Sunday, 28 February 2010

A place of safety

Reading Mark Lynas’s terrifying and vivid depiction of the future on a hotter planet, Six Degrees, one of the most moving moments for me was the dedication to his wife and son ‘in the hope that most of the predictions here need not come true’. The book describes the expected food crises, extinctions and water shortages, and it culminates in an inferno of methane eruptions and stagnant, poisonous oceans. To dedicate such a narrative to your child makes sense – Lynas works to prevent such a future – but it must also have been a very painful thing to do.

I’ve been considering what children hear and think about climate change while reading Kate Thompson’s The White Horse Trick, a young adult novel set at the end of this century in Ireland crippled and dying in the ravaged climate. Dystopia has a strong presence in children’s fiction, and young readers deal with those stories in a similar way to adults: they help us to work through the terror of imagining all the logical consequences of the way we live, from the relative security of a safer present. I was impressed by Thompson’s handling of the issue. She respects her readers’ intelligence and resilience enough to confront us with the full horror of what climate change might mean. Warlords exploit and brutalise the valleys and coasts around the Burren, and the future appears so hopeless that there’s no arguing when one character declares, ‘It’s all over for the human race.’ Yet Thompson also provides a place of safety for the reader. Ireland is paralleled by Tir na n’Óg, a timeless kingdom inhabited by fairies. Just as various bedraggled human refugees cross over to this land, Tir na n’Óg also balances the reader’s experience of ecological and social collapse. The White Horse Trick is the third in a trilogy and Tir na n’Óg is well known from Irish folklore, so Thompson did not invent the land for this purpose, but she uses it deftly.

I did wonder if a refuge like this could be cheating, letting us off the hook. In particular, it allows Thompson to juxtapose human time with geological time, the millennia over which the earth’s ecosystems might recover from what we’ve done to them. This recalls arguments made by people who have run out of ways to deny climate change’s reality, so declare that the earth will survive even if humans don’t, as though the suffering in between doesn’t matter. But in Thompson’s book the suffering does matter, so the effect of her reassurance is different. I found that having access to a place of safety while reading about climate change allowed me to experience a greater range of emotions than I usually have when reading about this subject. It was a surprise. Perhaps I’d come to feel that anger, sorrow and despair are the only legitimate emotions for the subject to provoke, but in a children’s book that wouldn’t feel right. As an adult, it was oddly refreshing to face the collapse of human society from this novel’s fantastical perspective.

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