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Living with climate dread (Unearthed: Last days of the Anthropocene)

The soundtrack for climate dread is surely Radiohead's Amnesiac. "I'm a reasonable man, get off my case"...

There was a moment before New Years Eve where I felt surrounded by fire. Most of the Great Dividing Range and Adelaide were burning. I felt keenly aware of the leafy Dandenongs and Black Saturday areas, twelve years regrown and ready to burn again. A fire broke out in an outer suburb of Melbourne and it seemed there was nowhere safe. I felt a sensation that I had previously only felt while swimming in the ocean: the enormity of nature, of the planet, and what a conceit, what a joke it was to think of taming it. I could learn to adopt the rhythms of the sea and I could get along okay, make my way, but if I tried to fight the waves directly I would tire myself for naught and be tossed aside without consequence. This is the sensation of witnessing the summer of #AustraliaBurns.

Everyone is unsettled. It is too large to comprehend, too big to hold in mind. I spent a week with my family in the country. "There must be a lot of arsonists", my aunt offered on Christmas Day, apropos of nothing. I thought this was a pre-emptive clap against mentioning climate change, but now I think it is more a plea for a human sized problem. If it is arsonists, we will be able to do something.

Post-Christmas lunch we were sitting on the lawn, deck chairs in a circle looking over the potato crop in the front paddock. My uncle raised the topic of how awful the bushfires were and said something about the causes. It seemed to hang in the air, but maybe that was only in my mind. I considered, and decided that I would be the fly in the ointment who brought up climate change. My cousins' seven kids played on the lawn while we chatted. Imagine never hearing the adults speak of climate change except to hear it pooh-poohed. Let them know there are other ways of living, they need not be alone.

My uncle exploded, as I and undoubtedly all my grown cousins expected. How could one degree of warming cause this? he demanded. I struggled to piece together my understanding of statistics and systemic environmental effects while he composed himself and declared it not worth debating as we wouldn't change each other's minds. I agreed and felt guilty for being such an impolite guest. Climate change will happen but I still want my family to tolerate my company some years more. Yet maybe I need to be prepared to have a hundred times more impolite conversations, if we will ever make any collective progress. This part's not clear to me yet.

I reactivated my lapsed library membership and tracked down a copy of Meanjin's Spring 2019 issue, published mid September, which has an essay called "Unearthed: Last days of the Anthropocene" by James Bradley. It talks about how a certain scale of climate effects are already locked in, yet we still largely talk as if this is up for debate, and we might pull the global action equivalent of an all-nighter and magically ace the test. Nope. this exam has progressive grading and we've already failed the past couple of decades. We're now in the position of continuing our denial and flaming out spectacularly, or making a last ditch effort and maybe, *maybe* having a shot of squeaking through on a passing grade.

Bradley says "I don't know how to think about this, or what to do...for the most part we manage to distract ourselves with the business of today and tomorrow and the day after that, carefully avoiding discussion of what happens in a decade or two. ...We cannot talk about the problem because we are caught between our desire to act and our awareness that we are part of the problem." I found this essay a memorable distillation of the feeling of one's mind going blank with terror, dread and inevitability, trying to comprehend what climate change means and will mean.

It also offers some markers of hope, but they are less well fleshed out. Maybe because so much needs to change, it's not clear exactly in which direction, or how it will start.

I ate a beautifully ripe cherry this afternoon. Plump and rich. What a luxury. Is this something I'll recount one day as a tale of the olden times? I'm going to get a mortgage, but who can say if the banks will outlast it. Bradley mentions "the dual necessity of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will". We currently practice the doublethink of knowing what is coming and doing nothing about it. somehow, we have to come to another kind of doublethink, knowing what is coming, and acting anyway.

I don't know what that looks like, but I'm going to keep alert for signs.

As Ask Polly advises, "Are you an asshole if you don’t choose despair every single day when you wake up, simply because other people are suffering somewhere? I think not...[L]ook for joy everywhere you can, every day, from the first hour you're awake until the moment you fall asleep. Stop torturing yourself and make joy the first priority of every single day."


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