(with apologies to John Berger)
We had a ritual of watching one of those cooking shows together. Sunday nights, dinner on the couch. Mild reality television to ease the children into this world of spectacle, gently. Where at least nourishment is central.
On one of these nights, we’re watching the two teams whip up a three course meal in excruciating fashion like they do each week. White aprons pristine. The red digital clock ticking down. The plating up. The restrained abuse to the competing pair across the kitchen as their faces sheen ever so slightly with modest sweat. All the fancy gizmos for chopping and sous vide-ing and ovens that look like fridges with big glass doors. Things we hadn’t seen before.
My oldest kid says, ‘Imagine winning 250,000 bucks!’
And the youngest, only five, responds, ‘I wouldn’t want that much money.’
She’s lolling around on some big cushions on the floor. Neck arched up at the screen, her face showing an earnest disposition.
‘Imagine all the wallets you’d need.’
If only we thought about all our excesses like this, I considered quietly, laughing a little, proud of her crude intellect. Our planetary excesses I mean. We’ve debated endlessly in sustainability discourse about ecological footprints, biocapacity and the number of planets we need to support our current lifestyles, but wallets seems like a vastly more appropriate metaphor in late capitalism.
Imagine if we could collectively agree that we no longer had enough space on ourselves to store the externalities of our rampant material desires. That we’d be better off forgoing the chance, so tempting, of opulent futures promising endless growth because, quite simply, it’s become too heavy on the hip pocket.
We don’t have enough wallets, it’s true, she’s right, to contain the future that we keep deludedly dreaming of on this dying planet. And besides, money just won’t do.
Alexis Wright, author and activist, recently implored ‘How do you find the words to tell the story of the environmental emergency of our times?’ The future, how we speak of it in any honest way, has become almost unsayable in this geological epoch we’re calling the Anthropocene. Without the proper words, stories become elusive, and in turn, any prospect of wayfinding becomes more and more maddening. It’s as though we’ve somehow reached the limit of the words which help tell these stories, and so now there’s an urgency to forge new language.
Where once we relied on history to feed us proverbs, parables and allegories as signposts for how to move into the future, now we must come up with new precepts for surviving this mercurial, ruinous world. Neologisms have started to make up for these muteness. We normalise weather events by coming up with words like pyrocumulonimbus to describe the fireclouds generated by bush fires – what Wright describes as part of our ‘new language of climate change’. We speak of nurdles inundating our oceans, all 53 billion of them, choking krill and filling the stomachs of seabirds.
Sometimes it seems that the only sensible thing to say is that we are living in ‘uncanny’ times. Amitav Ghosh, Timothy Morton, Tom Griffiths, Robert McFarlane and Delia Falconer are all saying it, these writers who say terrifying things with beautiful words. This notion of the uncanny is adapted from Sigmund Freud, who never stops being relevant even though we use his ideas to describe a world so distinct from the one lived in. He studied troubled minds on a stable planet, where the unspooling of personal histories could be managed and neuroses could be cured.
It’s not like that today. Environmental melancholia is pandemic.
Etymologically, Freud’s unheimlich translates more closely to ‘unhomely’ than ‘uncanny’. Semantically it is the equivalent of ‘eerie’, a disquieting strangeness. What it relates to, as the etymology shows, is the feeling of place becoming unknown. Or perhaps, more rightly, of place that was known but became forgotten and which now returns to haunt us, with devastating consequence. As though the dead were re-meeting the living.
‘Uncanny’, Freud writes, ‘is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come out in the open.’ This is not unambiguous. What was concealed and blindsided, often intentionally, has ruptured a veil and now falls in with the familiar and the comfortable. Like those long skipping rope games children play in the school yard – where two or three or a whole group of jumpers move almost seamlessly into the looping as a teacher stands either end managing the mechanics.
‘Longrope’, my daughter reminds me, is what they call it.
This is the ease with which the Anthropocene appears to be revealing strange encounters, with almost no chaffing. New bodies move in and out of formation with fluidity. Fantasy and reality become blurred. Or, as Freud alludes to, the species of the familiar morphs with that of the frightening, evoking both ‘fear and dread’. And before we know it, our home becomes unhomely, a graveyard. The Mariana Trench, we find out, is filled with lolly wrappers.
This is conceptualised perfectly by what Robert McFarlane has called Anthropocene unburials and which we encounter in the press. The fifty-thousand-year-old wolf pup emerging from the permafrost. The unexploded munitions or Viking swords cradled in mud revealed from the drying of river beds. The frozen hands of lost soldiers rising out of melting ice.
These are spectacular memos from other times, delivered to us via dire weather.
‘Time is out of joint,’ said Hamlet in a play that was all about the spectre of the Father.
At home, where there are dirt roads and box trees, we are witnessing very ordinary unburials. There’s no permafrost, or Viking weaponry, or retreating glaciers where I live. Amateur archaeologists have long-since ransacked Country for its artefacts, storing them as ‘ephemera’ in the local small-town museum. We live in central Victoria. All parched with no ostentation, and I think of the uncanny Anthropocene encounters we witness more and more frequently as banal spectres that whisper small things about the future, and the past, to those who bother to notice.
