Essay

Our once and future home

Journeying with the climate pilgrims

IT’S A HOT Australian twilight, some years ago now, and I’m among a couple of hundred people who have gathered in the forgettable, sanitised space of a function centre conference room to talk about the future of life on Earth. The formalities have concluded and everyone has risen from their chairs. As the furniture scrapes and most of those who’ve attended begin their patient procession towards the exit, some members of the audience make their way forward to approach one or other of the speakers. You probably know the drill. I’ve done this often enough myself when there’s someone I want to meet personally, to ask a follow-up private question, or in some cases just to let a corporate or government decision-maker know – given my role – that Greenpeace is watching. On this occasion though, I’ve been one of the panellists, and as I remove the lapel mic and pick up my steel water bottle, a modest gaggle forms for a chat. I have a quick and friendly exchange with one or two of those waiting for a word before a youngish teenager takes his turn.

I guess he’s fourteen. He has pale skin and nervous brown eyes behind glasses. The stubborn russet hair and rangy physique give open expression to the not-yet-quite-fitting-together parts of mid-adolescence. It is still years before Greta Thunberg and the dynamism of the global school-strike movement will fundamentally change the demography of international climate activism, so the kid stands out. He speaks hesitantly, with an instinctive sideways glance, as if wishing there were no others present to overhear what he is about to say. I have the sense that he is straining not to show too much emotion. There is a kind of cauterised look about his face, perhaps just shyness, maybe more. An uneasy beginning verging on a stutter before he asks me bluntly:

Is there any hope?

I should be prepared for this question, but I am unready. The conversation with the young stranger feels vertiginous. Now, I think I understand the boy’s look, conveying his deepest existential fear about the future of all things, no doubt also freighted with the more mundane weight of worry about just appearing foolish. I have a sudden sense of the lad’s vulnerability, as he puts trust in someone he’s never met. I’m immediately conscious, with a shock, of the responsibility I hold in this conversation. I’m not sure I know how to do this. Others lean in to hear my response. There’s the slightest of pauses while I swallow back the rising self-doubt and look the youth in the eyes. I lean forward towards him. I might have put a hand on one of his shoulders. ‘Yes,’ I answer, with my whole self. I know the words I say to be true, but I am speaking them as the bearer, not the owner.

Yes, there is hope.

We stand before each other as pilgrims. There is no way but forward into the dark.

 

AS ENVIRONMENTALISTS, WE often talk of ‘home’ in the ecumenical sense as a reference to the planet. We must ‘save the Earth’, we say with emotional honesty and true feeling, because ‘it is our only home’. These words are meant to evoke the awe of the Earthrise – the picture taken in December 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders that was the first full-colour image of our whole planet taken by someone from space – and the finitude of the tiny blue marble within the unknowable abyss of the universe. Yet the scale of creation is dizzying and doesn’t necessarily feel usable as a heuristic for facing the day-to-day. The abstraction of the entire orb is elusive in light of the quotidian and what any one human mind can really know. There is the risk, too, of becoming hypnotised by the heavens. Eyes gazing too often out to the unending firmament may lead to a fatalism about doings on Earth, or even fantasies of interplanetary escape to shirk the mess we’ve made down here. Home in a deep sense, on a human scale, can never really be evoked by the global, which has the wrong ratio for allowing us to see what, as individuals, we know intimately and cherish most closely.

After my mother died, I walked out of the house where I had spent the majority of my early life for the last time. At that moment of dissolution, all was at its most tender and visceral. Very deliberately, I ran my palms along the surfaces of the doorframes, wanting to osmotically absorb the literal texture of dark jarrah, the entry to the place where I grew up. Some part of me will always be there, walking out through that hallway, down the brown concrete steps to a grey sloped path, where my brother and I had once rolled innumerable Matchbox cars. I knelt, briefly, on the wide, flat step before the incline to feel one final time the pain of that unforgiving surface on my knees. I stroked the chocolate-painted iron railing on the verandah, an ugly thing that my mother had attempted with only partial success to smother with moonflowers, jasmine, potato vine, hardenbergia. All now gone, ghost plants. I followed the familiar way across broken asphalt, dishevelled lawn, that led ultimately to a small clearing under two old plum trees, a secret place of my heart, where in the lightest of rain I once cradled in my arms, then buried, the body of a small alsatian called Sonsie whom I loved dearly. The intimate nature of home is embodied in such memories and associations.

