Three books that offer an antidote to apathy

No books were harmed in the taking of this photograph

Do you find it hard to read about the climate crisis? When I really take it in, I feel overwhelmed. I support word for word what the campaigners say yet I make no meaningful contribution of my own. A version of the bystander effect.  

I’m currently reading Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, a “miraculous memoir” that describes the 14-year-old writer’s fascination with the natural world and his urgent desire to protect it. I feel the same sorrow and worry, though not as nobly or intensely as McAnulty does.

I would support the most radical systemic changes but the path to those changes seems blocked. In the face of that failure, making small individual changes seems futile. I’m willing to do anything but I end up doing nothing.

Ece Temelkuran describes a telling moment in the opening of her book Together: A Manifesto Against the Heartless World. She’s at her local recycling bins in Zagreb, a few weeks into lockdown and just a week after the 2020 earthquake. The world has gone to hell and she and a stranger, in their crooked masks and messed-up hair, start laughing helplessly when they make eye contact. A dust cloud still hangs over the city, everything is in chaos, and “here we are at the start of the twenty-first century, looking like the garbage of human history”.

On Time and Water

Up in Iceland, Andri Snær Magnason is applying his sharp mind and passion to pushing back against the climate crisis with words. Magnason’s book, On Time and Water was a national bestseller in Iceland in 2019 and it’s been translated into about 30 languages. The words from Iceland have travelled far.

Magnason campaigned against the destruction of the Icelandic highlands. He ran for president of the country in 2016 on a platform of environmental issues. What comes across strongly in his book is that he cares deeply about his family – past, present and future. I interviewed Magnason at Le Livre sur les Quais festival this year in Morges.

The Icelandic author and filmmaker uses a conversation with his daughter as an illustration of the passage of time in the world. His grandmother’s long life (94) has overlapped with his young daughter’s life, and she might know and love a child in her family who will still be alive in 2186.

“Imagine that. Two hundred and sixty-two years. That’s the length of time you connect across. You’ll know the people who span this time. Your time is the time of the people you know and love, the time that moulds you.”

This exercise is meant to make the vague future closer and more real. Magnason rightly understands the impossibility of writing about climate change because it’s too big to comprehend. The phrase climate change has become white noise. “The issue’s enormity absorbs all the meaning.”

He writes about the subject by going “past it, to the side, below it, into the past and the future, to be personal but also scientific and to use mythological language.”

The points made in On Time and Water spark uncomfortable reflections. “Anyone who understands what’s at stake would not prioritise anything else. We have the antithesis of mass hysteria; we have mass apathy.”

And then Magnason goes on to explain what is a stake, and it’s frightening. But he still believes that when our backs are against the wall, which they very nearly are, humans will work together. The breakthrough just announced in nuclear fusion energy offers a glimmer of hope.

The right direction

The book is rich in storytelling but also interwoven with facts about what Magnason calls “humanity’s contemporary bomb of consumption and waste”.

Half of the CO2 in the atmosphere is due to emissions since 1990. China used more cement in each of the three years after 2004 than the US used throughout the whole twentieth century. Ocean acidification is “more frightening than words can say”.

Throughout the book, Magnason reminds us that “business interests and human comfort have been seen as more important than the ocean, the atmosphere and all the world’s grandchildren for all time.”

But thankfully, he does counter that with optimism: “The world is not just an out-of-control and meaningless flood, always in flux; it can be influenced, can be steered in the right direction.”

Magnason writes about people who have made a difference. He makes the argument that we need to rethink everything: nutrition, technology, transport, manufacturing and consumerism. Yes please!

If my own weak actions yet strong feelings are any guide, there is a huge untapped willingness to change and to sacrifice. And I hope that this positive side of humanity will be harnessed before it’s too late. We can be useful and we can make a difference.

I’ll be writing one more post this year about some of the best novels I’ve read in 2022. Thank you for continuing to follow this blog and to support my writing. Leaving you for now with a picture of my local forest in the snow. Happy Christmas!