Cover of book: Living with the Anthropocene

Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell (eds)
Living with the Anthropocene

“I can tell our stories. I can bear witness. But I have to be honest. Some days bearing witness doesn’t seem like enough.” That’s novelist and editor Sophie Cunningham in the essay collection Living with the Anthropocene. Her unease highlights a dilemma haunting the entire book: Why write when the world’s ending – or, at least, changing in extraordinary ways? What can authors offer in the Anthropocene?

Editors Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell describe the Anthropocene as an age in which “people … shape the world everywhere”. Yet, as many of the essayists show, the Anthropocene also paralyses us. Jane Rawson describes leaving her Melbourne home for a climate refuge in bushland Tasmania – only to face uncontrollable fires: “I had fled to escape climate change and my contribution to ecocide, only to find myself fleeing again.” The “age of humans” manifests to humans in the form of a rampaging nature from which we must run.

It’s not just we who suffer, of course. Back in 1839, Charles Darwin commented on the ecological centrality of kelp, which can grow to 60 metres high in vast underwater jungles. “If in any country a forest was destroyed,” he warned, “I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp.” Today, as John Charles Ryan explains, the kelp forests of south-east Australia have shrunk by as much as 95 per cent.

Elsewhere, James Bradley describes, with his customary elegance, diving with cuttlefish, which record their growth each month by accruing laminations on their shells. The fossil record of their distant ancestors reveals significantly fewer markers, not because the ancient cuttlefish grew more slowly but because the moon orbited closer to Earth back then, making a lunar month only a week long. It’s the kind of snippet that makes you weep for the natural wonders being lost.

The editors gloss the book as chronicling “a national movement (however decentralised) towards cultures of attention, respect and care”. Yet one cannot help but notice how few contributors engage with theoretical or tactical debates central to any plausible solutions. Whom should we blame for climate change? Are carbon markets simply a new way to commodify nature? Do we need an electoral movement, civil disobedience or some entirely new style of protest?

Interestingly, it’s the essayists concerned with natural science who seem more predisposed to ask what is to be done. For instance, Josh Wodak contemplates, with some ambivalence, Biorock, an electrified plastic and metal contraption for strengthening damaged coral reefs. Should we, he asks, contemplate massive engineering projects as a “least worst” option?

Jo Chandler describes the fire ecologist David Bowman brainstorming increasingly desperate ideas for protecting peatland on Tasmania’s Central Plateau. Bowman acknowledges his ideas might seem risible, adding: “But everything’s ridiculous now.”

Yet, when it comes to politics, too many of the writers collapse into rhetorical evasions. “In the name of love,” writes David Ritter in the closing essay, “we can yet do this.” Well, maybe. But, given the immensely powerful forces committed to spewing carbon into the atmosphere, we might do well to adopt some old-fashioned hate, too.

In a much-discussed piece for Sydney Review of Books, James Ley contends that nature writers often fall back on an unreconstructed Romanticism. They aestheticise the landscape as a source of joy and terror, and so obscure the real relationships between humans and our world. Living with the Anthropocene suggests that his argument could be applied more broadly, with beautiful prose mandating a disengagement from questions we can’t afford to ignore.

Why do the old Romantic tropes still possess such force? In her contribution to the book, Saskia Beudel quotes Daly Pulkara, an Aboriginal man from the Northern Territory. Pulkara calls land denuded by agriculture “wild”, unlike the “quiet country” still maintained by its traditional owners. That usage – so at odds with the European focus on “wilderness” – reminds us that, prior to white settlement, Indigenous people deliberately reshaped the continent. The pre-colonial landscape reflected a purposeful interaction between humanity and nature. Capitalism destroys that transparent relationship, with the Industrial Revolution separating the population from the commons and establishing an alienation that culminates in our current situation.

As Delia Falconer argues, today we can no longer enjoy a surprisingly sunny day or the unusual behaviour of a rare bird without wondering what these anomalies portend. Almost by definition, a changing planet means the unprecedented becomes normal. “Beautiful and uncanny phenomena follow one after the other,” Falconer writes, “imbued with a glamour that is weirdly incandescent … They turn a dying world into a modern cabinet of curiosities, or a suite of special effects.”

We are changing nature but we experience nature as changing us. That real-world inversion mystifies the human origins of the crisis – and makes the writing that Ley decries an ever-present temptation.

In the anthology’s best essay, Tony Birch sketches an alternative approach. He describes how his brother’s death made him want to withdraw from public life – until he recognised that his engagement with others alleviated his private grief. The same might be said about our climate concerns, for which Birch says “direct action will play an important role”. “I also know that I believe in the crowd, that I gain energy from the action of others,” he writes. “… I must be in the world in order to respect it.”

This injunction to “be in the world” provides a partial response to Cunningham’s concerns. As she suggests, the notion of “bearing witness” won’t do for writers, not least because pure contemplation so often collapses into pure ideology. Rather, we must reframe a natural crisis as a human one – and that depends on political struggle. Rebuilding a movement of (some) people against (other) people is thus a task for writers, just as much as for everyone else.

Yes, we can mourn and, yes, we can memorialise. More than anything else, though, we need to fight.

Jeff Sparrow

NewSouth, 384pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2020 as "Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell (eds) Living with the Anthropocene".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow

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