzy, but Makepeace’s learned confidant offers an explanation:

Shamsudin said the planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying….Factories were shut down….As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on…’

Liz Jensen: Our House, Our Fire, our Fiction

“I want you to act as you would in a crisis,” the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg told Davos last month. “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

When a kid in pigtails speaks truth to power, the world listens.
At a time when the science could not be clearer, Thunberg’s burning house metaphor turned her appearance at Davos into an iconic moment in climate history.

Our house on fire: an image everyone on the planet can understand. Our, implies an us: a community or family. House implies a home, and shelter. Fire spells danger. Instantly, a mental narrative is triggered, leading to three choices.

Choice One entails pretending there is no fire, or that there is one, but it is a containable household accident. Choice Two involves doing one’s best to douse the flames and limit the damage. Choice Three offers the simplest solution to the crisis: run.

But where to?

Thunberg’s simple, evocative metaphor mobilized millions around the world: proof, if ever it were needed, of the impact language can have. As the novelist Margaret Atwood once put it, “A word after a word after a word is power.”…’