For the first time in history, this past Australian summer has registered temperatures in excess of two degrees above long-term averages. You don’t need to be well versed in climate science to know that this is not good news – and you don’t need to look very hard to glean this information.
Let’s imagine, then, that climate change is real. What will the future be like? Catastrophic flooding occurs in one part of the nation while drought intensifies in another. Whole states are burning and swathes of forest turn to ash. Summers grow hotter – unbearably so. When storms arrive, bringing much-needed rain, they are brutal, violent and do terrible damage. Seas rise, drowning shorelines, then homes and towns.
Meanwhile, migration has escalated. Citizens in the worst-affected parts of the world try to escape unremitting drought and flooded islands by going … anywhere else. The plight of refugees becomes a global humanitarian crisis as more and more people find themselves nationless.
In Australia, internal migration puts huge pressure on cities. Regional dwellers close up shop on farms gone bust due to the climate. Unemployment, homelessness and poverty are rampant. With the sharp increase in demand, the cost of urban real estate sky-rockets, as does the price of food.
Increasing environmental distress will put pressure on human systems before the full ecological crisis makes itself known to us – our food, water, energy, employment, housing, transport, government and defence systems will all be strained by climate change. This will trigger civil unrest, societal instability and possibly even warfare as climatic conditions escalate. In other words: we will be the immediate problem for ourselves as the planet falls apart.
I’m only a novelist, not a scientist. Even so, the scenarios I’ve outlined don’t take a great leap of the imagination to conjure from the research. When I think about all of this for too long, it seems that access to a well-stocked bunker couldn’t hurt.
I wrote the manuscript that would become my debut novel, Anchor Point, through a PhD program involving a robust research component. I started the research in the year An Inconvenient Truth was released, and as my studies unfolded, I read IPCC reports alongside a swathe of books and papers on climate change (including the writings of deniers), in order to collate a picture of the conditions that were slated to unfold in future Australia.
By the time the project was done, I understood what would be apparent to anyone who has done such reading: according to science, temperatures will rise in coming years regardless of action taken (only the degree of warming will be in our control). This will have significant impact on virtually every aspect of our lands, seas and ecologies, with flow-on effects for human lives and systems.
After that I became very tired. I had two babies in two years, which escalated my despair given the likely future they would inherit, against the negligent-seeming levels of political and cultural inertia surrounding action on climate change. But caring for little children is also engulfing. For a time, the intensities of early motherhood rose up like a dust storm to obliterate the world beyond the nursery. In my fatigue, I stopped thinking about the future altogether.
This changed when I started to write my second novel, The Glad Shout. The children were still very small, but I have always found writing a necessary way of processing experience. Motherhood had triggered a massive identity crisis, and writing – a much-loved relic from my former life – offered a way of mediating the onslaught of change. I had been harbouring the idea for The Glad Shout for a while. In a sleep-deprived haze, I got to work.
Immediately, it became clear that I would not be able to access the huge tracts of alone-time I had enjoyed while writing Anchor Point. I did not have the luxury of being able to immerse myself in research for years on end, or to sit at my desk all day uninterrupted. More profoundly, the level of exhaustion I was functioning under meant that my memory was unreliable and my attention span depleted. Now, if I read back over the first draft of The Glad Shout, I notice the belabouring of key motifs. Time and again, I was too tired to remember having already expressed the same ideas in earlier pages.
My very attempt to balance writing work and paid employment with motherhood contributed significantly to the exhaustion I experienced. It is easy to blame the sleep habits of children, so brutally incompatible with adult routines, but I think that night-time wakes and very early mornings can be accommodated with minimal impact if one is willing and/or able to submit. Because I wanted to write The Glad Shout, however, I was less gentle with myself. My work often took place at night when the children were asleep. As a result, the shortened periods of rest were a key contributing factor to how tired I was in those years.
Under these conditions, I didn’t have the inclination to delve back into climate science, but I did grow alert to a new development. Between writing Anchor Point and The Glad Shout, discourse around climate change had shifted from the realm of specialised texts, to being reported daily in mainstream media. Climate change is no longer speculative, but evidenced by widely reported events already taking place.
News articles about drought and flood and icecaps melting have galvanised me more effectively than any study in response to climate change. Four years ago, I started to keep a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that seemed relevant to the issues I was writing about in The Glad Shout. Each time I came across a real-world story mirroring something I had invented for narrative purposes, I saved it. I didn’t know if what I was collecting was evidence or justification. Not all the stories I collected occurred in Australia – but fiction can make those imaginative leaps where science is forbidden. Recently, I read of Margaret Atwood’s claim: ‘when I wrote [The Handmaid’s Tale] I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.’ I can’t say that this is entirely true of The Glad Shout but I can tell you that my scrapbook overflows.
It is difficult not to feel panicked in the face of this thinking. For years – because of my work and my children – I have been pondering the possible impacts of climate change, and what they might mean for motherhood, for the adults my children will become. The decision to have a child is momentous and frightening in of itself. Babies are so precious, so vulnerable. They are also an investment. Even before the baby is in the world, we have conjured a lifetime of special moments that we fully expect to get to enjoy: school concerts and family holidays; teenage antics and first loves. We imagine being there for graduations, weddings and grandchildren. A baby is the harbinger of the future, and in our imagination, that future is usually always bright.
As parents, we yearn to give our children one of two things: the exact same childhood that we enjoyed, if it was idyllic, or a better one, if it was not. As climate change manifests, neither of these options is easily available. We bring children into the world with the understanding that their lives will not be as affluent or safe or healthy or abundant as our own. Considered with an overlay of environmental collapse then, the prospect of parenthood is horrifying. Who would knowingly send the person or people they love most into a world that is likely to be dysfunctional at best and dangerous, even uninhabitable, at worst?
As parents, I think we should arm ourselves for a cavalcade of small but chaotic disruptions across the fabric of our society and lands, things that we can acclimatise to in the short-term, if not learn to accept. I imagine that affluence might moderate such disruptions. If climate change is real, then the amount of wealth one has access to when entering parenthood is a legitimate concern, and that alone might truly temper the number of children we choose to have.
Children are also a joy, and more powerfully, they offer a galvanising source of hope. As an investment in the future, they give us a reason to strive to secure that future to the best of our abilities. Parents already do this in myriad ways, of course. Climate change only adds another dimension to the preparation we must give our children for their impending adulthoods.
Children also give us something to fight for, and so perhaps parenthood is the strongest antidote to apathy and inertia when it comes to climate change. I don’t think it’s coincidental that climate change protests and marches globally are crammed with strollers pushed by parents fighting on their children’s behalf, or that some of the most persuasive environmental activists are very young people.
If we are going to have children, and we accept that their lives will be impacted by climate change, then it is our primary duty as parents to furnish the next generations with a fighting spirit. They will need to be resourceful, and they will need the resolve required to endure and even improve the conditions they have inherited from us.
Image: Horsham Flood, Flickr