A child screams in the night. You go to them and they tell you about a nightmare. They won’t settle unless you acknowledge it, but you don’t want to wake up the whole house. So you tell them stories to calm them down. None of this matters and it won’t be real in the morning. Sleep is what matters for now. And calm.
The talk around declaring a climate emergency is seldom about whether it is, in fact, an emergency. IPCC author and professor of political science Bronwyn Hayward points to the moments when an emergency has been declared and the way bad actors have capitalised on it. Think of the state of emergency that appeared after 9/11: half a million Iraqis lost their lives before waves of tension and fear rippled back to murders in Christchurch. Think of the politician you trust the least and imagine what they might choose to do with a suspension of due process.
Still, it is ‘an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action’ (Mirriam Webster). It was in the 70s and now that our energy systems are still mostly based on fossil fuels and our methane-belching livestock out-mass us ten to one in New Zealand, it is more urgent than ever.
Many opponents seem to believe the problem somehow lacks the magnitude. Paula Bennett, the former Minister for Climate Change Issues placed it alongside the Christchurch earthquake for reference. There is no comparison when you look at the numbers: 185 people died in the earthquake while 250,000 is the low estimate of annual fatalities from climate change. Ten thousand homes were damaged beyond repair in the earthquake while increases in the severity of natural disasters displace hundreds of millions annually. The earthquakes ended, while climate change is just getting started. There won’t be an end, or even a reduction, to this in our lifetimes. This argument is about resonance rather than magnitude. Others dismiss the declaration as pointless because that would be symbolic; then they switch to talking about the national flag, an actual symbol.
Kurt Vonnegut tells a story of two pieces of yeast discussing the possible purposes of their lives while they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. They couldn’t see that their purpose was to create champagne. The same can be said for humans as they extract and burn fossils, rolling the atmosphere back to a state when the sun was cooler; trapping energy so quickly that fish poach to death in rivers and bats fall from the sky. We may be the last few people who get to decide whether all of the things we’ve made amount to any more than the dust inside a gigantic evolutionary reboot.
There is no single explanation for this blind spot: in fact, it has become an entire field of study, often chosen by coral scientists (they have less to do now that the reefs have collapsed). Some, on the other hand, stand outside parliament every day and have done so for over two months now. At their centre is Ollie Langridge, the man who could not take it anymore. He got up from his desk one day and went to a hardware store to make a sign: Declare climate change emergency now.
Ollie smiles ruefully when people tell him to get a job. He has one, the CEO of his own multinational. Sometimes he breaks away from conversations to pick up calls or opens a laptop to organise a few things. Despite this, he is always disarmingly present. On the lawn, there is time for everything since we are recognising a national suspension of belief and that means stopping to consider the moment. I look at the driveway leading to the tree and tell him that this is the true set of Waiting For Godot. Ollie and Jim, both people of great agency, hated the play about waiting. It resonates inside prisons and other places where there is nothing to do but cling to hope with scant foundations. Kate is prepared to humor me and together we are Vladimir and Estragon: two hobos struggling with our boots and forever checking hopefully inside our hats.
Let us do something, while we have the chance! it is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed … But at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.— Vladimir, Waiting for Godot.
Time passes. We’re in a play about waiting: a show where every day is a mirror of the one before and slapstick dances with despair. You can almost hear Ollie’s thoughts echoing Samuel Beckett’s Unnameable: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’. It has run to 78 acts now. Every day there is an encouragement, sometimes there is ridicule and always there is company. The climate group Millions of Mothers join once a week, some Extinction Rebels, a wandering priest and classics scholar, a collection of others. People come to introduce themselves and chat: IPCC authors, schoolkids, activists, and politicians. Ollie vowed to eat a bit of the lawn if certain members of the blue side came for a korero about climate change, so that is yet another thing to anticipate.
People still cry for more evidence when we could drown in that before the seas rise. Pick a corner of your life and it will be affected by the increase in tension that accompanies climate change. If you’re younger than thirty-five you have never known a colder than average winter. If you escaped here from a war-torn country oil and water and crop failure will have something to do with it. If you live near a mountain it has a third less ice now. If your home is near the sea the insurance companies have it on a list. If you have children they will look back from a point where knowingly increasing the heat is the height of vandalism and they will ask why it took you so long to see that.
Is it an emergency? That’s one word for it. A literal definition of the Anthropocene can also be ‘the end of the world as we know it’. Science fiction author William Gibson called it a failure of the imagination, while philosopher Tim Moreton coined his own term, ‘Hyperobject’ to describe things that extend so massively across space and time that we can’t properly comprehend them. Moreton suggests that it’s also the end of the word ‘world’ because that used to imply something boundless, and ours is showing some very clear examples of the end of things. Another purely empirical description of this moment in time is ‘the sixth great extinction’, a phrase that also applies directly to New Zealand, where rates are particularly high.
To place this moment, imagine Finding Nemo where most of the creatures are as fictitious as unicorns. Think of removing Father Christmas because the North Pole lost it’s ice or abandon The Jungle Book because no one could imagine drinking from a river. The place we’re headed for will be cut deeply with the markings of our own actions; publishers can tell you there was a shift in the way we describe that too. Sci-fi turned into speculative fiction since we don’t have to wonder about the heating and melting, it is already here. Now we just wonder how we’ll act.
The earthquake was a tangible emergency where we knew what was needed and what we had to do, while somehow, with climate change, we can’t quite agree. Do we displace workers or stop exploring for gas? Do we stop mining for coal or does the international price of milk powder matter more? Will my next flight so enrich the world that the near-permanent increase to temperature it represents matters less?
These are simple questions with hard answers, but since none of us can escape the emissions alone (vegan food needs tractors and transport too) we all live in an age of hypocrisy. It is more proof that we have to come together. The Herald published an article in 2017 where John Roughan imagined climate change stopping with a bump at some temperate sweet spot. This may be the way climate change exists in some wishful imaginations. Those used to the cyclic nature of crisis (Ozone layer, Y2K, Cold War) may expect this issue to be replaced with another.
On the lawn the discussion is not about whether. It’s mostly about why no one seems to be noticing. Jim tells us it was like this in Tolstoy’s time. He pulls a book from his pocket to show us.
Though the enemy was nearing Moscow, Moscovites were not inclined to regard their situation with any greater degree of seriousness: on the contrary, they became even more frivolous, as is always the case with people who see a great catastrophe approaching.
— Tolstoy, War and Peace
The Anthropocene: this brutal overhaul of living systems, frames all else. DNA’s one-liner, “Nothing in Biology Makes Any Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” now has an analog just for humans. In light of that, the bands of people continue to gather around Ollie’s sign and wait for this end of the beginning. Declaration or no, there is now a forum within the grounds of parliament where people can come together and acknowledge it’s scale.
A child screams in the night. And so a ministry was declared for issues pertaining to dark nightmares. Then you returned to bed to forget what the child was saying. Something about the smell of smoke.