No new normal

What does climate change mean for our own life plans?

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One night in the mid-2000s, I was stuck on the wrong side of Manila after a late night gig. It was the wet season, the rain had been coming down all day, the streets were knee deep in water, and I needed to make it across town in order to get home.

One basic challenge with Manila's layout is that the city is built in a bowl, with the lowest districts actually below sea level. Crossing the city in a flood can mean passing through the deepest floodwaters.

I hailed five cabs. When I told them I was going to Malate, one driver after another shook their head and drove on their way. When the sixth cab stopped, the driver looked at me for a long moment. He knew it was a bad idea and I knew it was a bad idea. But finally he nodded, and I jumped in.

We quickly ran into trouble. The further we drove, the deeper the water grew. The cars left waves in their wake in the knee deep water, and the waves splashed up against the windows. Meanwhile the power had blown and the streetlights had gone dark, meaning we were driving with just the headlights on the water.

We found what looked like a route through the floods - in a street where the cars ahead of us were turning back, one by one - and pushed forward. The water outside rose to the bottom of the car doors, then to the headlights, then to the car windows. Water started spilling through the cracks in the door and filling up the footwell. The engine cut out, the wheels left the road, and we were floating in the darkness in a slowly sinking car, with the water rushing in.

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Almost every city in the world is now encountering new conditions it was not designed for.  Manila already struggles with frequent storms. It's hard to imagine how it will cope in the coming decades of rising sea levels and powerful typhoons.

My hometown of Canberra in Australia has always seemed fairly resilient, even in the prolonged drought of my teenage years. Then the bushfires of 2019-20 revealed that the hills and valleys around the city are perfectly built to capture and retain the smoke from any nearby bushfires. Even when the city is not in danger of burning itself, a bad bushfire season in the vicinity can make Canberra's air almost unbreathable for weeks at a time.

My adopted home of London is perfectly designed for cold rainy weather. Its small, well-insulated rooms become quickly claustrophobic when the weather turns warm. In the heatwave summer of 2019, the city became unbearable. I remember the scorching heat during the Extinction Rebellion protests, while the Underground was like a sauna, with people gulping breaths of cloying air in cramped trains.

All around us we see cities, buildings, systems and institutions built for another era, an era that's already past. Meanwhile the future is already here, in the air that we're breathing right now.

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Peter Brannen writes that, 'A variation in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere of as little as 0.1 percent has meant the difference between sweltering Arctic rainforests and a half mile of ice atop Boston. That negligible wisp of the air is carbon dioxide.’

Carbon dioxide is only a tiny proportion of the air in the atmosphere, but that tiny proportion is rising faster and faster. For the entire history of human civilisation, CO2 was less than 200 parts per million. In the Industrial Revolution, it rose over 300. In the late 2000s, it passed 400. At the time of writing this, it's 419 and accelerating.

Carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun and warms up the atmosphere. Where carbon dioxide goes, the rest of the planet follows. Historically, when CO2 levels change, they're followed a few decades later by changes in the oceans, atmosphere and land systems. That 30-50 year lag is an eyeblink in geological terms, but slow in relation to a human life - and glacial in political terms.

Right now, we exist in that lag. We've forced CO2 up to levels it hasn't been at for roughly 3 million years, when the oceans were more than 20 metres higher than they are today. The climate impacts we've seen so far are a small taster of what we've already committed ourselves to, but it will be decades before the wave crashes fully down on our heads.

So we breathe the air of the future and we inhabit the world of the past - poised between action and consequence like an insect balancing on the surface of the water.

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One thing that the pandemic has laid bare is the huge friction our systems are already under. Our institutions, businesses and governments have ground up against the crisis and they've tried to remain unchanged. In order to remain unchanged, they've had to add endless hacks, work-arounds and bandaid solutions. The cost of all this extra work adds further strain to these already stressed systems. Our society is the sunk cost fallacy operating in overtime.

See, for example, governments insisting that people return to work in offices for fear that commercial building rents will collapse. We'll go to extreme lengths to preserve failing systems rather than adapting or transforming, because transforming is painful.

It's hard to even see the pressure that's building up behind these systems. The pressure is everywhere, and how do you point to something that's everywhere? The one thing we can be sure of is that the changes we're facing are not reversible - we won't go back to where we were before.

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I think the thing about planetary change that I find most counterintuitive is that we're not heading towards a new normal. There's no new paradigm that we'll reach.

The impacts of global change won't hit in one single burst, and nor will they hit in a smooth continuum. They are accelerating.

That means the 2020s will be chaotic. The 2030s will be worse. The 2040s will be much worse. The 2050s will be vastly worse again. And the 2060s will be worse still.

