This is the third in a series of posts by scholars who attended the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, an event hosted in September by Deakin University as part of the larger Anthropocene Curriculum project. Over the four days of the Campus, 110 participants from 49 universities (plus several art institutions and museums) attended keynotes, art exhibits, fieldtrips, and workshops based around the theme of ‘the elemental’.
Earlier this year, at the Emerging Writers Festival panel on ‘Writing the Anthropocene’, I was asked if I thought that, in imagining a future world for my 2016 novel The Island Will Sink, I also had an ethical responsibility to ‘get it right’. The question was asked by a writer who also worked as a sustainability officer in community organisations. It led to more uncomfortable questions: As a writer of fiction, is it a problem to use the predicted extinctions and environmental catastrophes of the not too distant future to produce (amongst other things) stakes in a literary production?
The Politics of Forecasting
We are living in a time of dire forecasts. We’ve been doing so, quite happily, for at least half a century. But now, given the pervasiveness of data about climate change, our strategy of maintaining business as usual has assumed the characteristics of a theatre of cruelty that we bought tickets for and now only want to watch, stunned as events unfold. Even if we meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—and that doesn’t look good given the flexible definition of the term ‘agree’ that some world leaders appear to have—we are facing predicted challenges that range from increased crop losses due to drought and insect proliferation, the reduction of large fish populations in Australian waters by a third in the next decade (a statistic mirrored internationally), increased flooding in the UK, increases in hurricanes and wildfires in the US, increases in bushfires in Australia, and, accompanying this, massive increases in environmental refugee populations. These developments have global ramifications, although the poorest countries and people are bearing the brunt. In wealthy nations, such as Australia, we can see the future clearly enough, but the preparation we are most focussed on is scaffolding the terms of our denial.
Given this, the near future world of my novel might seem too close for comfort. The story occurs in an affluent Western-yet-unlocated setting where people are obsessed with imagining an imminent, life-changing catastrophe such as those that unlucky others live with day-to-day. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this world is how thoroughly depoliticised crisis has become. In this future, we are experts at description and obliteration. Disaster management is outsourced to private companies who move an underclass of those ‘for whom a stake in the new interurban lifestyle is not an option’ through the landscape in roving trailer packs. This is sustainability co-opted, a dystopian climax to Rob Nixon’s slow violence.
In writing, I set out to parody some of the rhetorical foundations we lay to protect us from the hopelessness and desperation which characterizes thinking the future in this particular present. The protagonist, Max Galleon, is the wealthy creator of fully immersive disaster films which allow the rich to voyeuristically consume the experience of surviving catastrophe. Galleon’s works are the inheritors of an ideological agenda that runs through present day depictions of environmental catastrophe in Hollywood films which, as Judith Hess Wright argues, ‘simplify complex social structures and provide resolution’. These films, Rebecca Solnit observes, perform a tidy division of the world into us and ‘the them that is humanity in the aggregate, the extras, panics, mobs, swarms, and fails.’ There are children in the novel but they are not innocent or representative of some future hope. Rather, they are ‘with the trouble’, to steal some Haraway. An entomologist studies a colony of apathetic ants who seem to know something we don’t. When the continually scrutinized sea levels rise against the landmass known as Pitcairn Island, and experts predict a catastrophe of world scale, a previously-thought extinct giant ground sloth suddenly stages a second coming. The event gets spun: perhaps the sloth pup signifies a new age for Earth, a return to the charismatic megafauna. The animal, dubbed Hope, disappears again as soon as it becomes clear that humanity will once again prevail. Presumably she will rest up, ready to be trucked out next time. Hope is required.
Environmental Instability and Neoliberalism
Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine prompted me to imagine what it would look like if increasing environmental instability allowed a tightening rather than a shattering of the neoliberal trajectory we are presently on. As I built the world of the novel, I asked myself, if disaster capitalism dominates, what will human life look like in forty years? Will we, as ecologist Peter Kareiva suggests, give up on wilderness and think instead about semi-wild gardens that will provide “ecosystem services” to human individuals and communities? Will ‘the Anthropocene’ be smoothly incorporated into branding strategies and consumer behaviors? In my novel, as the natural world collapses Max and his family monitor the data in an infinite scroll that sets their daily nutritional goals, tasks, and personal histories alongside updates on major extinction events. They participate in the kind of self-surveillance to which we already devote so much of our time. They fret in an architecturally designed mansion that can turn into a fort, hermetically sealing their way of life inside.
When I launched the novel at Fuller’s Bookstore in Hobart, the chalkboard read ‘Tonight, The Island Will Sink’, and then in parentheses: ‘(don’t worry, not this island)’. We forecast, and then we say, ‘don’t worry too much, not now’. We say, ‘this might be the future, but the present is still just fine’. This, then, might be the inherent ethic of speculative fiction for me. It is immediate. It brings a future to a reader and makes them hang out there. Here, I wrote this, it’s just one dramatised forecast. Did I get it right? I really hope not, but I’ll leave it with you.
-  Nixon R. (2011) Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
-  Hess Wright, J. 2003 “Genre Films and the Status Quo.” Chap. 4, Film Genre Reader 3, edited by Barry Keith Grant. 41–49. University of Texas Press, Houston, pp. 41–42.
-  Solnit, R. 2009. A Paradise Built In Hell, the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster, Penguin Books, p. 124.
-  Kareiva, P. Tallis, H. 2005 ‘Ecosystem Services’, Current Biology Vol 15 No 18