Letter to our first grandchild…

To M.S., born December 2019, welcome. Then I must say sorry.

Isn’t it sad, that my next significant offering to you is an apology! An apology that should not be from just me but all of us, all who are about our age. We have given you a mess to clean up, or simply, perhaps, to live with as best you may. Not sure if our human ingenuity will stretch to fixing this one. A soiled and unhappy planet, deprived of reason, dirty, seemingly mostly determined to be corrupt.

The planet is not in the state it was when I was born (1956), nor when your grandmother was born (1957). The population then was less than 3 billion. Carbon dioxide levels were less than 300 parts per million. There was a lot more forest and places where you could see the wild, if not exactly wilderness, and seas were less polluted as were rivers, more or less. It was cooler and – where we come from – wetter then.

Cooler then…

I might perhaps have told you a lie with my ‘less polluted’ above. The rot had already set in. Rivers were polluted (if not, at that time, with the plastics that will come later to haunt our waterways and seas) as was the air. We were already significantly impacting the natural world. Rachel Carson wrote a book about it in 1962. Silent Spring is its name. Read it (and think about what that silence conveys), if it’s still available. And in another book the Club of Rome warned us, in the 70s this one, that there were indeed limits to growth.

And thus why we need to apologise. We knew. We’d been told. We’d been warned. Even, if you care to look into it, back in the 19th century and early 20th. A. S. Byatt, in her excellent 1970 book, Unruly Times , observed that both Wordsworth and Coleridge, early in the 19th century, commented on the effects of industrialisation on the northern landscape: ‘Iron bridges, canals, aqueducts, new metalled roads…’, thus noting the beginnings of significant and permanent change in Britain’s landscape and in humanity’s relationship with nature. Coleridge, in fact, had written in 1803 of ‘a plain of ugliest desolation… a Sodom and Gomorrah cotton Factory’. The World Economic Forum tells us that ‘the first three industrial revolutions led to many of our current environmental problems. Unsafe levels of air pollution for 92% of the world’s population, climate change, the depletion of fishing stocks, toxins in rivers and soils, overflowing levels of waste on land and in the ocean, and deforestation can all be traced to industrialization.’

The vicious truth is that that very industrialisation that brought us environmental decline also brought with it an Aladdin’s carpet ride. The great demographic transition of industrial Britain and Europe and the US and other parts of the world, spilled across time (slowly, oh so slowly) into Asia and Africa and Latin America and brought with it better lives and higher life expectancies, falling birth rates… and Goods. Goodies: fridges, cars, TVs, AC, bigger, better things. Falling birth rates, smaller families and with it – the creation of the human as consumer; Homo economicus, a greedy entity interested primarily in self. Neoliberalism and its lies and dreams. Mephistopheles. The cargo cult.

I can’t say I didn’t listen to the dissenters. I flirted with socialism (but as a practical experiment it obviously failed) and attempted to resist. Unsuccessfully, I fear. I read Silent Spring, parts of it anyway. I read Limits to Growth. I wrote articles and stories and textbook chapters praising the natural world. But what else did I do? Did in invest myself in the politics of protest; not really. Did I adopt a hippy lifestyle? No. Did I stop using cars and electric conveniences and computers – on which I write this very thing. Obviously not. Certainly I installed solar panels on our roof(s) and divested myself (eventually) of plastic wrap and other unnecessary stuff. We started to compost et al. Too little, too late, I suspect. I went fishing and deplored the slow decline in those creeks and rivers I loved. But does complaint make of me someone who did something meaningful? I’m fairly confident it does not.

And this brings me to my second great apology. That we have left you a world currently apparently run by fascists. Deniers, neoliberal do’ers of business as usual, people democratically elected by the people but not for or of the people.

Corporations run governments. That seems to be a truth pretty much universal. Corporations determine policies; the chief democratic will of most nations at present is one which does not want to divest itself of the making of profits and greenhouse gases. Our economies are well oiled. Coal seamed. Denial of our climate emergency is a well-funded industry.

Should I have become more interested in the political process? Should I have marched more often than I did? Should I have written to, spoken to politicians, and protested publicly over poor politicking, that has NOT the interests of the community at heart, more than I did? Government is not to be treated as irrelevant. I ignored it for much of my adult life. saw it as white noise.

If we do that, I’ve learned, we risk inviting in those who realise that government is about management, control. And control at the moment is also about convincing those they call quiet that this government, that does not care a damn for them, does… care, have their interests in mind, act for them. I did not vote for our current government but I did not do enough to ensure they did not get back in. I am sorry they rule (misrule) now.

Our current Australian government has overseen a crisis, not with care and concern but with indifference. Helped brew it with policies that increased our greenhouse load, did not take immediate action to mitigate the costs and consequences of fire and drought, played politics with carbon. I have vilified them on social media but I cannot help but feel it may be too late. It’s at least two more years to the next election; besides, can another election fix our problems in time? Again, apologies.

Can you and your generation fix this? That is what we have left you with, a key question – do you have the will, the ingenuity, the resources to fix this mess. It’s true that there are technologies now we could invest in. There are signs of change, particularly in the EU. Maybe in Britain… but with Boris Johnson in, I am not convinced that anything good will come from the old dart. Renewables, community gardening, divesting itself of agribusiness, better urban spaces, cleaner transport – we have pretty much most of what we need, except perhaps the political will. It comes back, I think, to my – our – lack of faith in our political process. The sad erosion of belief in democracy.

Are you already living in dystopia? Have we collapsed into religious states something like The Handmaid’s Tale. Has Modi made of India a Hindu state, has Erdogan ensured Turkey has become a fascist dictatorship, is the US – god help us – still under the thumb of a Trump or one of his ilk? Has religious discrimination become the norm? Law? Are you just another brick in the wall. Is the world Soylent Green?

By the great celestial teapot, I hope not. I am sorry it has come to this.

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