The forgotten environmental crisis: how 20th century settler writers foreshadowed the Anthropocene



Shutterstock/Francisco Duarte Mendes

Philip Steer, Massey University

Just as writers and artists today are responding to the Anthropocene through climate fiction and eco art, earlier generations chronicled an environmental crisis that presaged humanity’s global impact.

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that powerfully expresses the planetary scale of the environmental changes wrought by human activity.




Read more:
How the term ‘Anthropocene’ jumped from geoscience to hashtags – before most of us knew what it meant


Yet almost a century ago, New Zealand and Australia were at the forefront of an environmental crisis that was also profoundly geological in nature: erosion. And it, too, left its mark on culture.

A forgotten global problem

Erosion was first brought to the attention of the western world in the 19th century by the American diplomat and polymath George Perkins Marsh. In Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1869), he argued that much of the “Old World” of the Mediterranean had been transformed into desert by deforestation.

Person walking among tress stumps.

Shutterstock/Marc Henauer

He warned that European colonisation threatened a similar fate for other parts of the world. These concerns came back with a vengeance in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl in the United States began to raise alarm about the long-term security of global food supply.

In the 1930s, south-eastern Australia was also plagued by dust storms. The biologist Francis Ratcliffe, in Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia (1939), described the situation in South Australia as a fight for survival.

Nothing less than a battlefield, on which man is engaged in a struggle with the remorseless forces of drought, erosion and drift.

In New Zealand’s different climate and topography, another version of the erosion crisis was also becoming evident. Geographer Kenneth Cumberland described the growing desolation of the North Island’s hill-country pasture.

Miles upon miles of the Hawkes Bay, Poverty Bay, Wanganui and Taranaki- Whangamomona inlands have slip-scarred slopes […] The recent history of these regions is one of abandonment, of decreasing population, of a succession of serious floods, and of slip-severed communications.

Cumberland argued in 1944 that New Zealand’s soil erosion problems “attain the extreme national significance […] of those of the United States.”

Similarly, in 1946, the geographer J. M. Holmes claimed:

No greater peace-time issue faces Australia than the conquest of soil erosion.

Detail of eroded rock

Shutterstock/photolike

Cultural crisis

Because agriculture is so central to western ideas of civilisation, commentators found that cultural and environmental questions were inextricable. This overlapping of science and ideology is evident in G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte’s The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion (1939), written by two scientists at Oxford’s Imperial Bureau of Soil Science.

The organisation of civilised societies is founded upon the measures taken to wrest control of the soil from wild Nature, and not until complete control has passed into human hands can a stable superstructure of what we call civilisation be erected on the land.

The belief that nature must be subdued and remade was especially potent among the settler populations of Australia and New Zealand. There colonial identity and economic survival were both inextricably bound up with the success of agricultural and pastoral production.

Elyne Mitchell, now best known as the author of the Silver Brumby children’s books, wrote extensively in the 1940s about how cultural norms of white Australians were directly impacting the soil.

To fit Australia into the pattern of Western civilisation, economically and socially, we have upset the natural balance and turned ourselves into destroyers instead of creators.

The cultural commentator Monte Holcroft used even stronger language to express a similar thought in Creative Problems in New Zealand (1948).

But we see also the bare hillsides, the remnants of forest, the flooding rivers, and in some districts the impoverished soil. The balance of nature has changed. Are we to assume that a people which possessed the land in this manner — raping it in the name of progress — can remain untroubled and secure in occupation?

As the title says, erosion was now a “creative problem”. Even as they were committed to colonial forms of society, settler writers were increasingly aware that their environmental foundations were not as stable as had previously been assumed.

dead trees

Shutterstock/brackish_nz

Soil mysticism

In New Zealand literature, the landscape wasn’t simply a backdrop: writers often depicted Pākehā identity as being produced through a direct confrontation with geology. The poet and critic Allen Curnow described the sense “that we are interlopers on an indifferent or hostile scene” as a “common problem of the imagination”. As Curnow wrote in his poem, The Scene, in 1941:

Here among the shaggy mountains cast away

Man’s shape must be recast

Settlement was also described as an encounter between “man” and the landscape in an influential poem by Charles Brasch, The Silent Land, in 1945:

Man must lie with the gaunt hills like a lover,

Earning their intimacy in the calm sigh

Of a century of quiet and assiduity.

