This is my next book, due out in summer 2020. Most of the story takes place in the latter half of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, and is about a love affair between a man and a woman who come from opposite sides of the Brexit divide and from very different backgrounds. But the story is told by a future historian in 2276.
In the third quarter of 2019, for the first time ever, more electricity generated in the UK came from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. 20% of the total came from wind power. We ought to be celebrating this milestone.
Of course this is not enough, and of course electricity generation is only one of the sources of human-generated CO2 in the atmosphere. There is also transport to address, and deforestation, and meat production, and fossil fuel use for heating… And if there is to be any possibility in the long run of establishing some kind of equilibrium again, the human population of the Earth needs to stabilise.
But the growth of renewable power is something to celebrate all the same. Windpower was a hippy pipedream when I was young, but now it’s a giant industry that generates one fifth of the electricity we use in Britain. People say nothing is being done about global warming, but this isn’t true, and is not helpful because it just invites cynicism and resignation. Some of the right things are being done, and on a pretty large scale too. They just need to be scaled up even more.
I was very pleased to be asked to take part in the ‘writer’s rebel’ event last night as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest going on in London. The request was that I do a short reading of my own choice, as one of a number of writers doing the same. Having agonised all week about what to read, I ended up sitting down and writing the following a few hours before the event:
The fragile Earth… The delicate web of life… Nature as a wounded thing, desperately in need of our protection…
The ecological crisis, it seems to me, has tended to be presented in those kinds of terms and I’m struck by the fact that this is really a new variation of an old story, a story in which ‘man’ is the master, and the rest of creation lies stretched out beneath ‘him’. (I’m using the traditional gendered terms: it’s worth noting also that in many mythologies, Earth is personified as a woman.)
“God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”Genesis, 1:26
Things have changed of course since that was written and in our new, ecological version of the story, humankind is not so much the imperious lord of creation, but rather its custodian or curator. But in the new version, as in the old, humans are powerful, humans are godlike, humans are strong, while nature is weak: a wounded animal by the roadside, perhaps, or a beggar holding out a bowl. It is something vulnerable that needs us.
One problem with this, it seems to me, is that vulnerable things that need us can invite a tough response. You can walk away from wounded animals and beggars and still carry on with your life. We all do it. ‘I’ve got enough problems of my own to worry about just now,’ we say to ourselves.
And this, after all, in practice even if not in theory, is the response most people give to the environmental crisis: ‘We’ve got enough problems to worry about already. The environment will have to wait.’ You can get a measure of the extent to which that’s true by imagining a world in which the media and Parliament and the general public expended, lets say a tenth, or a twentieth, or even one hundredth as much time and energy on the climate crisis, as they are doing now on the actually rather trivial and local question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
And it’s not just Parliament or the media. If I’m brutally honest, even for me, the climate crisis is quite a few rungs down from the top of the list of things I worry about most frequently. Even people who are worried, even people who make some effort to speak out, aren’t anything like worried enough.
And I’m wondering if part of the problem is that we’ve been prone to think about this the wrong way round? Wounded things that need us can be walked away from, but the idea of the rest of creation as being vulnerable and under our dominion is actually an infantile fantasy, like the fantasy of a little boy who plays at being big and fierce when really he depends on the care of others for everything he has.
The Earth isn’t really fragile. It’s five billion trillion tonnes of matter. Drop a hydrogen bomb on it, and it just shrugs. Life isn’t really that fragile either. Life on Earth is getting on for four billion years old, and has survived asteroid strikes that completely blotted out the sun, and periods of cold so intense that almost the whole planet was covered in ice… As for ‘Nature’… well, nature is everything, and we’re inside it, totally and utterly subject to its laws. How can that be seen as weak?