Global warming is an existential threat to the stability of our shared home, the biosphere of the Earth, but it is the ubiquitous immanence of the climate emergency in ways great and small, from the deadly to the barely perceptible, that is now rupturing our individual lives in more personal ways. Already there are more displaced people on Earth than at any time since the Second World War. The multiple crises that have sent this mass of humanity fleeing in desperate search of sanctuary are often linked to global heating, and as the climate emergency deepens and extreme weather events become worse and more frequent, cause and effect is becoming ever more immediate and obvious. In the fires of the 2019–20 spring and summer, around four fifths of the Australian population were impacted by flame and smoke – a mass experience of extreme climate damage that would no doubt have been even more socially and politically definitive if not then followed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those who were burned out became politically activated by the trauma of the experience. In December 2019 – with the worst of that summer still to come – a grandmother from rural New South Wales called Melinda Plesman was supported by Greenpeace to take the remnants of her home to Parliament House in Canberra to force the politicians to bear witness. On one of the corrugated iron panels, the message was daubed in red: ‘Morrison, your climate crisis destroyed my home.’ It was an early international media moment in what would become the massive global story of the wildfires down under.

Outside the extreme climate damage events of fire, storm and flood, slower and subtler violence is also being done. As the weather changes, patterns of social life are being lost or obscured, and the meaning of habits, rituals and sensory stimuli intimately associated with the feelings of belonging are under siege. The unravelling is there in our planter boxes, gardens, neighbourhoods and towns: in the creek that no longer runs; a certain smell of April that can now only be recalled as a thing past; flowers blooming at the wrong time, so their fragrant promise is now rendered a sickly threat; the disappearance of once-familiar insects and the changing sounds of the neighbourhood nocturne. It’s there in the incommensurable solastalgia for rhythms of the world that no longer pertain, of things too elusive for precise definition but known in their absence, now vanished for all time. The patterning of being feels shallower and blighted by a persistent aura of misplacement. Too often now, we cannot find things as we last left them. And for the young, the natural rhythms that once reliably prevailed are part of a world we have lost. The tenderer climate of the Holocene has become a distant thing, like a tale told to a new generation of children in a family descended from refugees, about the comforts and customs of life in the old country before the troubles came – to which there can never be any return.

 

IN MY OWN personal navigation of these things, I have found that deep acceptance of the implications of global warming – or even more broadly, the omni-crises enveloping our planetary ecology – has happened to me both slowly and quickly, all at once and every day. There are moments of forgetting and jolts of re-remembering. The impact is not singular, but breaks like cutting glass on an endless avalanche, infinitely splintering through all one does and thinks about, and multiplying further as the climate emergency evolves and the pace at which our world is becoming uncanny increases. The shocks are coming fast now, as is new data about the nature of what is happening and what is likely to come in the nearing future. Things so weird and unbelievable are taking place with such recurring suddenness that their strangeness challenges our cognition, as if we cannot possibly have seen news of a 100-degrees Fahrenheit day in the Arctic, or images of the Sydney Harbour Bridge enveloped in the most toxic air on the planet.

Ultimately though, the freedom of truth is greater than the burden. Around the time when the Great Barrier Reef experienced its first Great Bleaching in 2016, I took off a modest St Christopher charm that I’d worn almost without break for more than thirty years; it had had been a gift from my parents. I’m not religious and neither were they, so why they thought a medallion bearing the likeness of a saint was an appropriate talisman is not clear to me. Nonetheless, I took to the necklace and long held the habit of surreptitiously reaching inside my shirt a few times a day to feel the smooth reverse and the raised relief of the image between my thumb and forefinger. I removed the totem and put the thing away for good as a palpable way of inwardly declaring that I was open to the truth at its most uncompromising, to every horrific implication of what was coming. The American journalist David Wallace-Wells begins his monumental and essential book The Uninhabitable Earth with the statement that ‘it is worse, much worse, than you think’. Giving up the charm was intended as a physical note to self of my commitment to never shy away from that worst – not out of any pessimism or a perverse desire to wallow, but because it is axiomatic that knowing the facts creates the basis for building your best possible response, for truth to beget hope through action.

