I begin to grasp the almost hallucinatory scale of what is going on.
Home: the place one lives permanently, especially as a member of a
family or household. Synonyms include habitat, domain, place of origin,
cradle, domestic space.
I know a glaciologist who spends
much of her time deep in ice. Like many of her colleagues, Birgitte has
found and measured pieces of the climate jigsaw for herself. She can see
how and where they fit in the future picture of our shared home, to the
point where she sometimes wishes she knew less. Yet like many of her
colleagues in the field, she incarnates a very human paradox.
scientists like her, whether to bring another human life into the
overcrowded, rapidly-warming Anthropocene presents not so much a
question as a brutal dilemma. After some soul-searching, Birgitte
decided to have a baby, despite knowing that before her son reaches the
age of 100 that futurologists blithely forecast for him, he will inhabit
a world inconceivably different from our own, most of it uninhabitable.
When I ask her how she decided to take this colossal gamble, she goes
silent for a moment.
Biology is the short, easy answer, she says
eventually. But you can over-ride biology, and some choose to. The
longer, trickier truth is cognitive dissonance.
Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability
to carry two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the
ability to function.”
Birgitte has first-rate intelligence. And she uses it, daily, to divide herself in two.
One version of her, the scientist, has its eyes wide open and it grieves.
The other, the mother, is blind. And with a great, deep force, it trusts.
April 2015, the Saharan storms sent clouds of dust blowing 2,000 miles
to southern England where it fell as “blood rain”. For a couple of weeks
London wore a coat of gritty red. The natural phenomenon coincided with
a heatwave: the Saharan dust, combined with wind-borne ammonia-based
fertilizer and local discharges from traffic and industry caused a spike
in air pollution. But the main topic of discussion during those odd,
hot April days was not the dull, everyday fact of a dirty fossil-fuelled
world but the exciting freakishness of the red grit.
The blood rain.
The choked, pinkish sky.
The trees, roads, cars, and buildings coated in granules.
years on, Article 50 has been triggered, a fractious post-Brexit
Britain is unhitching itself from Europe, and once again London is
decked in red. Not rusty Saharan dust this time, but Merrie-England,
pillar-box, heritage, Virgin-logo red. It’s on life-size models of Royal
beefeaters, on plastic phone booth piggy-banks, and on the Union Jacks
that plaster umbrellas, boxer shorts, aprons, and mouse-pads: it’s as
if, since the referendum, Yesteryear has foreseen a furiously themed
At Heathrow, I buy a plastic bottle of
water from a display marked – oh clever, cynical marketers -
REHYDRATION, millions of which end up daily in landfill, or in ocean
gyres, or wash up on the shore of a Pacific atoll where hermit crabs set
up home inside the heads of plastic dolls. On the plane I sip from it
as I read an article about survivalists – many of them Silicon Valley
billionaires – prepping for global catastrophe scenarios with bunkers,
barbed-wire fencing, ammo and airstrips. Knowing how the system works,
they’re aware that when the Big One comes, in whatever form, no
government can help. They’ve given FEMA, the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, a cheery nickname: “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful
Like the hermit crabs, the preppers have found their plastic doll’s head on a distant atoll.
They’re all set to become its new, living brain.
Question: What are the first signs that your home is becoming unreliable?
evidence including erratic seasons, disappearing wildlife, Biblical
storms, vinegar seas and the greening Antarctic, not everyone feels
ready to acknowledge the growing unhomeliness – the Germans call it Unheimlichkeit, the Danes uhygge
- of our world. But as I read about the preppers it strikes me that no
matter how fiercely we resist as individuals, our collective
subconscious – call it the hive mind of our species – has not been idle.
It, too, has been busy prepping.
since the great flood described in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of
Gilgamesh, apocalypse stories have been with us, seamlessly morphing to
reflect the contemporary anxieties of successive eras. Nuclear holocaust
was the nightmare-fuel of my own generation. Around the same time the
BBC aired The Survivors, a post-plague drama that foreshadowed
epidemics such as AIDS, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, bird and swine
flu, SARS, Ebola, Zika and whatever is next on the grim roll-call of
public health emergencies. At the turn of the century, the Y2K bug
sparked new fears. Today, cyber-disruption and even collapse is no
longer an if. Like the repercussions of anthropogenic ecological and
climate disaster it is a when, a where, a how bad.
And all along,
consistently and faithfully, the books, comics, screen entertainments
and computer games that form the staples of popular culture have been
actively responding. The Mad Max trilogy, which spawned one of
the genre’s most successful video games, dates from 1979. It’s been a
decade since Darwinian reality shows first began sending contestants
into jungles to unearth roots, eat insects, drink urine and shed
frustrated tears. Anyone who has encountered The Walking Dead or The Road, Margaret Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy or Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, played Rage or Metro 2033 has consciously or unconsciously been referring to a road-map of the future.
this era of preposterous dreams and dark nightmares, entertainment and
doom are interconnected escape industries. Both are instructing us on
how to either leave the neighbourhood, or hack the one we have.
journeys will be short, others long. As my plane begins its descent
into the Moroccan desert town of Ouazazerte, I read about another
desert, a planet 2.4 light years from us. The Earth-like Proxima B, I
learn, “could support liquid water in a range of different orbital
The headline suggests two options: A Fiery Hellscape or a Future Home.
Flip a coin.
there’s a lacuna. Where is the apocalypse itself in these
before-and-aftermath fantasies? In many such narratives, it is
summarized as swiftly as possible or almost absent: a fait accompli.
We have no trouble packing our Go-bag in expectation of a
world-changing event. And some of us are positively eager to imagine the
post-collapse. But almost without realizing it, in the process of
inhabiting these two frames, we have edited out the central image of the
triptych: the unheimlich, uhyggelig part where the Great Event unfolds and millions or billions die.
Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan drama Dr Faustus, there is a moment
when Faustus asks the Devil why he is on Earth, rather than in Hell.
“How comes it then that you are out of Hell?” He asks.
Mephistopholes replies: “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.”
ball of fifteen-million-degree plasma we call the sun began 4.6 billion
years ago with a cloud of gas and filth drifting through the galaxy,
which collapsed into a nebula to form our solar system. Few organisms on
Earth can survive without its seething fusion reactions. We know this
viscerally and intellectually. No wonder ancient civilizations from the
Egyptians to the Aztecs recognized our violent ruling star as an entity
to be feared, worshipped and revered; no wonder it spawned a thousand
myths and fictions. No wonder these include one of civilization’s
best-known judgement narratives.