Critic Francis Pound has described this nationalist preoccupation as a “soil mysticism”. In focusing so closely on the soil, Pākehā writers were also able to overlook its occupancy by Māori and their own deep knowledge of the land.

Awareness of erosion

Yet Brasch’s appeal is to “gaunt hills”: the landscape of literature was more often than not eroded rather than untouched.

Frank Sargeson’s 1943 short story, Gods Live in Woods, drew on the experience of his uncle, who had felled the forest to establish a hill country farm in Te Rohe Pōtae/the King Country.

And places where the grass still held were scarred by slips that showed up the clay and papa. One of these had come down from above the track, and piled up on it before going down into the creek. A chain or so of fence had been in its way and it had gone too. You could see some posts and wires sticking out of the clay.

Erosion also spread into the common stock of literary imagery. In a short poem by Colin Newbury, In My Country (1955), it appears as a metaphor for disappointed love.

He stands close to the earth,

My obdurate countryman,

Drawing from the wind’s breath,

The arid sweetness of flower and mountain;

Knows no green herb for the heart’s erosion.

Such texts demonstrate the ecological concept of “shifting baseline syndrome”, as described by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and her collaborators, whereby “newly shaped and ruined landscapes become the new reality”.

eroded coastline

Shutterstock/Filip Fuxa

Alternative possibilities

Although so much of Pākehā writing about geology from this time imagines the relationship between humanity and nature as hostile and irreversibly damaged, some offered glimpses of alternative possibilities. One was Ursula Bethell, whose poem Weathered Rocks (1936) stretched her Christian beliefs to find common ground with geology. Through this she imagined a less antagonistic relationship with nature.

And we are kin, compounded of the same elements,

Alike proceeding to an unknown goal.

Another approach is offered by Herbert Guthrie-Smith in Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921). Through the local histories he gleaned from Ngāti Kurumōkihi elders, Guthrie-Smith came to reject a Pākehā view of the Earth as simply a resource to be exploited.

When a block of land passes, as it may do through the hands of ten holders in half a century, how can long views be taken of its rights? Who under these conditions can give his acres their due?

Auē, taukari e, anō te kūware o te Pākehā kāhore nei i whakaaro ki te mauri o te whenua. Alas! Alas! that the Pākehā should so neglect the rights of the land, so forget the traditions of the Māori race, a people who recognised in it something more than the ability to grow meat and wool.

This view of the land as a political partner, endowed with independence and rights, appears to offer a new environmental perspective that in fact draws on the long-standing Indigenous legal principles of tikanga Māori.




Read more:
Dead as the moa: oral traditions show that early Māori recognised extinction


Anticipating the Anthropocene

Mid-20th century settler writing about erosion holds renewed interest today because it conveys a strikingly literal, visible sense of the Anthropocene: the geological impact of colonisation was plainly evident in sand drift, dust storms and scarred hillsides.

Writers were not blind to environmental damage, but in the main their responses are reminiscent of what critic Greg Garrard has called the present-day “gloomy trio of Anthropocenic futures — business-as-usual, mitigation and geo-engineering”.

But writers such as Bethell and Guthrie-Smith demonstrate the ongoing importance of creative work for questioning the values that created and sustain the Anthropocene we now all inhabit.The Conversation

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: how many climate crisis books will it take to save the planet?



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Ian Lowe, Griffith University

It’s that time of the year again. Brochures and emails spruik a bumper crop of new books about the climate crisis.

Book cover: Bill Gates How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

Goodreads

This time there are some really big names: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, Climate Crisis and the Global New Deal by Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, All We Can Save by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix It by Jane Fonda, as well as new efforts from David Attenborough and Tim Flannery.

The incoming tide of new books makes me reflect and wonder whether writing still more books about climate change is a waste of precious time. When the UN is calling for governments to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are books just preaching to the converted? My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean publishing, buying or reading more books is the answer to our climate emergency right now.




Read more:
Friday essay: thinking like a planet – environmental crisis and the humanities


Decades of books

In April, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the New York Times told readers this might be the year they finally read about climate change. But many already have.

The earliest titles date back to 1989: The Greenhouse Effect, Living in a Warmer Australia by Ann Henderson-Sellers and Russell Blong; my own contribution, Living in the Greenhouse, and the first book aimed at the US public, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

Book cover: planet earth image. By Al Gore.

Goodreads

The science was still developing then. We knew human activity was increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Measurable changes to the climate were also clear: more very hot days, fewer very cold nights, changes to rainfall patterns.

