Type
Review
Category
Climate grief

What’s my Anthropocene? A review of Signs and Wonders

Elegy, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze remarked, is one of the principal sources of poetry. It is the great complaint … “what’s happening to me overwhelms me.” Not (simply) that I am in pain but what has taken away my power of action overwhelms me. And why did I see these things why do I know these things why must I endure seeing and knowing.

Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk

 

There was a time when you could read a book or a thesis or an artist’s statement or a conference abstract and not encounter the term ‘Anthropocene’, but that time is not now.

In 1873 Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani wrote of an ‘anthropozoic era’. A century later, ‘Anthropocene’ was coined. In this millennium, it has become both ubiquitous and contested. Hasana Sharp notes that

[r]adical critics rightly object to the simplicity of the Anthropocene narrative for treating humanity as a natural kind, a single actor, whose members bear equal causal and moral responsibility. Yet, radical critics are also tempted to unify the narrative, to identify their preferred villains, to isolate a single system or constellation of causes.

Settler-colonisers, in all of our guises, are some of the villains of the climate crisis. The mindset of settler-colonisation reenvisages land as property, and reconstrues natural things as commodities. This thinking links at one edge to the thrust of eco-modernists who want to decouple further from the natural world and ameliorate the impacts of climate chaos with technological ‘solutions’. This extends the settler narrative that humans and nature are separate entities—nature is to be conquered, risen above, endured, monetised. At the opposite edge, there are those who wring their hands and admit their guilt—one of the settler moves to innocence critiqued by Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang—without taking large or meaningful action.

In-between? Indifference. Ostrich tactics. Marx deployed the French expression ‘Après moi, le déluge’, traditionally translated as ‘When I am dead the flood may come for aught I care’, to decry capitalist arrogance and selfishness. Several centuries of rapacious Prometheanism have created a global crisis unmatched since the Fifth Mass Extinction. It’s not just business pillagers and myopic political leaders but also a great swathe of the Western populace muttering ‘Après moi, le déluge’ now.

Many of those who are not indifferent are struck with eco-anxiety—something not listed in DSM-5, but surely a shoo-in for DSM-6. Ecological grief is real. People are suffering. In the late 1940s, naturalist Aldo Leopold observed that ‘[o]ne of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.’ The metaphor still holds, and the experience has intensified, but if the grief must be borne alone, it is in parallel with billions of others. Ashley Cunsolo and Neville Ellis, six decades after Leopold, found that bearing witness to ecological losses is the source of much unacknowledged emotional and psychological pain, especially for those who are deeply connected to or observant of the natural world. And they predict the pain isn’t going away. It is

‘ambiguous loss’, or loss that goes on without answers or closure and leads to feelings of being frozen, halted, or stuck in the grief process, living with both the presence and the absence of what was lost.

You don’t need to be a logger or a coalminer or a Murdoch to feel the sting. You don’t need to be booking international flights, buying a second car or failing to sort your recycling—just living an average Australian (or North American, or European) lifestyle means your carbon footprint (a term coined by PR firm Ogilvy & Mather on behalf of oil monolith BP, irony abounding) is hastening the climate crisis. Real people are really hurting through this knowledge of complicity, in a grief that seems to have no likely end.

But then—think for a moment of Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe recording a message for COP26 while thigh-deep in rising ocean, discussing whether his people will retain sovereignty if and when their island is underwater. Or think of the subsistence farmers in northern Uganda who have been pushed off their land by drought and desertification, or the people in Madagascar facing catastrophic drought and famine, or dozens of other examples of existential crisis. I am feeling stressed. You are facing death. It’s like the old distinction between eggs and bacon: the chickens are involved; the pigs are committed.

The most widely promoted alternative term to Anthropocene is Capitalocene. It ties in with the impossibility theorem of John Bellamy Foster, which argues there can be no ecologically sound capitalism, and chimes with Andreas Malm’s contention that

a person’s imprint on the atmosphere varies tremendously depending on where she is born. Humanity, as a result, is far too slender an abstraction to carry the burden of culpability.

Jason Moore calls ‘Capitalocene’ an ugly word for an ugly system:

No less than the binaries of Eurocentrism, racism, and sexism, Nature/Society is directly implicated in the modern world’s colossal violence, inequality, and oppression … the abstraction Nature/Society historically conforms to a seemingly endless series of human exclusions—never mind the rationalizing disciplines and exterminist policies imposed upon extrahuman natures.

What can and should literature do in these dog days of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene? Amitav Ghosh argued in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable that writers and artists must confront their complicity in the concealments of the broader culture. Ghosh showed the ways in which historicisation traps our thinking in a loop:

our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us no-where to turn but toward our self-annihilation.

(Less convincing was his contention that contemporary literature pays scant attention to the climate crisis; not only does it seem sub-textually present in many novels, but actual CliFi has been hot for years—much like the planet itself.)