My exchange with the teenager at the speaking event was one of the first of many such conversations. It is a dimension to my role at Greenpeace that I had not foreseen. A newish staff member asks for a word in a meeting room. ‘Now I know,’ she says, ‘how do I live?’ A forceful and clever businessman tells me that what he has suddenly come to understand about climate change is as significant an event as his marriage and the birth of his children in giving shape to his life. An old man, physically shaking, barely walking at an event. A consultant from an accounting firm, an acquaintance of an acquaintance. A leading executive who tells me dryly – her habitually sparkling eyes going dark – that she fears life becoming cheap. In the course of the spring and summer of fires, moments of this kind become very much more frequent, harried and anxious exchanges taking place under the collapsing dome of the brown-red skies. Then there are those who communicate through what they do not say, or the colloquy they do not want to have. ‘Oh, let’s not go there,’ urges a fellow parent, quietly, at a gathering. ‘Please,’ the spouse of a friend says one night at a barbecue in a tone of restrained desperation, ‘not now.’ And then there is the dialogue with the scientists: those who have no respite from the maw of facts, and whose training and discipline perhaps make harder the capacity to find hope in the nonlinearity and unpredictability of social progress and great historical change. The respect, compassion and gratitude that I feel towards the scientists of climate and ecology is deep and abiding.

Many people are yet to have their reckoning with the state of things, and they go on with life in various states of unknowing or active denial. In her powerful and thoughtful book Climate Crisis and Consciousness, the Australian psychologist Sally Gillespie offers the wry aside that ‘sex is an easier dinner table conversation than melting glaciers’. Much easier, I think, because there’s no salacious gossip or hidden desire attendant to the climate crisis. Gillespie takes her readers through the inner transformation associated with fidelity to the reality of global warming. She describes the letting go that is involved, the sense of departure, a pain of initiation and transformation as the mysteries of the catastrophe and all their implications start to be revealed. She makes a strong case that to effectively pursue radical hope necessitates intense engagement with the inner world. A transfiguration of this kind is depicted in American filmmaker Josh Fox’s 2016 film How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. There are things, the auteur concludes on the other side of his journey, that are even mightier than the storm, but these – love, community, beauty – should of course inform redoubled efforts to tackle the crisis rather than creating a cushion for passivity or false concession to a collective doom that it remains within our shared power to avoid.

 

THE CONCEPT OF pilgrimage exists across many faiths, but is also an idea now firmly embedded within secular traditions too. To be a pilgrim is to trek to a sacred place – whether Mecca, Jerusalem, Père Lachaise, the Kokoda Track – or the town where one’s ancestors are buried. And every great trip deemed holy by the traveller – whether on foot to Rome, or on Qantas to Anzac Cove – begins with the departure point of leaving home. In John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, the protagonist’s first steps are driven by the terrified recognition of an impending reckoning that he cannot ignore:

In this plight, therefore, he went home and refrained himself as long as he could, that his wife and children should not perceive his distress; but he could not be silent long, because that his trouble increased. Wherefore at length he brake his mind to his wife and children; and thus he began to talk to them: O my dear wife, said he, and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend, am in myself undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me; moreover, I am for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow, both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape can be found, whereby we may be delivered.

Evidence-based science is very different to faith-based conviction – and there is no doubt about the science of anthropogenic climate change, or that we can now objectively be said to be in a state of planetary ecological emergency – but we can still recognise the uncanny echoes in the burden evoked in Bunyan’s tale. Later, once he has embarked on his religious trek, the pilgrim’s progress is challenged by numerous dilemmas, including an encounter with a man named Mistrust who warns of lions in the pathway ahead. The pilgrim answers:

You make me afraid, but whither shall I fly to be safe? If I go back to mine own country, that is prepared for fire and brimstone, and I shall certainly perish there. If I can get to the Celestial City, I am sure to be in safety there. I must venture.

