We've been here before
When a fifth of the world went underwater, we had to become something new in order to survive. Now, we have to do it again.
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In late 2021, I was living in the shipping port of Williamstown, in the west reaches of Melbourne. Every day in lockdown we would walk down to the water’s edge to watch the oil tankers fill up in the container port down by Stony Backwash Creek.
One night a storm came, and in the morning, the water had come up all the way to the level of the pier. Salt water spread over the grass and all the way to the road, where cars were splashing through, spraying up huge sheets of water over the dogwalkers. For 48 hours, travel to Melbourne city was almost impossible, as floods cut off major roadways. GPS maps struggled to send people in any direction, rerouting almost at random.
Melbourne is flat. Across the road from Williamstown pier, the houses begin, and run back for kilometres with barely a rise. In that moment you could easily see how another storm surge, just another 50cm, would bring the water right into peoples' houses, spill over the doorsteps and flood the ground floors.
Two generations from now, Williamstown will be gone. Not sunk underwater, nothing so dramatic. Just, flooded regularly enough that the streets are no longer passable, that the houses are no longer liveable. Teenagers will come and party in the derelict flooded mansions down at the waterline. Storm surges will wash over the old container port.
Sea level rise is so innocuous. A few millimetres each year. Sure, it's accelerating, but still, what's a few millimetres? I go down to the beach and I can see the tides flow in and out, many metres at a time. How can I be scared of an extra metre or two?
Of the escalating climate shocks we face, sea level rise often feels to me the least scary. Droughts, floods, heatwaves, fires, storms, these are the things that keep me up at night. Sea level rise (or 'ocean expansion', some people describe it) is slow, it's distant, it's not instantly lethal. But zoom out, and it's sea level rise that will truly reshape our world.
We've been here before. At the end of the last ice age, the world warmed. The ice caps melted. Shrublands replaced tundra, forests replaced shrublands. Coastal rivers became estuaries. Rivers started to flow as glacial meltwaters ran out.
Starting from around 19,000 years ago, the oceans rose for 13,000 years, around 1cm a year. That's half a metre in a human lifetime.
Hills turned into islands. Plains flooded. At times, it moved so imperceptibly slowly you might have thought the flood had stopped. At others it rose in great bursts and the coast disappeared in front of peoples' eyes.
Across the world, millions of square kilometres of land went underwater, almost a fifth of all the land on Earth. All those people forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in other lands. Their connection to their land cut off, forever. What would that have felt like?
This period seems impossibly distant to me, but incredibly, there are stories that take us back to this time.
There are over 500 myths about great floods across the planet. It's often been suggested that these stories date back to the rising seas at the end of the ice age - particularly since, in Australia at least, the stories of floods are associated with the flattest country - the parts of Australia where sea level rise was most severe and impactful. The Gulf of Carpentaria, Echo Island off Arnhem Land, the Bassian Plain, Backstairs Passage in South Australia, the mouth of the Swan River, along the Nullarbor Plain. But until recently, the connection between these stories and the ice age was speculation only.
Then in the mid-2010s, a group of researchers from the University of New England and the University of the Sunshine Coast set out to test the validity of these stories. They combed through Indigenous narratives for tales describing times when the sea was lower than it is today. Where the stories were told, they analysed the contours of the land at the time of the ice age. Their conclusion was that these stories are actually high-fidelity descriptions of country that has been sunk under the sea for hundreds of generations. These traditional custodians can point to islands that went underwater 7,000 years ago, and tell you their original names.
The idea that stories in an oral culture could survive thousands of years unchanged is astonishing to me. But for people studying Indigenous storytelling, it's less surprising. Noongar scholar Cass Lynch explains, 'In Aboriginal culture, these stories are only told by specific community members. They're not remixed or reimagined like you might see with Greek or Roman or Norse myths. They've survived because they're always told in the same contexts by the same people in the same way.'
