Feature | A change in the air: literature, bombs and colonial terror in climate literature

Reflecting on Hiroshima, 6 August 1945, Karen Barad writes:

Time stopped. The internal mechanisms melted … Time died in a flash. Its demise captured in shadows: silhouettes of people, animals, plants, and objects, its last moment of existence emblazoned on walls. Never before was it possible to kill time, not like this. Atomic clocks. Doomsday clocks. The hands of time indeterminately positioned as creeping toward the midnight of human and more-than-human existence, moving, and no longer moving.1

Coming to eco-philosophy from a background in quantum physics, Barad is acutely aware of space–time paradoxes and deploys the compound ‘(space)time(mattering)’2 to articulate what the bomb detonated— matter and, with it, time and space. Time, she argues, changed for the human in 1945: never before could the future be obliterated so completely and immediately.

Barad is not alone in her focus on the historical significance of the bomb in the environmental humanities. Various theorists have proposed that the detonation of the first atomic bomb, and then its subsequent deployment in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, marks the beginning or a significant escalation of the Anthropocene. Heather David and Zoe Todd argue the entry of plutonium into Earth’s stratigraphy marks a new level of human influence on Earth’s chemical composition;3 Timothy Morton claims the power of the atomic bomb destroys the idea that Earth could not be radically altered by human activity.4 Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz argue that the atomic bomb ushered in an awareness that unified the human condition and the concepts of the global on a mass scale, as evidenced by the wide success of The Road to Survival by William Vogt and Our Plundered Planet by Henry Fairfield Osborn, books ‘which together sold between 20 and 30 million copies, were organised around the inclusive categories of “the planet” and “the Earth”, and launched a warning about the future of the global environment and its profound human repercussions’.5 Novels from the era, such as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, are indicative of this burgeoning awareness.

Implicit in Barad’s reflection are the climatic shadows of the explosion: the blooming mushroom cloud that fell as black rain, the dangerous radiation. Atomic weapons, with their range of monstrous climatic fallouts, become an egregious synecdoche of devastating anthropogenic destructiveness, overturning natural climatic systems and ushering in a new era of geo-power. Who wields this technology structures global power to this day, while radically altering what it means to safely live-in-place. Peter Sloterdijk claims that the invisibility of radioactivity makes imperative ‘the need to perceive the imperceptible’ to ensure public safety.6 Greenhouse gases, which are also invisible to the human eye, function under this same rubric.

Nuclear weapons are prescient reminders that climate crises are not new, but historical. With these histories comes a history of theoretical and cultural work worthy of attention in the formulation of a poetics of climate change. Cultural geographer Mike Hulme reminds us of this fact, arguing that a climate is not a physical thing but a conceptual reality, built from patterns of information that assume the guise of real things in which the natural world is subsequently enclosed. As he says, while climatologists can ‘conjure climates into statistical existence’ and ‘simulate climates into virtual existence’,7 they cannot present Earth’s actual climate. Similarly, while a geologist might point to specific features of landscape, ecosystems or architecture to illustrate how climate affects landscape,8 they are pointing to footprints of climatic systems (weather events, for instance), not the climatic systems themselves.

Of course, these geological and statistical representations of climate do not account for the vital social and cultural functions that climate serves. Climate, Hulme contends, ‘introduces a sense of stability or normality into what otherwise would be too chaotic and disturbing an experience of unruly and unpredictable weather’.9 In another formulation: climate creates boundaries of expected weather, in which certain variations are viewed as ‘acceptable’ and ‘safe’. This obsession with safe variation is constructed from the more variable climates of Europe and informs a particular understanding of what it means to be in place. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie draws this into sharp relief, stating [my italics]:

So I grew up in a small university town in Nigeria, and started reading quite early. And I read a lot of British children’s books, which was not unusual … And so when I started to write, I was writing exactly those stories … All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather—how lovely it was that the sun had come out … Now this, despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria, I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.10

