“The first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation,” is how Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan describes The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and his young son walk through a ravaged landscape trying to stay alive and to avoid the “bad people” who stalk the road they are following.
Many critics saw in the 2006 book a prescient warning about the future of the world should we fail to manage climate change and stop biodiversity loss. McCarthy, who died in June, said he hoped readers would take away the message they should “simply care about things and people and be more appreciative”. There are beacons of hope throughout the book, but it’s a challenging read.
The harrowing depictions of the dead and destroyed countryside in The Road are not a million miles from the drought-stressed trees and crops in parts of Europe this summer, the sewage-infested seas of the United Kingdom, or the horrific forest fires in Canada.
“The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles” with “no sign of life”, writes McCarthy. He depicts landscapes of “burnt forests for miles” and streams where once the man had “watched trout swaying in the current” but now “water slurried into a pool and tuned slowly in a grey foam”.
Perhaps one of the most heart-rending moments of the book, and there are plenty, is when the father reassures his son the noise he hears is simply that of a falling tree: “It’s okay, the man said. All the trees in the world are going to fall sooner or later.”
The amnesia about the past is similarly agonising. “He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair,” writes McCarthy of the father. “The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsable entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the name of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already?”
This phenomenon of ‘shifting baselines’ is already happening in the real world, argues Dave Goulson, UK author and biology professor at the University of Sussex, in his 2021 book, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse.
“The evidence suggests that insects, and also mammals, bird, fish, reptiles and amphibians, are all now much less abundant than they were a few decades ago,” he writes.
But as this change happens over time, it is difficult to perceive, leading us to “accept the word we grow up in as normal, although it might be quite different from the world our parents grew up in”.
Shifting baseline syndrome may help us all stay sane, “as otherwise our hearts might break from missing what we have lost”, writes Goulson. Yet, if we don’t know what is absent or that it is not normal to suffer under scorching temperatures every summer in Europe, we are likely to fail to fight for a different, better world.
“If we allow ourselves to forget, we will doom future generations to living in a dreary, impoverished world, not knowing the joy and wonder that birdsong, butterflies and buzzing bees can bring to our lives,” he writes.
Goulson’s aim is to get the reader excited about the wonders of the natural world. It’s a timely reminder, as negotiations continue over aspects of the European Green Deal, as to why ambitious regulations and leadership are needed to protect and restore nature and bring down emissions.
While demonstrating how and why insect populations are declining, Goulson profiles of some of the world’s most incredible creatures, from the leafcutter ants of South America which “form the largest and most complex societies on Earth, after humans”, to earwigs, many of which have “two penises, a feature they share with snakes”.
Goulson devotes the final part of his book to setting out a series of “actions for everyone”, a “manifesto for a greener, better world”. He proposes actions for different audiences – from the general public to national and local governments, farmers and gardeners.
Some are “very simple, others a little harder, but all eminently possible”, he writes. They range from growing your own vegetables, to prohibiting pesticides in urban areas, to redirecting subsides to support sustainable farms growing the most nutritious food types.
Another inspiring read is Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry, Canada.
Published in 2021, the book demonstrates how trees are not single entities, but communities that communicate and co-operate with each other and the environment around them. Simard’s findings are not only awe-inspiring, but show the folly of destroying flora when we understand so little about it.
Simard, too, wants her book to inform and empower. She has set up the Mother Tree Project, which offers “techniques and solutions” for “scientists, students and the general public” to “protect and enhance biodiversity, carbon storage, and myriad ecological goods and services that underpin our life-support systems”. Opportunities to protect and restore nature are “as endless as our imagination”, she insists.
How and what we eat must also be at the heart of policymaking and discussions around climate and nature, since greenhouse gas emissions from the European Union agricultural sector are not decreasing and not predicted to fall without significant change, as 2022 data from the European Environment Agency shows.
Farming is responsible for around 10 per cent of total EU greenhouse gas emissions and is a leading factor in the decline of nature. As the nature restoration law also makes clear, healthy soils and trees absorb carbon, and are a solution to climate change, becoming so-called “carbon sinks”. Damaged soils and trees, conversely, release carbon and add to global warming.
Regenesis by UK writer and environmental campaigner George Monbiot offers plenty of food for thought as to how farming systems can be reformed to make them less destructive, while producing enough food to feed a growing global population.
He calls for agricultural policies and practices to be based on facts, not fiction about rosy-cheeked farmers doting on a couple of hens, goats and pigs, and argues for the replacement of meat with “farm-free” proteins produced from cutting-edge fermentation technologies to free up space for nature.
Monbiot sets out a manifesto for change “to allow human beings and the rest of life on Earth to flourish”, which includes an end to the farming of animals.
If climate change is to be brought under control in line with the Paris Agreement, the ‘sixth great extinction’ halted, and nature restored as agreed under the Global Biodiversity Framework in Montreal last December, policy reform and implementation must be global. To this end, all eyes are on the next international climate summit, COP28, to be held in Dubai at the end of this year.
Policymakers and other interested parties wanting to understand why such negotiations are not delivering as they should, would do well to read Five Times Faster by former UK diplomat Simon Sharpe.
Having been part of the UK COP26 team, Sharpe is perfectly placed to deliver his conclusion that we need to “rethink the science, economics and diplomacy of climate change” to avoid the worst impacts of global warming on people and nature by “decarbonising the world’s economy five times faster than we have done so far”.
Sharpe advocates for solutions which, he argues, would make this possible centred around three areas: changing the way climate negations take place; changing the economic parameters used for costing the transition; and ensuring scientific risk assessments are in line with the challenges of climate change.
Even in the darkest moments of The Road, there are flashes of beauty and goodness. Informing and educating ourselves through fact and fiction about the incredible world we inhabit can hopefully lead us all to care more, and to act to protect what is most precious.