The 1985 Villach conference had culminated in an agreed statement warning there could be a link, but cautious scientists were saying more research was needed before we could be confident the changes had a human cause. There were credible alternative theories: the energy from the Sun could be changing, there could be changes in the Earth’s orbit, there might be natural factors we had not recognised.

By the mid-1990s, the debate was essentially over in the scientific community. Today there is barely a handful of credible climate scientists who don’t accept the evidence that human activity has caused the changes we are seeing. The agreed statements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, led to the Kyoto Protocol being adopted in 1997.

And so — as the urgency being felt by the scientists increased — more books were published.

Former US vice president and 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis was first published in 2008 and has since been issued in 20 editions. There have been more than enough books to furnish a list of the top 100 bestselling titles on the topic, recommended by the likes of Elon Musk and esteemed climate scientists and commentators. The ones I have acquired fill an entire bookcase shelf — dozens of titles describing the problem, making dire predictions, calling for action.

Girl walks through bookshop.
Preaching to the converted might not be such a bad thing.
Becca Tapert/Unsplash, CC BY



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Deeds not words

Does the new batch of books risk spreading more despair? If the previous books didn’t change our climate trajectory then what is the point in making readers feel the cause is hopeless and a bleak future is inevitable?

Book cover: What can I do? by Jane Fonda

Goodreads

No. Writing more books isn’t a waste of time, but they also shouldn’t be a high priority at the moment. The point of writing a book is to summarise what we know about the problem and identify credible ways forward.

Those were my goals when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse in 1989 and Living in the Hothouse in 2005. The main purpose of the first book was to draw attention to a problem that was largely unrecognised, trying to inform and persuade readers that we needed to take action. By the release of the second book, the aim was to counter the tsunami of misinformation unleashed by the fossil fuel industry, conservative institutions and the Murdoch press. Rupert Murdoch spoke at News Corp’s AGM this week, maintaining: “We do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”.

But there are two reasons why I’m not working on a third book right now.

The first is time. If I started writing today, it would be late next year before the book would be in the shops. We can’t afford another year of inaction. More importantly, the inaction of our national government is not a result of a lack of knowledge.

On November 9, United Nations chief António Guterres said the world was still falling well short of the leadership required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050:

Our goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, we are still headed towards three degrees at least.

Some believe the inaction is explained by the corruption of our politics by fossil fuel industry donations. Others see is a fundamental conflict between the concerted action needed and the dominant ideologies of governing parties. Making decision-makers better informed about the science won’t solve either of these problems.

They might be solved, however, by the evidence that a growing majority of voters want to see action to slow climate change.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has focused, rather than distracted, the community on the risks of climate change. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 3,000 people across eight countries found about 70% of respondents are now more aware of the risks of climate change than they were before the pandemic. Three-quarters say slowing climate change is as important as protecting the community from COVID-19.

The growing awareness and sense of urgency are backed by another recent study looking at internet search behaviour across 20 European countries. Researchers found signs of growing support for a post-COVID recovery program that emphasises sustainability.

Kids climate books on shelf.
Books have also educated young readers on the climate emergency.
Shutterstock



Read more:
Why it doesn’t make economic sense to ignore climate change in our recovery from the pandemic


Change is happening, more is needed

Still, preaching to the converted is not necessarily a bad thing. They might need to be reminded why they were persuaded that action is needed, or need help countering the half-truths and barefaced lies being peddled in the public debate. Books can fulfil that mission. So can speaking to community groups, which I do regularly.

I tell audiences the urgent priority now is to turn into action the knowledge we have about the accelerating impacts of climate change and economically viable responses. Our states and territories now have the goal of zero-carbon by 2050, so I am giving presentations spelling out how this can be achieved. We urgently need the Commonwealth government to catch up to the community.

Climate action protest sign above crowd.
Mass protests have called for environmental leadership.
Unsplash/Markus Spiske, CC BY

Change is happening rapidly. More than 2 million Australian households now have solar panels. Solar and wind provided more than half of the electricity used by South Australia last year and that state achieved a world-first on the morning of October 11: for a brief period, its entire electricity demand was met by solar panels.