As Adichie’s story insists, climate—as an ordering system for weather—enables an architecture of social conventions to be constructed within it. Humans live climatically, ‘amidst the patterns and fluxes of weather they may encounter’.11 Understanding, or at least expecting patterns, produces ways of being in time—for instance, a farmer will plant certain crops at particular seasons of the year, given their understandings of climate. Conversely, artificial climates—constructed via architecture and cooling/heating systems—regulate climate to counter this seasonal flux. Hulme draws upon the example of the office worker: in the conditioned space, a style of dress and the forms of labour undertaken need not fluctuate, despite dramatic variations in outdoor weather conditions. Put simply, these environments do not have climatic ‘downtimes’ and so capital can be generated at a higher level of efficiency and regularity. While these two examples form a simple binary of urban and rural, what I hope to suggest is that different climates construct differing cultures, but also that humans construct climates to produce desired cultures.

The desire to construct climate as ordered and predictable can be understood as existing within the geological philosophy of gradualism. Because climate is ordered, predictable and expected, it assumes a disguise of naturalness, which allows it to disappear as a site of interrogation, in much the same way that notions of gender, sexuality and race have done historically. Like gender, sexuality and race (to which climate is also bound), climate has been deployed as a tool for enforcing violence and moral order. Some climates are viewed as being more ‘correct’ than others: welcoming climates (moderate to warm temperatures) are seen as preferable to extreme climates (either excessively warm or cold). Obviously, the gaze here is colonial and constructed around the relatively temperate weather of Europe.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that contemporary understanding of climate emerges from colonial expansion in the seventeenth century. The global view of climate afforded by the empires caused natural philosophers to consider how variations in climate over similar latitudes might be explained by human action.12 The work of Georges-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, is telling: Through control and effective control of nature, he argued, Europe had curated a finer climate that imbued its citizens with a greater degree of civility, as compared to the ‘raw’ unmanaged natures of the Americas.13 Agreeable climates, he concluded, specifically European climates, produce agreeable people. The logical conclusion was that by appropriately managing the environment via deforestation and effective land management, the climate could be managed to best suit the cultures that used it.14

The moral dimensions of climate would result in a proliferating poetics of atmospheres through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Thomas H Ford argues, with Romanticism came new ideas of atmosphere: the term ‘political atmosphere’ entered circulation in the 1770s, ‘moral’ and ‘literary’ atmosphere appeared in the 1790s and, in the 1810s and 1820s15 ‘affective atmospheres’16 proliferated.17 These new vocabularies of atmosphere, Ford asserts, become the prominent mode for ‘articulating the relationship between human and nonhuman nature’.18 An increasing scientific study of atmosphere accompanied these poetic developments, creating new ways for explaining types of clouds, for instance. As Ford demonstrates, drawing from Wordsworth’s poetry, these two modes of speaking were not distinct, but slipping into one another.19

The significance of climate to notions of civility is encapsulated by the frequency with which colonists maintained many of the climate signifiers through the process of colonisation. Acceptable modes of dress and food remained tethered to the home continent, despite their possible inappropriateness for the local climate. Anybody who has experienced an Australian Christmas, in which transnational traditions enforce a diet of roasts, puddings and a bevy of snow-related merchandising and Christmas jingles in typically warm to (sometimes blisteringly) hot weather can intuitively understand the power of climate-based traditions to shape an idea of what should be, and why a climate that deviates can be viewed as perverse, or othering. By holding to climatic traditions of the ‘home state’, settler societies reassert a relationship with a ‘true home’, rather than succumbing to the alien climate and its possible uncivilising effects. The success of this exercise is critical, as with any consumption ritual which ‘contain[s] the drift of meanings’:20 it ensures safety, and moral and spiritual wellbeing.