So perhaps the story we should be telling isn’t the story about fragile Earth and delicate nature, but the opposite? We aren’t the masters of nature, in fact nature is ours (or our mistress is you prefer to give Mother Nature her traditional gender). But nature is far stricter than any human ruler. It can’t be bargained with, or flattered, or coaxed, because it doesn’t listen to us, it doesn’t hear us at all, it just responds to what we do, applying its own rules with an unbending impartiality that makes even the hardest and most rigid of bureaucrats look like bleeding hearts. ‘Do this and the Earth gets hotter, do that and it won’t,’ says Nature, stifling a yawn and looking at its watch as it leans back in its office chair. ‘Those are the rules. It’s entirely up to you. I really don’t mind either way.’
And it really doesn’t, any more than electricity minds whether or not you stick your fingers into a socket, or gravity cares if you jump off a cliff.
The truth is that we and our loved ones, all our achievements, our societies, our cultures, our histories— all of the things we value and treasure and that give our life meaning— are just a small and recent outgrowth on the surface of a ball of rock that doesn’t even know we’re there. The question isn’t ‘How do we help the poor fragile Earth?’ or ‘How do we mend the wounded web of nature?’ because the Earth is fine and nature as ever is in perfect health. The real question is a much simpler one: ‘Do we want to be here or not?’
President Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland has been greeted with ridicule and cited as evidence of his mental instability and inability to govern. I’m not so sure. The very existence of America demonstrates that countries grow by acquiring territory from others, whether by conquest, manipulation or purchase. Alaska, at the time another very sparsely populated Arctic territory, was obtained by purchase, and Trump is not the first American president to propose buying Greenland as well: Truman suggested it in 1946.
Greenland was a strategic asset even then because of its position in the western Atlantic. And now it’s far more valuable. As the Arctic melts, new seaways are opening up to the North of Canada, for which Greenland would be a gateway; Greenland’s mineral wealth is becoming more accessible; and Greenland itself is a very substantial piece of real estate -at 2 million square kilometres it’s three times the size of Texas – with a tiny population (less than 60,000), and a small and distant mother country (Denmark). Farming is already possible in a small area of the country, and global warming will make more and more of its territory available for development and human settlement. As I tried to show in America City, as many parts of the world become uninhabitable due to global warming, Arctic territory is going to become a very valuable asset indeed.
The history of oil demonstrates that when big powers need something that’s in another country, they find ways of taking it. (So does the history of rubber, or spices, or gold…) I’m sure Trump has blurted something out that is being seriously discussed behind the scenes. And perhaps it’s not even a case of blurting it out, but rather of deliberately softening the ground. The more often a thing is spoken about, the more possible it seems.
Greenland would be laughably easy for America to acquire. I very much doubt if Trump will be the last President to talk of taking it, and my bet would be that Greenland will indeed be annexed to America at some point in the coming century.
Meanwhile the Amazon is burning. The politics of climate change are truly upon us. A time will soon come when obsessing about whether or not Britain should be part of a European bloc will look like the displacement activity it really is.
George Hrab has recorded an audio version of my story ‘The Peacock Cloak’ (a particular favourite of mine), here on Starship Sofa.
Spectology have recorded not one but two very detailed discussions of Dark Eden. The ‘pre-read’ discussion is here. The ‘post-read’ discussion (i.e. the one in which spoilers are allowed) is here. They like the book a lot, which I’m obviously delighted about.
Following these two podcasts, Adrian from Spectology did an additional podcast in the form of an interview with me, which you can find here.
Beneath the World, a Sea comes as an ebook and in hardback on April 4th.
(1) April 6th, 1-2pm, I’ll be signing at Forbidden Planet, Burleigh St, Cambridge.
(2) April 9th, 7-9pm, at Waterstones, Norwich (follow link for ticket information), I’ll be talking about Beneath the World, a Sea, with the great Tony Ballantyne. The also great Imogen Church (who recorded the wonderful audio version of Daughter of Eden), will do a reading from the book.
(3) April 11th, 6-7.30, at Waterstones, Cambridge, a launch celebration (please RSVP as per invite below).