David Wallace Wells notes this subterranean omnipresence of the climate crisis, as Modernism was in the twentieth century. When climate change

begins to seem inescapable, total—it may cease to be a story and become, instead, an all-encompassing background. No longer a narrative, it would recede into what literary theorists call metanarrative, succeeding those—like religious truth or faith in progress—that have governed the culture of earlier eras.

*

Into the crowded space of Anthropocene writing comes Delia Falconer’s Signs and Wonders. Her book is a reminder that we—and Falconer more than most—are very good at the business of knowing. Accreting facts. Jumping disciplines. Asserting connections.

Falconer is a writer of rare skill. Somewhere in my shelves there is an exercise book in which I copied out numerous sentences from her two novels, trying to unlock the secrets of their perfect rhythm and weight. Signs and Wonders is clearly the product of thousands of hours of research. Early reviews have been universally rapturous. Falconer ranges further than a short-tailed shearwater, seeking information and inspiration from the oceans, the skies and different lands. She engages with the work of past and contemporary thinkers, overlaying these intellectual peregrinations on her emotional topography, observing ‘the wind shift of a world accelerating, in all its heedlessness and incantatory beauty.’

Her still point in this nauseatingly turning world is her home in Sydney’s inner eastern suburbs. As she walks along the glittering littoral, she notes changes in harbour marine life. She meditates on the void left by the removal of two eucalypts from outside her study window. She interrogates the disparate community responses to the appearance of a fur seal in Rushcutters Bay. She writes from where she is, using Elizabeth Bay and environs as a laboratory, spinning from the hyperlocal to the global as she catalogues a Wunderkammer of disappearing marvels. Her attention to the breadth of the natural world is a corrective to the anthropocentrism inherent in Anthropocene discourse.

And yet: I found myself reading the book with the sort of grudging, moralising countenance Havelock Ellis called facie Christiana. Much tsking. Furious scribbling in margins about progressive solipsism, lack of self-awareness and What About The Poor People? It is perfectly valid for Falconer to use the zone between Double Bay and Potts Point as her Walden, but there is little acknowledgment that most of Sydney—let alone Australia—is not situated there. Why not take an excursion to Rooty Hill or Campbelltown? Are there no signs and wonders to be found on the other side of the Red Rooster Line? Elizabeth Bay is not a useful synecdoche for the world, but that appears to be the book’s conceit.

Falconer is a famously precise writer, so instances of apparent carelessness confound. It grates to see a reference to Captain Cook discovering the Great Barrier Reef without—at least—the use of scare quotes. Her assertion that ‘[y]ou can’t grow up here without an understanding that humans and Country have already been long entwined’ flies in the face of the well-documented history of lies and lacunae within the Australian education system with regard to First Nations issues, including connection to Country.

There is solipsistic thoughtlessness. ‘My old and fragile country is likely to bear the brunt of global changes first,’ she writes, which will come as a surprise to the citizens of various low-lying island nations, for example, and ignores that climate-related disasters have killed more than one million people in the past two decades.

‘Thick air pollution is something I have associated with developing countries: a visible marker of carelessness.’ Need it be said, there are many contributing factors to the disastrous air quality of Delhi or Lahore or Dhaka—carelessness is not primary amongst them. ‘In the world’s shadow places, plastic production is likely to triple,’ she writes. Why are China (one-third of global production) and other Asian and Central American countries that dominate plastics manufacture being consigned to the shadow realm?

There is surprisingly little attention paid to the recency of depredations on this continent by contrast to the previous aeons of careful stewardship. Settler-colonialists have been here for 233 years, roughly 1/250th of the total time of First Nations occupation. (I acknowledge this is a Western formulation—the understanding of Anangu and no doubt many others regarding the correct quantifier for their time present in this place is ‘forever’.) In that fraction of time, all of the ecological damage—everything that has gone wrong—has occurred. More discussion on what went right in the many millennia prior to 1788 could provide context as well as pointing to possible ameliorations.

Her chapter on the dreadful bushfires of 2019-20 includes the information that her children’s school sports events were cancelled two weeks in a row due to smoke haze over Sydney. It is a pity an editor didn’t have a gentle word with her about perspective and reader perception. Similarly, when the Covid restrictions hit and she bemoans having to help her children with their schoolwork ‘distributed across Seesaw and two different versions of Google Classroom,’ a reader’s thoughts might shift to the families in police-enforced hard lockdown in the Flemington high-rise flats—or the people in insecure employment creating unprecedented queues at Foodbanks—or our neighbouring nations unable to obtain vaccines. How can a writer of such grace and intelligence have a tin ear for these things? There is not a scintilla of apparent irony when she reports on her neighbourhood Facebook group discussing ‘if balayage could be considered an essential service, and whether favourite restaurants will deliver … Where is it possible to still find good charcuterie?’

