“For the ten thousands years that constitute human civilization, we’ve existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged; globally averaged, it’s swung in the narrowest of ranges…warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centers of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that the mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water to those plans and valleys year-round; it was the “correct” temperature for the marvellously diverse planet that seems right to us. And every aspect of our civilization reflects that particular world. We built our great cities next to seas that have remained tame and level, or at altitudes high enough that disease-bearing mosquitos could not overwinter. We refined the farming that has swelled our numbers to take full advantage of that predictable heat and rainfall; our rice and corn and what can’t imagine another earth either….
But we no longer live on that planet. That earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. It needs a new name. Eaarth. Or Monnde, or Tierrre, Errde. It still looks familiar enough – we’re still the third rock out from the sun, still three-quarters water. Gravity still pertains; we’re still earth-like. But it’s odd enough to constantly remind us how profoundly we’ve altered the only place we’ve ever known.”
Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet
Writing the Australian landscape isn’t just about documenting what’s in front of us at this moment in history. It’s about capturing, documenting and making sense of a country that’s rapidly changing.
Extreme weather events and industrial processes like mining and coal seam gas are changing our rural and urban landscapes before our eyes. The best writing not only helps us make sense of what is happening, it also inspire us to act to protect the places we love in an era of climate change.
Writers are in a unique position to help their communities make sense of what is happening and motivate them to get involved in the struggle to protect the country we love so much.
I come to this conference not just as a writer, but also as an activist. And as an activist, I understand how powerful words are as tools in the struggle to reduce carbon pollution and tackle the environmental challenges facing Australia.
I often ask young people who are involved in environmental campaigning what made them first decide to get involved in doing this work. And frequently their answers refer to a book, an article, or a blog post, that alerted them to what is happening to our planet and called for them to get involved. I have heard people – of all ages – cite books that have changed their lives – from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bill McKibben’s books or 2012 Rolling Stone article (Global Warming's Terrifying New Math), Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species and David Suzuki’s autobiography. When I was in high school I read Arundhati Roy’s collection of essays, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, and it strongly shaped the worldview that I still hold today.
That’s why I write. Not just to help me make sense of the world, but to inspire others to save it. And writing isn’t enough; it’s one tool in my toolbox of social change, but not the only one. Our words are important – they are one way of making our voices heard – but they are not the only way. We have the power to use our writing as a platform for our voices to make an even bigger impact; through book tours and speeches and high school workshops and mentoring young people, we can make our writing the start, not the end, of how we make a difference.
I see more and more writing about environmental change that blends the traditional science and data angle of non-fiction with personal reactions and stories. In Australia, Anna Krien’s exploration of the Tasmanian forestry issue with Into the Woods, and Jo Chandler’s outstanding and deeply personal exploration of climate change in Feeling the Heat are my two favourite examples. Internationally, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Bill McKibben’s Eaarth also stand out. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood tackle the same issues from the genre of fiction.
One of Atwood’s characters in Year of the Flood, Toby, reflects on her past as she endures a dystopic future:
Surely I was an optimistic person back then, she thinks. Back there. I woke up whistling. I knew there were things wrong in the world, they were referred to, I’d seen them in the onscreen news. But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.
By the time she’d reached college, the wrongness had moved closer. She remembers the oppressive sensation, like the waiting all the time . . . Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.
We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep whistling…
In Atwood’s acknowledgments at the end, she writes: ‘The Year of the Flood is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact.’
This kind of writing, which deeply inspired by own book Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic, hints at the role of the writer in exploring the psychological dimensions and repercussions of a changed climate.
The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “Solastalgia” a decade ago. The word describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change. As opposed to nostalgia – the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home — "solastalgia" is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. Albrecht has worked on research showing the phenomena to exist both in communities experiencing of persistent drought in rural New South Wales, and communities affected by large-scale open-cut coal mining on individuals in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW. In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affects that are exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control as the change occurs.
Australian writer Sharyn Munro documents some of the many stories of the people who will well understand “solastalgia” in her book ‘Rich Land, Wasteland: How Coal is Killing Australia’.
“I am talking of an invasion of our country, a taking over of land and a clearing out of people,” she writes. “And I mean this literally.”
Munro is also explicit about her views on the role of the writer in an era of rampant coal mining and climate change: “I don’t pretend to be unbiased; how could I be, after what I’ve seen and heard?” she says. “I am unashamedly giving voice to the other side, the Australians whose plight has been ignored, downplayed or dismissed. And they are not paying me to do so.”
As we write about the changes happening to our country in an era of climate change, this is the challenge I have to everyone at this conference: make your voice heard as loudly as you can. Help people understand what is happening in language that is real to them, and that motivates them to close the book then get active.
At the start of this year, Australia endured an ‘angry summer,’ defined by extreme weather events across much of the continent including record-breaking heat, severe bushfires, extreme rainfall and damaging flooding. Extreme heatwaves and catastrophic bushfire conditions during the Angry Summer were made worse by climate change.
How many of us have been able to successfully write about these things, in a way that inspires people to act? We are alive during an important moment in history. Those of us alive today are the last generation that get the chance to help avoid the ‘tipping points’ after which there is no return to a safe, stable climate. As writers, we have an immense responsibility, and opportunity, to use our voices to help make this happen.