Few novelists of the climate change age have taken the cultural dimension of climate seriously. A rare exception is Delia Falconer’s 1998 novel, The Service of Clouds, which I would like to celebrate at length here. The novel recounts the early twentieth century industrialisation of Katoomba, a Blue Mountains town famous for its fresh air and spectacular clouds. The narration is focalised through Eureka Jones, and centres on her unrequited love affair with photographer Harry Kitchings, and her subsequent brief affair with the consumptive Les Curtain. However, this narrative, familiar to any reader of contemporary literature, is a semi-MacGuffin, as the novel is foremost a history of the air: it depicts the clouds as near mystical, only for them to retreat with the spectre of WWI.

Falconer initially establishes the air in her text as being moral, and sacred, although she does complicate the construction of a moral climate. Clouds and weather events are in symbolic exchange with the characters, but not in an entirely reflective way; the clouds contain their own agency, and agenda. As Eureka reflects in the novel’s opening, ‘Our lives were lived in the service of these clouds which took the form of our desires’.21 By attributing will to the clouds, Falconer forwards an implicit critique of the tradition of anthropocentric narcissism or what Ruskin calls the pathetic fallacy, which traverses Western literature at least from Romanticism on, whereby weather served as a mirror of character mood.

Falconer parodies the hubris of thinking that the air is reflective of anthropogenic behaviour and moral righteousness, especially when a so-called purity of atmosphere is used as a way of enforcing social division. For instance, the Fresh Air League (a collective that actually did exist in colonial New South Wales, comprised of upper-class women living in the Blue Mountains), whose mission is to ‘prevent and arrest disease’22 use atmospheric purity to police class boundaries. To pursue their mission, the league sponsors poor ‘sickly children and anaemic mothers’ living in the sickly air of Sydney to stay in farmhouses for a month, where they consume the restorative mountain air. This spatialisation of the air into an urban/rural discourse, in which the wealthy are attributed health due to natural environment rather than economic advantage, works to naturalise and reinforces class division. It also works to develop an ideology that the climate is healthy, and therefore of benefit, in a rather utopian manner, to the settler society separated from the conveniences at the heart of Empire.

Falconer invites the reader to see the flaw in this moralistic view of climate, by showing how the Fresh Air League uses atmosphere to re-enforce Christian gender and sexual morals. For instance, when the league reviews an application of a child sold into, and subsequently rescued from, child sex work, their matriarch argues that they reject it, stating: ‘while the air was restorative of the health its powers did not extend to spoiled virtue’. Atmospheric grace cannot extend to a woman who has exceeded the ‘proper’ limits of femininity.

The characters’ sense of order and moral belonging to the air is upset with the emergence of atmospheric terror, manifested in the loss of clouds. Initially, Eureka attributes the ‘strange disturbance in the weather’ to the construction of the Hydro Majestic Hotel, ‘turreted and turbaned as an elephant house’ and reminiscent in its various rooms of Italy, Brighton, Chicago, New York, Baden-Baden and more.23 The hotel operates as a kind of metonym, its polished features of colonial expansion working to globalise Katoomba—its affairs, wealth and identity now intricately bound up with other places.

Falconer’s binding of a state of atmospheric terror and a seemingly harmless symbol of colonial capitalism provides an interesting model for thinking how poetics can work to weird bourgeois order, not just in her text but in climate fiction generally. In Falconer’s essay ‘The Opposite of Glamour’, she writes how the performance of excessive acts of capitalism produces the idea that nothing is permanent, and all can be made over: in her words, ‘houses flipped, dream homes located, ugly ducklings zhooshed’.24 In this reality, a good decision is an aesthetic one that does not pay attention to moral or ecological expense. The Hydro Majestic Hotel, in all its shiny wonder, troubles a glamorous worldview: by attributing climatic disturbance to its construction, Falconer positions the reader to code symbols of empire in the text as being climatically dangerous, and threatening to community.