This is an elegiac book, curiously devoid of anger, notably short on politics, suffused with discontented restlessness but paradoxically passive. Tonally it resembles something like Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and similarly it is a publishing dead cert: the right sort of prose from the right sort of author that will find the right sort of audience and sell accordingly. It is difficult to see where it will take its likely readership except into a place of disconsolate bias confirmation. It is telling that Falconer’s preferred term for this epoch is Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.

The challenge ahead is not only to recognise that it is rational to hear the uncanny messages from our present but also to allow ourselves to feel fear, awe, and rage equivalent to its ‘terrific grandeur.’

Falconer is clearly not a monster, and neither am I. On my next reading I tried to approach the book from a place of care, to read it on her terms outside any wider frame. Falconer mentions several times that she suffered two tragedies some years ago. She does not specify what these tragedies were, and nor should she be expected to, but that grief appears to be metastasising, augmented with the sadness of witnessing extinction and depletion and environmental trauma. She is a parent, so things that hurt her children—even if they are as trivial, in global terms, as cancelled sports days—hurt her, too. Perhaps she is thoroughly self-aware, prepared to accept the sneering of some (equally or more privileged) readers about charcuterie anxiety because she accepts that this is the nature of her community and feels no need to hide or apologise for that.

Within what she calls ‘the wind shift of a world accelerating, in all its heedlessness and incantatory beauty’ she finds consolation from sustained observation. Knowledge of imminent destruction lends her reportage pungency. ‘What comes next will not be as lovely: more frequently burned, leached of colour and complexity, and increasingly silent.’ Is climate grief just a middle-class indulgence? No, in as much as grief is never optional. Being told not to feel grief is like being told not to feel hot or cold. Does mourning have to be a ritual of possession, morally questionable when performed by a settler? I do not believe so.
We can grieve deeply over things that are not our own in any sense except for psycho-emotional connection. The grief itself is a coloniser in the narrow sese of occupation without welcome. It’s probable that the grief suffered by someone with a tangible, direct connection to the thing that has been lost will be greater than that experienced by a person more tangentially connected, but this does not have to be true. And anyway, grief has no bottom—if my grief is greater than yours (if these things could be measured) it does not mean you are not enduring a lot of pain.

Ecological grief is complicated by feelings of complicity, and betrayal towards future humans. For some people, grief can be a motivating factor, triggering action. But then anger can do that, too—the anger that comes from understanding that leviathans of the capitalist system have a vested interest in convincing citizens to overstate their own level of fault for the crisis. We can understand and acknowledge the malign structural mechanisms that underpin the climate disaster. For example, Falconer refers despairingly to marine biologists in Davao City in the Philippines pulling unimaginable amounts of plastic and other waste from the digestive tract of a dead curvier beaked whale. The same incident is detailed by Jeff Sparrow in Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating but he frames it within the inaction (and cynical actions) of giant plastics manufacturers, including their formation of the ethically compromised Alliance to End Plastic Waste.

Sparrow makes a convincing trip through history to demonstrate that the environmental crisis is, ‘in and of itself, a sufficient rebuttal of the (capitalist) system’s efficiency.’ He shows that, while there is collective shame about species extinction, ‘climate change has been driven not by the many but by the few.’ He finishes his book with a call to action. It exemplifies Meehan Crist’s warning that

[i]f we get the framing of this story wrong—if we see the issue as a matter of individual consumer choice, for example, or choose a purely emotional rather than an explicitly political framing—we risk missing the point altogether.

There is another individualistic way of looking at what is going on, apart from the elegy. Falconer writes about the degradation of the calcium-carbonate-based shells of oysters, lobsters and pteropods due to ocean acidification. By contrast, conservation biologist Thor Hanson sees an inspiration for action when

tiny snails can learn to patch their shells in an acid sea … They are a constant, thrumming call to action and a reminder that we humans are governed by the very same forces affecting plants and animals. What we choose to do now will not just determine what comes next in nature; it will determine our place within it.

We are experiencing a huge loss. We are not in the audience—we are on the stage. Grief is slippery, and it can persist, and there is no reason to think this ecological grief will have an end point. To twist William Gibson’s idea, many of the dire future consequences of climate change are already here—they are just unevenly distributed. The number (and percentage) of people suffering food insecurity has risen every year since 2014. The annual Ecological Threat Report from the Institute for Economics & Peace shows that this year eleven of the fifteen countries facing the worst ecological threats are in conflict, and the other four are at a high risk. Grief literature suggests that taking action, doing anything that we construe as worthwhile, has value. Inertia must not be an option, even if we accept Roy Scranton’s assertion that ‘[t]he greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilisation is already dead.’

 

Image: NOAA

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