Tracing Tragedies in Time

Tracing Tragedies in Time

The news seems pretty grim these days – but then – it probably always has been. It seems that as soon as humans developed complex societies, war, plague, poverty and exploitation have been rife.

The new super- tragedy which we have now heaped on top of – or below-  the inglorious pile, is the era of anthropogenic ecocide.

Take this recent book, and review of it:

Underlands. A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Landscapes; Ted Nield; Granta Books

“Close to where the lanes met, a pump had once stood (marked ‘W.T. on old maps for ‘public water tap’). My mother remembered it, though it was long gone by the time we moved there. Modern maps rarely show them; but on these early surveys two words, ‘Spring’ and ‘Rises’, dot the hillside. Well into the 1970s, many of these were still bubbling up subversively from beneath tidy front walls, dashing across pavements like escaped convicts by the shortest route to a drain. They murmured a truth – that while geography may be tamed, geology will always reassert itself. Rocks are the underground resistance; the recalcitrant grain that runs through the land beneath the wood. As the past is supposed to do, it haunts. It explains, and will not be supressed. And those who would lie to us, if they could, do not trust it.”

The last phrase alludes to climate change, the history of which is written in the geological record, and other political failures to address the geological conditions of life.

In a review Paul Pearson (TLS 28 Nov 2014 p.33) says “Ted Neil says that our refusal to heed the clear message in the rocks amounts to a global tragedy. He likens our ever increasing carbon emissions to the waste tips of Aberfan, while also warning that the impending and entirely predictable disaster will be on a global scale.’

A few months earlier I noted this similar long view of the unfolding tragedy,

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; Yuval Noah Harari; reviewed by Ben Shepard; Observer; Sunday 21 September 2014

“his real theme is the price that the planet and its other inhabitants have paid for humankind’s triumphant progress. There are indicators of this in an elegiac passage on the destruction of the megafauna of Australasia and South America and a rapturous account of the life of Buddha, but it is only when he reaches the modern era that Harari brings his own views to the fore. He sees modern agriculture’s treatment of animals as one of the worst crimes in history, doubts whether our extraordinary material advances have made us any happier than we were in the past, and regards modern capitalism as an ugly prison. [He] actually does question our basic narrative of the world.”

And then the key message of Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything

“Throughout the book Klein describes climate change as confrontation between capitalism and the planet” (John Gray, Review Observer, Monday 22 September).

Klein’s book ends thus – with a question that was suggested she put to Alexis Tsipras

“Ask him: history knocked on your door: did you answer?   That’s a good question – for all of us.”

About Owain Jones

I work at Bath Spa University as a Professor of Environmental Humanities, and I am Director of the University's Environmental Humanities Research Centre
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