The incompatibility of atmosphere and empire is rendered powerfully in a later scene set at Lady Harding’s Lightning Party. The party translates climate from something to be venerated to entertainment, and, nearing the event’s conclusion, films are projected into the clouds, the images of which evoke the globalist dreams of colonial modernity: elephants, the Victoria and Niagara falls, and the Statue of Liberty. Observing the clouds, Eureka notes a further shift, and her unrequited lover, Harry Kitchings, detects ‘something rank’,25 foreshadowing the clouds’ eventual retreat.

The clouds retreat as Katoomba industrialises and WWI begins, further defamiliarising and weaponising the atmosphere. The clouds lose any sense of gradualist reliability, and become erratic and catastrophic, unsettling the colonists’ sense of belonging. Clouds take the shape of omens; on the first day of 1912, a cloud takes the shape of a dread dreadnaught and assails Katoomba with hail. When Katoomba is connected to electricity, what should be a time of glamour becomes one of terror, as Harry Kitchings watches the smoke of the generator take the shape of a German Eagle. Eureka later recalls a widescale panic, as ‘hundreds of Mountaineers mistook a large black cloud for a zeppelin’.

The anxiety of mounting atmospheric terror is catastrophic for the bourgeois characters of the text: in response, the community retreats from the ‘natural’ atmosphere. Increasingly, air is managed through technology; Mr Medlicott, the town’s chemist, begins to sell containers of sealed air, Mr Fowler establishes a photographic studio where ‘wives … pose with limbless husbands in front of a large painted panorama of the mountains, safe from the disagreeable presences of shrubs and parakeets and rain’.26 Harry Kitchings, a photographer of the clouds, goes bankrupt as the clouds evacuate, and dies.

The history of the air in Falconer’s text marks a movement of service to fear, modernity to postmodernity, in which humans are estranged from unity and control via technological means. The new atmosphere of the text is one in which climate must be managed and consumed in safe environments; one afforded by technical apparatus—the air must be translated into a modern, regulated state in which safety of the product is assured. It is rather horrifyingly, a powerful rendering of the emergence of a progressive dystopia.


1 KM Barad, ‘No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of Spacetimemattering’, in A Tsing, H Swanson, E Gan, N Bubant (eds), Arts of Living on a Dying Planet: Ghosts, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2017, G103.
2 Barad, ‘No Small Matter’.
3 Z Todd & H Davis, ‘On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonising the Anthropocene’, ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2017, 19(4): 762–3.
4 T Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, p 5.
5 C Bonneuil & JB Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, paperback edn, Verso, 2017 p 77–78.
6 P Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, trans. A Patton & S Corcoran, Semiotext(e), p 59.
7 M Hulme, Weathered: Cultures of Climate, Sage Publications, 2017, p 1.
8 Hulme, Weathered: Cultures of Climate.
9 Hulme, Weathered: Cultures of Climate.
10 CN Adichie, What Are the Dangers of a Single Story? accessed 19 December 2019, https://www.npr.org/2013/09/20/186303292/what-are-the-dangers-of-a-single-story.
11 Hulme, Weathered: Cultures of Climate..
12 Bonneuil & Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene.
13 Bonneuil & Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene.
14 Bonneuil & Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene.
15 TH Ford, Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p 1.
16 B Anderson ‘Affective Atmospheres’, Emotion, Space and Society, 2009, 2(2): 77–81.
17 Ford, Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air.
18 For example, atmospheres of despair, sadness, terror and so on.
19 Ford, Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air.
20 M Douglas & BC Isherwood, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, Routledge, 1996, p 43.
21 D Falconer, The Service of Clouds, Pan Macmillan, 1997, p 1.
22 Falconer, The Service of Clouds.
23 Falconer, The Service of Clouds.
24 D Falconer ‘The Opposite of Glamour’, Sydney Review of Books, accessed 4 May 2018 https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/the-opposite-of-glamour-delia-falconer/.
25 Falconer, The Service of Clouds.
26 Falconer, The Service of Clouds.


Jack Kirne

Jack Kirne is a writer, academic and union organiser living in Melbourne. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies for 2022. More of his creative and critical work can be read at jackkirne.com

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