In September 2013, I caught a small boat to a cay off the coast from Cape Tribulation in Queensland. Squeezed into a stinger suit, I drifted from the boat’s ladder and sank below the surface. Immediately, I was enchanted by the slow, drifting grace of green sea turtles; bright blue starfish sprinkled among the coral; small, rippling stingrays and a sedate angelfish that I followed, kicking my flippers gently. What I wasn’t prepared for were the grey branches of dead coral and swathes of empty sand.
On the way back to shore, the tour guide mentioned this was the best shape in which he’d seen the reef in the last few years. I baulked. A 2012 paper from the Australian Institute of Marine Science noted that the Great Barrier Reef had lost half its coral cover over the last twenty-seven years. It is yet another fact in the litany about the decimation of Earth’s ecosystems, in the face of which there is general apathy. As Jedidiah Purdy writes of the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “our knowledge is increasing, just about everything that matters is getting worse, and all we can realistically do is soften the edges of a slow-moving catastrophe” (n.p). Purdy argues that political action to date has been largely symbolic and that what is needed is “extraordinary politics” – politics akin to that which ended slavery and which, as it did then, requires economic and social upheaval (n.p.).
Writers have the capacity to encourage such extraordinary politics by bringing their readers into worlds affected by climate change. Robert Macfarlane, in his 2005 Guardian article “The Burning Question” about the role of writers in imagining climate change, refers to Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (1989), who posited that individuals would not act against climate change unless they felt “fear in their guts”. Macfarlane contends that literature “has a role to play in inducing this gut feeling, for one of its special abilities is that of allowing us to entertain hypothetical situations - alternative lives, or futures, or landscapes - as though they were real” (n.p.). However, until recently, authors have been slow to respond to the crisis posed by climate change.