Tom Bullough is the author of four novels – most recently Addlands, a story of seventy years on a Radnorshire hill farm, which, among other plaudits, was the subject of a sermon in Westminster Abbey. At present, he is working on his fifth book, Sarn Helen - a study of Welsh history and the climate crisis - which will be published by Granta in 2022. He lives in the Brecon Beacons.
- For 2100, 77 years from now, the likely range in global temperature increase above the pre-industrial average is 2-4.9°C, with the median 3.2°C. Globally, that is to say, we are set on a course for a barely imaginable catastrophe. As Sir David Attenborough put it, four years ago this month, “It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”
- We are still not taking that dramatic action. We haven’t meaningfully even begun. Our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, our natural habitats to be destroyed. To put this another way, we are collectively – and, given that we know this, actively – seeking to bring about the extinction of a million or more species, and to inflict thirst, famine, mass displacement and death on millions, even billions of people. This is, quite simply, a crime on a scale exceeding anything in human history.
- All of which, if you happen to be a writer – which, I suppose, applies to most of us – can leave you wondering, why do I write? Or, as Jay Griffiths puts it, to tie these two hours back to the start, what are we writing in service of?
- Forgive me if I’m saying what you already know, but that’s conclusions, isn’t it? The climate and ecological emergency is not, ultimately, a scientific problem, however we might long for some technical salvation. It is a symptom of our profoundly dysfunctional relationship with the natural world – that is, a symptom of our culture. It is not an issue or even a cluster of issues. It is our emerging reality – and those who have yet to grasp this fact are not paying attention.
- Writers communicate. That’s what we do. We pay attention, we perceive as honestly as we can and we find ways to communicate that perception. This means that to be a writer today is to hold the climate and ecological emergency at the heart of your work. I have offended people in the past by saying things like this, and I really don’t like doing it. With luck it won’t be the case here. If the emergency is not at the heart of your work then you’re not writing honestly, and if you’re not writing honestly then you are not a writer.
- You might say that, following that logic, the role of the writer is very much the same as it has always been, and to an extent I would have to agree. But, remember Jay Griffiths’s words: what are we writing in service of? As writers, we have cultural power, and that translates into responsibility. Yes, the 1.5° target is lost, but it remains true that everything matters: every fraction of a degree, every species we save from extinction, every person who steps up and becomes a part of the solution. As Antonio Guterres said last month, “Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.” So this is not a question of win or lose. It is a question of the culture that caused the emergency, and it is our job to lead that culture.
- The fact is that our future depends on a transformation without peacetime precedent: a reinvention of our society and economy around completely different stories.
- The idea of the individual writer – that (sometimes) heroic figure – that is an idea of the Holocene. It is an idea with no application now, today, in the Anthropocene. In the end, given the scale of this challenge, if a book means anything today it is because it belongs to a wider movement. It matters insofar as it helps in the change that movement brings about. Which, of course, is why we are here. It is not just that writing still matters. It has never mattered so much before.
- So, thank you, everyone who has organised this event, everyone who has spoken, everyone who has listened. Thank you, everyone in every occupation in every part of the world who is fighting for the change we need – because we are all of us in this together.
- Please remember that, and let it give you strength. God knows that we’re going to need it. Let’s – all of us – lead this change like it’s the most important thing we’ll ever do, because that is exactly what it is.
Tom Bullough is a novelist and nonfiction writer from Wales, whose latest, bestselling book Sarn Helen is “a delight” (Simon Jenkins, TLS). With Jay Griffiths, he leads the Writing and Climate Course at Black Mountains College.
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