A few years ago I saw a clip of a child piteously raising much the same dilemma before a gathering of adult delegates at a conference: ‘Where can I go to be safe from climate change?’ the girl asked. The pit of truth is that there is nowhere other than here. Bunyan’s pilgrim eventually makes the passage to the Celestial City, but we have no earthly alternative. We are faced with the paradox of our once and future home. Our shared abode has been taken from us by the desecration of the global climate and the savagery done to the fabric of life on Earth, but it remains the only planetary lodgings to which we hold the key.

And still, for all the grievous scars and open lacerations, our planet remains unfathomably bounteous and exquisite, a source of endlessly renewable wonderment. Giant trees of remnant forests still stand and may one day spread again. Bastions of astonishing coral reefs persist and, if all is done right, can perhaps recover. Millions of species and countless billions of creatures endure, instinctively striving for life; and they will burgeon and thrive, given the chance. Earth yet glimmers like a beacon, blue and green with life, and there is pulchritude and joy to be found for as long as we live. As I type this, I hear one of my daughters singing. A playful puppy yelps across the laneway, as dogs have barked in Australia for thousands of years. There are some birds chirruping the beginning of a dusk that is immeasurably beautiful in an opaline sky. We may have rendered the Earth as our City of Destruction, but this magnificent planet, the home to all our homes, is also our Celestial City.

 

WITTING OR NOT, we are all pilgrims now. Every one of us descends from that far distant country, when the world had around just 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prior to the industrial revolution. The global heating emergency is driven primarily by fossil fuel consumption and destructive land use, and the vested interests of the coal, oil and gas corporations, agribusiness giants and their political enablers that have created the conditions of crisis, robbing the human race of our ancestral home in a gentler, safer climate. But none of us get to choose the days or circumstances into which we are born. The journey we are now on is the fate of all living generations and will determine the far future. As science correspondent Peter Brannen writes in The Atlantic, ‘the next few fleeting moments are ours, but they will echo for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years. This is one of the most important times to be alive in the history of life.’

This displacement was not of our choosing, but how we each undertake the odyssey before us is a matter of decision and will. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark – surely a tract for the times – ‘the future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.’ Solnit exhorts us that the tenebrous unknowability of the future is an endless and renewable source of moral and political energy. This is neither to deny hard political realities, nor to evade the immensity of the full logic of the best science we have, but to go onwards into the shadow with purpose, intent and open to possibilities. Even in the face of climate change, there is natality as well as morbidity in our circumstances. Homes can be re-created with time and application. New edifices can be built on the actual or remembered foundations of the old. What is wise, kind and decent may still be carried and nourished through the gyre.

There is hope, but only through action. As unflinching an author as David Wallace-Wells nonetheless returns to the decisive power of human agency: that the climate emergency is a problem of power and politics, the solutions to which depend not on scientific understanding nor tech breakthroughs, but on our shared will to change course – what he terms the anthropic principle. Our duty in the face of the knowledge of climate emergency is to refuse resignation or nihilism and to instead manifest the greatest possible determination and exertion for the systemic change that is necessary, the pilgrimage to find our way home. As Wallace-Wells writes, whatever the challenges, ‘you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life.’ The mission remains unchanged: to secure an Earth capable of nurturing life in all its magnificent diversity.

We all have a role: a responsibility not to be ruled by our fears and darkest calculations, but to evaluate and act upon our options for making the most effective contribution. None of this is to say that we will not grieve for lives and places lost and damage that cannot be undone. Some detachment, too, is essential. None of us can single-handedly take on and solve the problems of the world: but all of us are capable of taking mighty action. The task for each is to think through the greatest influence that we can have, working together, through all the domains and institutions of power and sway in which we operate – whether these are schools, businesses, workplaces, professional associations, neighbourhoods, clubs, places of worship, electorates or networks; to contribute as greatly as we can to shifting the vested interests that are burning the world; to enable the structural transformation that is needed. Greenpeace is dedicated to this work as our greatest task, as are many others with whom we make common collaborative cause. In practical terms, the solutions are clear – the technologists and policymakers are abundantly ready with the tools and instruments for our transformation if the institutional corruption that is denying the common good can be overcome. One recent expert study from Monash University’s ClimateWorks describes how Australia could achieve net zero emissions by as soon as 2035.

