This is the way the world ends

In the days since the #FloodWallStreet and climate justice demonstrations, I’ve been heartened, but the question remains, how can create the change we need to avert the future we fear?

Long before terms like global warming had entered the mainstream, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne was onto something: the fact that the environmental apocalypse won’t come with a bang, but with a gentle erosion. We won’t even notice it. In this world, cranked off its axis, we’re divorced from our own senses, living as if runaway ecological and social disaster is not imminent. Our politicians and parties offer no alternative to living apocalyptically. Zombies live here.

(Nothing but) Flowers’, from the album Naked, is a typically high-concept Talking Heads song – a classic melody drenched in mega-dorky 1980s production trends. But that fact doesn’t mask its pertinence to today’s crucial moral and political questions. It unfolds a sideways narrative where humanity has returned to its hunter-gatherer ways. But unlike the most common post-capitalist narratives – say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – Byrnes’ tale does not take place after some unnamed disaster. Although ‘the highways and cars / Were sacrificed for agriculture’, Byrnes goes on, so matter-of-factly you might miss it, ‘as things fell apart / Nobody paid much attention’.

In Byrnes’ imagination, as in our world today, apocalypse is the wrong word for the decline we are experiencing, because there’s no big bang, no singular point where we switch from consuming to being consumed.

In the song, Byrnes’ protagonist catches a rattlesnake for dinner, but craves chocolate chip cookies and cherry pies. Despite Pizza Hut’s replacement with fields of daisies, and the parking lots with peaceful oases, Byrnes’ protagonist can’t bring himself to forget the fluoro delights of Dairy Bell and 7-Eleven. Where he used to microwave, now he just eats nuts and berries, and he laments it, really laments it. As he stands in a cornfield which once housed a discount store, he pleads, ‘Don’t leave me stranded here, I can’t get used to this lifestyle’. Though he’s come back to nature, he longs for a lawnmower and a beautiful highway.

It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. Even if we were liberated from the worst, most destructive excesses of modernity or late capitalism or whatever you wish to call it, I suspect what Byrne does: we’d yearn for the olden days of fossil-fuelled frozen dinners, eaten by the flickering blue light of our plasma televisions, under the flight paths of Malaysia Airlines.

Apocalypse is not just the wide-scale destruction of continents and major architectural structures – it is the small-scale but constant violence of the here and now. Today, twenty-one people died leaping from the iPhone factory of Foxconn in China. Today, US author Richard Louv created the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ to describe the suffering of children whose lives are impacted by loss of greenery in their everyday surrounds. Today, the United States of America and its allies are engaged in occupations of multiple sovereign nations for the purposes of oil extraction, and have been since 2001. See how quickly we’ve leapt, with these examples, from the small to the mass in scale?

‘Nobody pays much attention’, and when they do, crucially, they don’t act. These are the real, daily, but minutely evolving traumas we do not look at. These are the circumstances we have come to accept. This is the kind of world we live in, but still we keep believing that abject, mass horror is an abstract something that happens to other people.

Perhaps that is the true nature of the apocalyptic: the perfect illusion that all is fine and well inside your walls and borders, and that the problem is – and will remain – elsewhere.

And perhaps the scariest thing of all is that the apocalyptic future David Byrne imagined has its roots in the reality of the world’s preeminent scientists, so much so that the regular reports issued by the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change – showing that the climate crisis’ impacts, from extreme weather to reduced food production, pose a grave threat to humanity and could lead to wars and mass migration – are greeted shruggingly, as comfortable and familiar additions to the swirling news cycle. After all, in news media, the brink is the norm.

But of course, Byrne knew that denial is essential to today’s slow-creeping apocalypse. ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ expresses this denial by backgrounding Byrne’s slyly sarcastic lyrics with an ironically upbeat tropical musical feel. A rolling, relentless electric-guitar riff floats ahead of poly-layered rhythms; Edenic congos and cowbells create a lush jangly, groove-oriented bounce. Throw in the presence of female backing singers, and I often imagine the Talking Heads bopping disinterestedly at a kitsch tourist restaurant in Hawaii, Byrne draped in leis and loud hibiscus shirts and smiling sharply to reveal excellent, gleaming teeth. This mental image does not contradict the gravity of the lyrics so much as compliment it: Byrne is capable of being both deeply ironic and deeply sincere. The end of the world will be served with pina coladas and flavourful horderves. We’ll go down swinging.

Beyond the psychological phenomenon of denial, we seem to have become experts in a new type of socially organised denial, facilitated by fossil-fuel lobbies, advertisers and the daily presses. This denial pervades to the point where I often think I live on two planets with two mindsets: Earth and Real Earth.

On Earth, a system of insatiable desire and a pigheaded refutation of climate science has created a sense that the climate crisis is both common knowledge and unimaginable, accepted and belonging to a remote future. On Earth, a Hungry Jack’s Whopper in Sydney, Australia, tastes the same as a Hungry Jack’s Whopper in Caracas, Venezuela. There’s a blind hedonism, twinned with a slow-surging austerity as services and welfare are whittled back and privatised.

On Real Earth, there is solar energy powering the lights that lead to each suburb’s abundant community garden, there is grassroots participation in new systems of doing and thinking everywhere from the developed to the developing worlds, and climate scientists are doing important research that is valued and shaping social and environmental policy.

The gap between Earth and Real Earth remains unthinkably large, while the urgency for change continues to heighten. What, then, is the answer to the inexorably tiny changes that global warming precipitates, even in the short term?

Perhaps it lies in the lyrics of ‘Born under Punches’, another Talking Heads song, in which Byrne chants, ‘find a little space, so we move in between’. If the reality of apocalypse lies in the minute changes that we adapt to rather than resist, the life I desire exists, but in the absence of system-wide changes, only in the spaces in between: in the community gardens dotted throughout our biggest cities; in the allotments that are still left in Western Europe; in the sporadic mass movements that splutter to life every few years; in the fiery pub conversations with friends about nature, culture and the future of industry; in the green hiking places where I open my eyes and can’t see any buildings, and open my ears and can’t hear any cars; in the bright mountains of our most ambitious, collective political imaginations; and in the songs we sing along to as we drive away from the invincible suburbs, towards the quiet relief of the bush.

For me, those places are the Blue Mountains, where the air refracts through eucalyptus oil droplets to cast a hazy azure light onto the peaks; Seal Rocks, where the bay curves back around the beach and green hills surge right out of the sea; Broken Hill, where the astringent scent of lemon myrtle and blue gumnuts fill the air above the low hills of red dust; and the string of tiny bays throughout Sydney’s north shore with names like Sugarloaf and Sirius Cove that residents have forgotten and tourists not yet discovered.

These are the minute spaces in-between that give me hope. Meanwhile, the collective feeling that perhaps we can’t go on like this is everywhere. Let us all hope that Byrne’s protagonist does not live in the same future as we might.


Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and researcher, published in Guardian Australia, The Toast, Indiewire, Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Overland, Meanjin and others. She is a contributing editor to Metro and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, 2013).

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