Orwell On Climate Disaster

01Mar19

In his clear-sighted and thoughtful essays, Orwell considers a wide range of subjects, and even the simple act of making amends comes up in A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray: “It might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.”

Of course, the title of my essay is meant to be eye-catching. Orwell didn’t live long enough to see environmental movements. But certain quotes are enough to make you wonder if he would have eventually been an environmentalist, and I think it’s reasonable to say he’d have been pleased with some aspects of modern life even while deeply troubled we’re driving straight for a cliff-edge. Politicians still fail to invest in clean energy or they rail against a carbon tax, even as scientists warn us about eventual crop failures, major cities flooded, and millions of climate refugees. The Orwell quote suggests he had an instinct for balance, for living in a measured way on the earth that predates our idea of a carbon footprint or recycling.

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad has one of my favourite endings to any essay I’ve ever read. I once read the entire essay as part of a reading series — not a particularly good idea — and right before this final paragraph, told them if they’d tuned out to tune back in again for these final words: “At any rate, spring is here, even in London … and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

But that’s what we’re finally doing, isn’t it? The bomb threatens to end everything, or perhaps not at all if we can someday dismantle them all. But now we’re slowly short-circuiting nature itself, blending and flattening the seasons into a blur of hysterical weather of one kind or another, killing off species, lifting a ban on pesticides linked to declining bee numbers without concern for how we might manage without them, marching towards a world in which no child grows up in a safe and secure environment.

Clearly, Orwell’s insightful, creative and lucid mind also wisely took pleasure in the natural world. But the lies streaming from the loudspeakers now could delay action on climate change beyond a tipping point into disaster, and what would quite simply be the end of civilized life. Think of all the immense struggles for civil rights and every sacrifice made in the name of defeating fascism — far too many brutal stories to possibly recount here. What do all those sacrifices mean if we open the door to lasting chaos? We should be speaking up calmly on streetcars to start discussions, painting slogans, and generally doing whatever we can to make climate disaster a part of our daily consciousness and ignite the desire for change. And certainly, we must make ourselves aware that some of the most brilliant minds of the last hundred years — including Orwell — would be truly appalled by our lack of action.

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