It’s been a year. A year since swathes of my country were consumed by fire, entire townships reduced to ash, while families escaped on boats, choking on smoke and heat. A year since at least one billion sentient beings perished in unspeakable pain.
The otherworldly orange skies here in Australia last summer seemed horrific beyond comprehension. But since then the entire west coast of America passed through a similar Apocalypse and the Amazon burnt for the second year in a row. Orange skies seem a ‘new normal’ now.
As Christmas draws close, I wonder what this summer has in store for Australia. In doing so, I’m visited by three ghosts who are not unfamiliar to me. I am 33 years old — the Ghosts of Climates Past, Present, and Future have been with me all my life.
The Ghost of Climate Future
For the longest time, beaches have made me anxious. Worst are the most familiar ones — those I visited as a child, playing on their vast expanse of sand.
I see them now, eroded, withered versions of their former selves, an index of what we’ve already lost, a warning of how little time we have left.
I feel anxious because looking out at protracted beaches summons to mind a time when there is nothing left to erode. The Ghost of Climate Future hovers silently in the background.
Time spent at the beach is central to our culture in coastal Australia — it is one of the things that makes living here so wonderful. Strange then that in all our discussions of climate futures — in our wildest apocalyptic visions — we never consider the prospect of a world without beaches.
Perhaps it’s best not to think of it?
It’s like the confrontation with our own mortality, writ large. Except it’s not just our lives at stake, but everything — everything in this universe our human brains can find reason to value is under threat. So, as with death, we suppress the thought.
As a child, I secretly imagined I would be exempt from death — it just didn’t feel like something that could happen to me. Until recently, despite my vocal concerns, I secretly imagined something similar about the climate: somehow everything would be alright. Apocalypses were too far removed from my everyday experience to really believe in.
But the Ghost of Climate Future cannot be avoided forever. Every eroded beach portends of beachless futures, every unprecedented fire or hurricane speaks of worse to come.
We’re told to cling to hope, but as I look toward the future, it seems like Apocalypse Unending.
The Ghost of Climate Past
I cast my gaze the other way and before me floats the Ghost of Climate Past. It haunts me with a thousand missed opportunities — decades of inaction, back when there still was time.
If the Future caused anxiety, the Past evokes rage. I feel enraged — not only by the corporate class and corporate media’s distortion of climate science and the politicians who made careers from climate denialism — but also by the entire generations who went along with their spin and chose comforting lies over inconvenient truths. I resent all those who voted for climate inaction not just in one election, but time after time after time…
The rage I feel when I look to the past, I’m sure future generations will feel looking back at me — at my half-hearted activism, at my failure to make this a bigger priority in my life.
How will future generations cope with the hauntings of this ghost? How will our climate inaction look in the long-term? I’d say the ‘ordinary Germans’ who did not raise their voice against the horrors of the Holocaust might be the closest historical analogy. Will we be judged in similar terms? Or worse?
Assuming our species survives, it will take centuries or millennia to restabilise the global ecology. In the meantime, we will experience droughts and floods and storms on levels never known before, while food becomes scarce and we live behind barricades to shelter us from rising seas.
Sustained suffering from the recklessness of a few members of a few generations in one short century. How will they look back on that, on them, on us? They’ll know we sat for at least forty years on solid evidence that we were warming the world with our pollution, and failed to act until it was far too late. With such a vision of their Past, what justice will they mete upon us?
Our times will become the basis of foundation myths for new societies — a cautionary tale of unchecked greed and a fundamental lack of awareness. Our times will be etched for millennia in the collective consciousness as a reminder of the destructive, blind accumulative tendencies that lie dormant in our nature.
It is possible that this haunting by an inglorious Past may result in a more mature civilisation that is cogniscent of the risks of letting capital and greed run wild and of the need to provide for not only present but also future generations. Yet, equally possible is a more conservative response, serving as the rationale for what Wainwright and Mann refer to as ‘Climate Leviathan’: an authoritarian system designed to keep our destructive human nature in check. Like Thomas Hobbes in the Middle Ages, they may look back, remorsefully on the worst aspects of human nature and seek not to entrust it with freedom ever again…
The Ghost of Climate Present
Here, I suppose, I’m supposed to be hopeful? To tell of how we still have time to turn it all around? If the Ghost of Climate Present offers such solace, it does so paradoxically.
The Ghost of Climate Present haunts me in more complicated ways: not with fear or rage but with the more complex emotions of powerlessness and shame. I feel powerless because of the limited scope for meaningful action; ashamed because of my imbrication in a system that has produced this mess.
I know my individual actions can achieve little when the machine of capitalism continues its unceasing destruction, a machine in which I am reduced to a shameful little cog.
But yes, perhaps this ghost offers us a little sliver of hope: hope that through doing whatever we can now, we might redeem the sins presented by the Ghost of Climate Past. Hope that in preparing for the uncertainties ahead we might not need to repress the Ghost of Climate Future, but look it in the face with the bravery of realism. After all, we can’t live without hope…
Yet, the Ghost of Climate Present also offers a gift more powerful that hope — and that’s the gift of gratitude.
On bright summer days the joyful sound of birds still lifts my soul. I still feel immensely grateful to be here during this time — perhaps the last time when such beauty can still be found in abundance. I’m grateful I’m still here, grateful it’s still here — like the dying loved one we cherish more than ever.