No-one alive today is ever going to see a new normal. Because as soon as the crisis has reached one level, it will escalate again.

That means every time we reorganise our society and our lives to respond to some huge global shock, we'll have a small window before we're hit by another shock and have to reorganise again. And the size of those shocks will keep growing, and the time between them will keep shrinking.

Depending what we do now, we can change the size and shape of these shocks (and there's so much we can do) - but what we can't do is stop the shocks coming.

So like me, you were born at a moment in history where the planet of your childhood was much more stable than the planet of your old age. Your world will grow more chaotic and unpredictable the older you get.

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As Alex Steffen puts it, 'You and I and all the people we know live in a moment when learning how to move through a landscape stripped of its familiar reference points is an essential life skill.'

We each need a way to make sense of these changes in the context of our own lives.

There's no single way to get to grips with the crisis. Everyone grapples with it in their own way, and people will gravitate to the worldviews that make sense to them.

There are lots of interesting voices offering their perspective on the situation - but as ever, don't follow leaders. Thinkers and schools can be useful signposts on the way to figuring out how to live, but never trust anyone who claims to have the answers.

For myself, processing the crisis in relation to my own life comes down to asking myself three questions:

1. How should I live?

This question breaks down into a lot of smaller questions about my lifestyle and personal plans. For example:

  • What kind of lifestyle is possible and desirable given the changes we know is coming?

  • Where will be a safe place to live?

  • Which communities and institutions will hold together through the coming decades, and which are fragile?

  • Can I live in a way that my happiness is not hostage to sudden shocks and impacts?

2. How can I help?

For me, a big part of being hopeful is being useful. In the midst of the chaos and panic, our job is the same as it's ever been - to fight for a just and kind world. The contours of that struggle are simple - to fight rich tyrants and support the afflicted.

Conveniently, the fight for justice overlaps with the actions we need to take to reduce climate impacts anyway. Supporting Indigenous land rights movements, supporting reproductive rights for women, improving air quality by reducing pollution...

Although advocacy and activism are critical, I don't think they provide enough meaning by themselves to shape my life around. So my final question:

3. What should I work towards?

In other words, what's my purpose? Maybe this is a career or professional goal, or maybe it's about family and community. Whatever it is, I try to ask: how will this goal be affected by the shocks and impacts that are coming?

This one is particularly on my mind right now, because I'm a theatre-maker living in an era when live performance has been abruptly halted. But it's a question for all of us, because no-one's life ambitions will be unaffected by the tranformations that are coming.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but I'm trying to get better at the practice of asking them, and sitting in the uncomfortable headspace of not-knowing.

The thing I'm scared of most is not the shocks and crises themselves. It's the fear that I might receive all these warnings, and still fail to take heed. There's no shame in being blown off-balance by storms we didn't see coming. But to be caught off-guard by the things we were warned about? That's just embarrassing.

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We made it to the other end of the flooded street, with the help of six men who swam alongside the taxi and helped pull it to higher ground. Once the wheels of the cab could touch the ground, and the water was starting to drain out of the cabin, the driver and I looked at each other and shook our heads. We'd made a bad decision - but we were okay.

In Manila in the mid-2000s, you could make a bad decision about driving through a flooded city, and still survive. But in the coming decades, the room for error will grow ever narrower. I'm trying to take time now to heed the warnings about what's coming, and to make sense of what they mean for my life. Because I fear that sooner than we think, we'll all be in a situation where if we make the wrong decision, it will be very easy to go under.

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NEWS AND PROJECTS

Australia’s gone back into a deep lockdown, so all my live events have been postponed for a few months. In the meantime, I’ve been chewing away at new drafts of scripts, and soaking up some good books and music.

The Best of World SF: Volume 1
Edited by Lavie Tidhar, this is a lovely anthology of 26 sci-fi stories from around the world, some written in English, some translated. As with any anthology, it’s hit and miss, but the stories that hit are an absolute delight. I loved Vandana Singh’s ‘Delhi’, about visions of different eras of the city flashing into the present, and I was really moved by Ng Yi-Sheng’s ‘Xingzhou’, which follows a 19th century Chinese refugee starting a new life on the sun.

Adab - NTS Radio set (2020)
I’ve been hooked on the live mixes posted Pittsburgh DJ Adab recently. This is just about perfect - an effortless hour-long mid-tempo lope, including a lovely passage of DJ Python’s lush reggaeton drums and a blissful drop into a deep cut from Mouse on Mars’ 1994 record Vulvaland. It’s been a wobbly month in Australia, this has helped.

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As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.

Peace!