The urgent task is not to publish more books on the crisis, but to change the political discourse and force our national government to play a positive role.The Conversation

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coal mining in Wales: the 1930s writers who depicted the environmental calamity caused by the pits



Llwynypia, South Wales, a colliery village built up around a coal mine.
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Seth Armstrong Twigg, Cardiff University

I come from a family of miners. The last person to work down the pit was my paternal grandfather, who dug coal from the subterranean tunnels hidden deep below the Welsh Marches, which lie along the English border. In comparison to the innumerable collieries that made south Wales at one point the biggest coal-exporting region in the world, ours was the forgotten coalfield.

My grandfather was a proud miner, but he was adamant that none of his children would follow in his footsteps. Thatcher’s obliteration of mining communities was conducted in an appalling manner, but reinstating the industry was not the answer. However, when I moved to south Wales to study, I was conscious of a different attitude towards our national heritage.

Shortly after beginning my master’s degree at Cardiff, I attended an event with a panel of ex-colliers. During the Q&A session, one audience member expressed a desire that mining should return to the area, which was met with approval from others. I was aware that this reflected the reality that large parts of south Wales have never fully recovered from the abrupt removal of industry, but also conscious that, on that occasion, there was hardly anyone arguing the contrary.

The price of coal

Admittedly, the coal industry brought employment, community and a strong sense of identity to parts of Wales. However, this came at the cost of widespread ecological destruction, and, despite the current coronavirus pandemic, the most significant threat to our survival remains climate change. As people, we have a natural tendency to look at the past fondly, but in order to avoid regressing, it is important to remember the negative aspects of history.

Literature about Welsh coal mining has attracted a healthy degree of critical attention over the years. Yet, little consideration has been paid towards the way writers depict the environmental impact of the industry.

Black and white photograph of coal Miner sculpture in Cardiff Bay.
Coal Miner sculpture in Cardiff Bay.
Steve F/Wikimedia, CC BY

Over the past three years, I have examined a series of texts published in the 1930s, a decade that saw an increased demand – beyond Wales – for literature about the harsh realities of life in mining communities. This Welsh industrial writing, as it became known, is usually viewed as a social document of that era. In my view, we should reclassify these writings as early articulations of the man-made changes that have created today’s climate emergency.

Writing environmental catastrophe

Wales was devastated during the 1930s by the Great Depression. The coal industry was in decline and by 1932, nearly half of all men were unemployed. This economic desolation is mirrored by literary depictions of environmental degradation in Welsh industrial writing, which was going through a boom at the time.

Collieries used local rivers to wash coal, whilst also treating water sources as a deposit for waste. As a result, river ecology suffered for generations. Jack Jones’s Black Parade (1935) communicates the deadly reality of this river pollution in Victorian Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. Throughout Jones’s novel, the presence of the contaminated local river haunts the characters. Human and industrial waste combine to create intolerable living conditions where rats rule supreme.

Portrait of writer Jack Jones.
Jack Jones.
Wikimedia

Throughout the period of industrialisation, large areas of Welsh forest were cleared to produce the wooden props that were used to create underground tunnels for coal mining. In Idris Davies’s extended poem, Gwalia Deserta (1938), the poet draws parallels between the loss of Welsh trees to industry and the deprivation of the local population during the Depression. Davies’s poem serves as a stark warning of what a place becomes when it loses its trees.

Widespread air pollution was a major consequence of Welsh coal mining. BL Coombes’s autobiographical text, These Poor Hands (1939), describes how collieries created innumerable quantities of dust that blackened the natural landscape and nearby communities, whilst below ground, miners were subjected to abject working conditions that caused fatal respiratory diseases.

During the mining of Welsh coal, large amounts of waste material were also removed from the earth and placed on the surface. This resulted in enormous heaps of black dirt, known as spoil tips, which littered the Welsh landscape.

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) is criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of mining communities, but as the most widely read account of life in the Welsh coalfield, it deserves attention. The novel focuses throughout on the menacing spoil tip that looms above the protagonist’s house. Published almost 30 years before the Aberfan disaster, in which a spoil tip collapsed onto the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults, Llewellyn’s text is unsettlingly prophetic.

Given the urgency of reversing the global climate catastrophe, it is important that we end our reliance on fossil fuels. In Wales, we can be proud of our industrial heritage whilst acknowledging its ecologically destructive realities. Literature, in its ability to engage people, can help us remember the negative aspects of our past, so we avoid taking regressive steps in the future.The Conversation

Seth Armstrong Twigg, Doctoral Researcher in Welsh industrial literature, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.