This past angry Summer, the long drys we now get have emptied dams that had remained full during the Millennial Drought. Craters of detritus were revealed, layered with mangled car bodies, asbestos panelling, glass bottles. Places that hadn’t been dry for decades reveal to us a history of neglect – great stabs in the soil to store the water for heavy-hoofed animals that this land was clear-felled for, and which no longer serve a purpose, now that it rains so much less. These paddock-tips reveal our wasted landscape, sucked dry by ill-fitting ambition.
And along the roadside reserves, where the majestic yellow box have been allowed to languish beyond the reach of farmers’ land-titles, we’ve witnessed them die standing up, as though overnight. Weary sentinels become spectres that can’t withstand such little sustenance anymore, these onslaughts of heat. These were the giants of the landscape.
And the wallabies, those small black-bodied marsupials that rush out across the road low to the ground and pass before you even have a chance to press your foot to the brake, have had to venture into open paddocks to find food this summer. Their exposure to the expanse, to the glaring yellow of chewed wild oats and phalaris, causes them – scientists are saying – to go blind. Creatures not fast enough to adapt to our denuding, heating landscapes. Now even they must move around in the dark.
‘More than anything’, Jeff Sparrow recently wrote, ‘climate change politicises time’.
‘Spectrality does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist or that the past (and maybe even the future they offer to prophesy) is still very much alive and at work, within the living present’, writes literary critic and Marxist theorist Frederic Jameson, ‘all it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.’
Our current ecological depredations are exceptional, but clearly it’s us who go on betraying them.
My daughter watched those walruses cartwheel down the Russian cliff face. They fell like car tyres into landfill, with surprising ease considering their bulk. They filmed dozens of them slowly making their way up the steep incline, with fragile land-locked eyes, to a peak where they stopped, flat footed, jostling each other for room. There simply wasn’t enough space to hold them all.
My daughter said to me, sobbing, ‘they need to stop following each other.’
‘There’s nowhere for them to go that way,’ she pleaded.
China Miéville, the author and literary critic best known for his delirious urban fantasy fiction, recently wrote that ‘becoming a radical critic of capitalism involves a process of disenchantment, the dying of surprise at the system’s depredations; but being one, a long-term witness to those depredations, is to repeatedly discover that we can be shocked by what no longer surprises us.’
Our kids, for now, remain shocked and surprised at the things that made us insensate. And it’s from their mouths that we can sometimes hear agonising reflections on these catastrophic times. Their sorrow carves away at layers of our coma, and wakes us briefly to what appears to be fast-becoming our only available resource – devastating fatalism.
We still rely on birds to send messages for us, like we did with canaries in coal mines and carrier pigeons. It was birds that held back that Adani coalmine, in part, on the back of a small endangered finch as though scientific reason and economic logic were no longer sufficient to demonstrate the glaring shortcomings of opening up the Galilee Basin. New coal has been described, quite simply, as financial lunacy with little to no cost competitiveness. And the opening of the Galilee Basin has been regarded as utterly incompatible with tackling climate change. But despite rigorous modelling and analysis, we relied on a bird as proxy for all this common sense.
The Galilee thermal coal has a low energy content to begin with, and it’s been calculated that digging it up and burning it will release 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That is 1.3 times Australia’s current annual emissions.
Although it’s clear this contribution to greenhouse gases will eagerly assist a predicted four-degree global heating by 2100, there are no guarantees that the mine won’t disrupt the aquifers, contaminate groundwater, and call an end to the nationally significant Doongmabulla Springs in the meantime. And that’s not to mention adding to the immediate impact that the burning of fossil fuels already has on the Indian population, whom this coal is destined for. Approximately 690,000 people are killed from air pollution in India each year at current emission rates.
There are fewer than one thousand black-throated finches left, and their range has contracted by eighty percent in the past twenty years. It’s estimated that half of the remaining population now inhabit the grassy woodland which forms part of the Adani lease, feeding on seeding grasses specific to that bioregion.
The coalmine has been described as the bird’s ‘death knell’. An ornithologist laments, ‘we have heard repeatedly from pro-Adani forces that the finches can “fly somewhere else”. The science is clear—there is nowhere else for these finches to go.’
Just recently we read in the news, “Finch trade off breaks Adani mine stalemate”.
And my son looks at me, he knows the story so far.
‘Well there we go then, that’s sad,’ he says.
‘In the end, I suppose, that black-throated finch is us.’
I lace together my children’s words with some of my own, trying to make a little poem, a folly, for our unsayable times, a final dispatch about the future, the Anthropocene. From the mouths of babes.
It doesn’t help us better tell the story of our environmental emergency, but it does illuminate for a moment how children see things, how shocked and surprised they are at our excesses and the depredations they cause, and perhaps it can memorialise for a brief moment their despair before they too become insensate.
We don’t have enough wallets
(to stuff our promised future in
and besides it’s certain)
there’s nowhere to go that way
(but we mustn’t get downhearted, for)
in the end, the black-throated finch is us
(finally deadened by greed).
Image: a pyrocumulonimbus photographed by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service