We must venture. There is no other way forward than that labour of love, in all its varied forms, so best now to make the commitment, to be all in. There are alliances to be forged; massive polluters to be challenged; money to be moved and reinvested; plans to be created; great things to be built; people to be cared for; and an injured planet to be nurtured. Everyone can do their bit, each to their greatest ability. Human beings, working together, can achieve just about anything. And as long as we live, life itself is our ally because nature will resurge if given the chance.

Three things are true on this pilgrimage of hope and purpose. The shocks are absolutely brutal and will continue. Life and love persist in the world. And there is urgent work to be done.

 

References

BBC 2019, ‘Australia bushfires: Victim takes home’s remains to parliament’, 2 December, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50634790

  1. Biddle et al 2020, ‘Nearly 80% of Australians affected in some way by the bushfires, new survey shows’, 18 February, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/nearly-80-of-australians-affected-in-some-way-by-the-bushfires-new-survey-shows-131672

Borunda, A 2020, ‘What a 100-degree day in Siberia really means’, National Geographic, 23 June, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/06/what-100-degree-day-siberia-means-climate-change/

Brannen, P 2021, ‘The dark secrets of the Earth’s deep past’, The Atlantic, March, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/03/extreme-climate-change-history/617793/

CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Government 2020, State of the Climate 2020, https://www.csiro.au/en/Showcase/state-of-the-climate

Dietzel, A, Bode, M, Connolly, S and Hughes, T 2020, ‘Long-term shifts in the colony size structure of coral populations along the Great Barrier Reef’, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 287:1936, 14 October, https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.1432

Fox, J 2016, How to let go of the world and love all the things climate can’t change, International WOW Company in association with HBO Documentary Films.

Gillespie, S 2020, Climate crisis and consciousness, New York: Routledge, p. iv.

Greenpace (n.d.), Heaps Better, https://www.greenpeace.org.au/heapsbetter

Lindsey, R 2020, ‘Climate change: Atmospheric carbon dioxide’, Climate.org, 14 August, https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide

Malos, A and Skarbek, A 2021, ‘Scott Morrison has embraced net-zero emissions – now it’s time to walk the talk’, The Conversation, 4 February, https://theconversation.com/scott-morrison-has-embraced-net-zero-emissions-now-its-time-to-walk-the-talk-154478

Marris, E 2020, ‘How to stop reaking out and tackle climate change’, 10 Jan, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/opinion/sunday/how-to-help-climate-change.html

NASA 2020, ‘Apollo 8: Earthrise’, https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/apollo-8-earthrise

Ritter, D 2017, The coal truth, Perth: UWA Publishing.

Solnit, R 2016, Hope in the dark, London: Canongate, 4th edition, p. 5.

Turse, N 2020, ‘There are more people being displaced than ever before’, The Nation, 16 November, https://www.thenation.com/article/world/global-warming-displacement/

UNHCR 2019, ‘Global trends: Forced displacement in 2018’, UNHCR, 20 June, https://www.unhcr.org/5d08d7ee7.pdf

Wallace Wells, D 2019, The uninhabitable earth: A story of the future, New York: Penguin Books Limited, p. 1.

Note: some previous versions of passages of this essay have appeared in Ritter, D 2019, ‘Our private home, our global home’, 61J, 1 October, https://plus61j.net.au/climate/private-home-global-home/ and Ritter, D 2020, ‘When people work together we can achieve practically anything’, Pro Bono Australia, 10 December, https://probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2020/12/when-people-work-together-we-can-achieve-practically-anything/

 

 

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