The first novel that truly affected me as a young reader was eschatological in nature. Z For Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien is a children’s book about a girl who survives nuclear war in a remote farming valley. It’s a subversive Adam and Eve tale, whereby Eve has agency and God isn’t really around. How to survive in challenging environmental conditions has been a theme in my writing for 25 years. Whether it’s climate change and concurrent societal breakdown, extreme weather events, or industrial encroachment into nature, the stories I’m interested in telling are about human tenacity in the face of existential conflict. As a child in Cumbria, there often seemed to be huge weather events and natural hazards – snows, storms, floods. Always a sense of near catastrophe, a requirement for reactive practical action.

Perhaps I’m somewhat attuned to the possibility of nature’s volatility and end-game scenarios. I was based in Carlisle when the city flooded in 2005; there was a scene of total dystopia, followed by an insurance crisis and hard questions about the assertive role of climate change. I’ve also lived in America, where survivalism, denial-lobbying and doom-hastening are serious businesses. This is going to be a highly charged election year, both in the USA and the UK. The status of green policies here is currently unclear. We’ve yet to witness a manifesto from the main opposition party – which is currently acting as a small target – and it’s impossible to know what alternatives Brits will be offered to counter ruined habitats, defunded systems, Tory-wrought gloom.

How does a writer approach such marvels and such culpable loss

Narratives of hopelessness
Another dystopian novel I recall from my youth was Stark by Ben Elton. In it, a group of profiteering, untouchable business oligarchs mess up the world’s ecosystem, then head off in rockets to a safe moon colony. Luxury antipodean bunkers are now selling hotly to billionaires, while the rest of us wonder about collecting baked-bean tins under the bed. Stark was a hilariously satirical book when published. Not so hilarious now, as the worst iterations of ecological collapse seem unstoppable and commercial to a wealthy cabal.

We hurtle headlong and knowledgeably towards climate breakdown. Record temperatures. Destabilising weather. Pollution. Denuded resources and endangered lists. We live with a modern pathology of dissonance about end-times, the negative aspects of the Anthropocene epoch. What place is there for ingenuity, ethics, collaboration and alternatives, as people wrestle for toilet roll? Lately, there have been discussions around the cultural purpose of optimism in these dark times. Is it simply pointless to ameliorate what could essentially be fatal? Or is it reckless and negligent to feed into the narrative of hopelessness, a kind of learned incapacity that sells out future generations and plays into the hands of ultra conservatives and organisations selling us plastics, air tickets, oil, meat, & merch? Hard to think individual activism gets anywhere.

River Action
But alongside the literal shit, there are motivating stories. The small yet powerful organisation River Action was recently granted consent to pursue a judicial review over the Environment Agency’s failure to police regulations and protect the iconic River Wye from agricultural pollution. This is to do with intensive poultry farms that supply Tesco in the river’s catchment. The manure from millions of hens enters the river, which has led to the Wye being threatened with ecological collapse. Shockingly, none of England’s rivers are chemically healthy, and only fifteen per cent pass biological markers for ecological health. River Action is correctly declaring this a freshwater emergency and holding those responsible to account. We need more organisations to positively push back and reflect contemporary integrity. As a patron of Humanists UK, I believe in the principles of natural and progressive values, reason, and proaction in improving our world. Recent census data shows Britain now identifies as predominantly non-theistic, especially younger groups. This must be reflected in society, with archaic religious biases dismantled from institutions. If the onus is not on predestination or afterlife, but on our one-time terrestrial existences, earth’s custodianship, and human agency within a moral framework, we must fight for congruous inhabitation and prosecute ecocide. We need strong, positive representatives. Not political minimisers.

Winds of change
As a writer I know it’s easier to create doomsdays and wring out the world’s jeopardies. Utopias are harder to conceive and dramatise. Imagining catastrophe, human induced disasters and hideous regimes is effective, making scenarios that feel inconceivable, or at least unconscionable, seem real and experiential. Perhaps that motivates; more likely just horrifies and entertains. It’s not enough. I find myself shaking my own literary tree of the dead. Are there any green shoots? Can I offer more? I’m currently writing a novel about Britain’s only named wind – The Helm – a unique and powerful phenomenon which forms on the Pennines above Eden valley, between a base and rotor cloud, and has taken millennia of meteorological study to understand. The Helm won’t exist if our stable climate ends. Then again, we won’t. How does a writer approach such marvels and such culpable loss? In The Mountain Chapel, Edward Thomas wrote: “When gods were young, this wind was old.” I suppose we must establish who the gods are now? Then get them to behave better.

Sarah Hall is Professor of Practice at Cumbria University. She’s written six novels and three story collections. Twice nominated for the Booker, she’s won multiple awards including the BBC National Short Story

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April 2024, Columns, Journal

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