So these stories take us back to a time when our ancestors, like us today, are looking out over the ocean and wondering how much further it will rise. Whether their own graves will go underwater, like the graves of their parents did and their grandparents before them. Whether the mountain rising overhead will become a peninsula, or an island, or go underwater completely.
At some point you have to decide whether to stay or go.
Scott Cane's First Footprints shares a story from this period from the southeast of Australia. Between Victoria and Tasmania were the grasslands known as the Bassian Plain. As the seas closed in, people retreated to higher ground. On the high hills of what is now Hunter Island, archaeologists have found a hearth in Cave Bay that is 15,400 years old. People were still living there as the seas rose around them. The hearth shows signs of intensified occupation as more people were crammed into smaller country - the grasslands were becoming a shrinking peninsula. 6,600 years ago, the hearth was abandoned. 100 years later, the peninsula was cut off by the sea and became an island. The people left just in time.
To the east, people lived in the uplands of what is now Flinders Island. As the island was cut off from the sea 9,000 years ago, a population remained there. They survived for several millenia, but as the island shrank still further, they may have been trapped without enough water to sustain them. It's unclear what happened, but after 2,000 years, the population vanishes from the archaeological record.
So we've been here before. We are all the descendants of people who lived through that massive cataclysm. Our great-great-grandparents saw the seas rise, and the world they knew go underwater, and they survived.
But they didn't just survive. They became something new. In order for a huge number of people to coexist on a much smaller amount of land, people had to change the way they lived. They created new laws and rituals and protocols to navigate the inevitable challenges and tensions. And the stories that exist from those times still exist for us to learn from. For those of us who come from cultures that have lost this knowledge, we need to pay attention to those who've kept it.
The scale and speed of climate change we're facing now is something new. We can't go back to the past, and we shouldn't try. These Indigenous stories of sea level rise are not a template for our future, and they don't tell us how we should live today. But they are a part of our toolkit, and we need to learn what they teach us, and build on it.
Because we need every possible solution up our sleeve for what comes next. What kind of rules and institutions will we need in a world where one fifth of the global population have lost their homes due to rising seas? What will our social lives look like in a world of denser populations in smaller spaces? What new ceremonies and protocols will help us navigate this new existence?
Just like our ancestors 10,000 years ago, we're in the process of becoming something new. The rituals and laws that humanity creates in response to these massive shocks will become the foundation for human society going forward. How we navigate the next few decades will be the baseline for our new world. Our every move is the new tradition.
So when we see the tide come up over the road and the salt water wash into the garden, we can see out of the corner of our eyes the very first glimpse of the creature we're going to become.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
In December, I had a chat with Noongar scholar Cass Lynch for the New Scientist podcast. We had a beautiful conversation about the end of the ice age, sea level rise and Indigenous storytelling, which New Scientist put out as a special one-off podcast. Highly recommended.
This week, tickets for Belvoir Theatre’s production of Scenes from the Climate Era went on sale. I spent a week this month in the room with director Carissa Licciardello and the company at Belvoir, and it was a joy. Really excited about this one - anyone in Sydney this June, please get along.
This month, I’ve been completely consumed by Gaia Vince’s Nomad Century. Vince argues for migration as one of humanity’s key survival strategies, playing a crucial role in our history. She points out that migration on a never-before-seen scale is inevitable at this point, but flips that from being a narrative of dispossession and loss to something we can celebrate. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, I highly recommend it.
If you’ve seen me perform live in the last few years, chances are you’ve heard this tune, as it’s been my go-to pre-show track since 2018. Sharing it here because I can’t give it enough love.
This month I’ve been writing to the tune of some old IDM favourites - in particular, Chris Clark’s 2003 record Empty the Bones of You. Nothing jolts me back to the feeling of being 19 years old at a bus stop at 5am somewhere in Belconnen like hearing Holiday as Brutality or Gavel Obliterated. Soak it up, lovers.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling and New Rules for Game Design 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.