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Coming of Age in the Anthropocene

By Lucy Wormald (she/her)

It is winter here in Auckland. My room is frosty in the mornings. Rain comes down in droves. You can wear T-shirts some days, on others I need a hot water bottle under my jersey.

The light glares through overcast sky. Winds blow through, rustling the bones of the tōtara and the bare horse chestnut. The balance of things feels normal, familiar; sheltered. No red skies, no disquieting heat, no tremors beneath my feet acting as harbinger.

But in my news feed, or more pertinently, in the Northern Hemisphere, a different story is unfolding. Siberia, usually home to the coldest winters outside of Antarctica, hits temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius and is ablaze with wildfire.

Two weeks ago, more than 17 centimeters of rain fell over western Germany in the space of two days – double the expected rainfall for the whole of July. Rivers burst their banks and swept away entire villages. Over 180 people died and hundreds are missing.

In Madagascar the worst drought in 40 years is pushing 400,000 people into famine.

In June, a mountain village in British Colombia briefly became the hottest place on earth hitting 49.6 degrees Celsius before bursting into a wildfire that destroyed 90% of its buildings.

New York and London, untouchable in our tight sense of civilisation and climate change, saw subway systems surged by several inches of rain, forcing commuters to wade through waist-deep water.

And these are just the opening chapters of the 2021 summer.

I, as many of you, have come of age in the waiting room of climate change devastation. I have grown in the gentle heat of the Anthropocene, basting in the slow knowledge and vague concern that our planet, and by extension, humanity, is going to suffer greatly due to global warming.

I have grown up taught, in high school and university, and now by the media (a belated and sheepish education), of the climate crisis we have spawned. We understand the future is bleak with climate break-down and extinction, candle-lit only by the hope of conservation and technology. We have also been taught this crisis is impending – a shadow in the doorway, a dark swell on the horizon, a prophecy.

And what to do with this abstract presence of the future? How can it be that it is both the hand on the small of our back, propelling us forward and also the lasso that bridles the situation we find ourselves in? As the spheres of imagining this future and its reality orbit ever closer together, I think about how we conceptualise what is to come.

We are taught the only possible way to improve our future is through our science and our technologies. We maintain that our biggest need is hard science, that carbon reduction and ecological breakdown are our most pressing concerns. The track we are on may only be switched by human innovation, by technology, by conservation.

And yes, it is crucial we reduce our industrial imprint and restore the more-than-human spaces we have damaged. But these initiatives mostly stem from a narrow self-serving space structured by capitalism. Solutions to our future are patchwork. They restore land or impose resource sanctions where such measures have been negotiated and permitted with mind to income and production.

Technology to decrease carbon, counteract waste, protect species and habitats may be introduced as long as they operate within the bounds of sustaining our comfortable lives. Our society can curb its hunger in bite-size pieces – protecting some forests, sacrificing some conveniences, limiting some practices. We imagine solutions in our future only to the extent that they allow us to maintain our lifestyles.

Within this blinkered domain, I again and again come up against the limits of my imagination. My capacity to comprehend the future is bound by both the society I exist in and the liminal space I occupy in the unfolding crisis. How difficult it is to look directly into the gaze of the climate crisis and dream a future other than that which is presented to us.

Many say it is naïve to consider we can ever do anything other, or more, than what we are striving for currently. I’m inclined to think that what is naïve is the belief that we could never do anything other than this; thinking that it is enough to permit solutions only to the extent that they maintain the status quo.

The world is not on default settings. The world is the way it is because it has been shaped that way. And it can be reshaped. Put bare the forces that shape the way we see things and perhaps we can step outside of them. We may broaden our imaginations to envisage and create a future beyond the edges of what we know is projected for us.

May we learn to see and create beyond the limits of what we imagine.


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