It happened on the 8.10 from Euston to Manchester Piccadilly. It was a Tuesday in February 2019. The train was zooming through the outskirts of London. The carriage smelled of aftershave and Costa coffee, there was the tap-tap of laptop keyboards and pre-work chitchat as normal people headed to normal meetings. I was going to just such a meeting myself – English and Creative Writing at the Open University – and as usual I felt both jaded and wired at the prospect. So I read a Guardian article on my phone, and everything changed.
‘The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems,’ it read.
More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered… The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.
It was a summary of the first global scientific review of insect extinction, and its findings were unequivocal. I had never given much thought to insects, though of course I knew we needed them. I knew about insecticides, pollution, that Bad Things were happening about which I could do nothing, therefore it seemed sensible to continue to focus on what I could control, or influence at least, my job, my family, my writing. But every line of that article seared into me.
Watford was hurtling past. The man in front of me was having a micro power battle with his female boss. The train was reality, how things were. But the words glared up at me from the screen of my phone.
“The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet. Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”
Why the article had such a dramatic effect I don’t know, but I suddenly understood. The habitual insanity of my life and the lives of everyone I knew became instantly apparent. We were destroying nature, and we didn’t care. We were ignoring the only thing that mattered. No matter how extreme any human suffering now, no one could survive the collapse of the natural world. I arrived at work dazed, disorientated. What were we all doing? Why was no one even talking about the death of insects, the coming apocalypse?
I had never been radical, never seriously questioned the way that society was organised, even if I felt uncomfortable about it. But the jigsaw pieces were falling into place – the capitalist project, the compulsion to consume, the comforts and distractions of modern life – all this was taking its toll on nature. We were taking it for granted that the world would always be there for us. Me, the normal people on the train, and almost everyone else. But the world was finite.
Yet what could I do? What could I change? My job didn’t lend itself to climate activism, I was meant to be writing teaching materials. Nor did my fiction writing: my work in progress was a novel about a Victorian medium who runs a lodging house in Brighton. The natural world did not have a big part to play in the story. All my writing life, I have written about people, with nature making an appearance from time to time to provide setting or a moment of frisson. My interest has always been the figure in the landscape, not the landscape itself. Now my fiction looked futile. Writing, it seemed, was a distraction, not the main event that I had always thought it was.
Almost three years have passed since that train journey. What has changed? I suppose, having realised this was my tipping point, I started to think about what I might realistically achieve. I now read more books and articles about climate related issues. I took a new line in my novel research and discovered – who knew? – that the Victorians were uber polluters as well as uber exploiters, storm troopers in the war on nature. Factories belched smoke, cities were swathed in smog, and industrial parks sprang up where dyes and pharmaceuticals were manufactured. Waste was dumped in rivers. (One notorious event was the Great Stink in London in 1858 during which the stench of untreated human waste and industrial effluent on the banks of River Thames became unbearable.) And animals were slaughtered in vast numbers – as hunting trophies or for manufacture. Hundreds of thousands of snowy egrets, owls, terns and passenger pigeons were hunted to near extinction, largely to trim the hats of fashionable ladies. Whaling had yet to become the highly mechanised industry it became in the 20th century, but the Victorians did their bit, killing whales in their thousands for their oil and blubber. I already understood this period in terms of its impact on the inhabitants of Britain’s imperial ‘possessions’, and in terms of social class. Now I saw what I had overlooked before, the effect on the natural world itself.
I realised that I could write about climate emergency and environmental collapse from this perspective. One discovery was that H.G. Wells, a towering cultural figure at the time, predicted species extinction caused by human activity long before this was on the scientific radar.
Beyond that novel, I also realised that narrative has a vital part to play in communicating climate, and that writers can reach places scientists can’t. The facts are there, but what is needed now is a way to fire the collective imagination. Everyone has a tipping point, just as I did, and just as the planet does, and stories can offer them.
A story is cause and effect, it makes a shape out of reality, it helps us understand. And a story is something that we can pass on, it’s something tangible. Hardwired into every aspect of our culture, stories are not the property of creative writers, they belong to everyone.
The 2020 report of Climate Story Lab UK (which was produced after discussions with over 100 climate experts and storytellers) argues that: “We need a biodiversity of storytelling – as diverse as the ecosystems we seek to save.’
In her novel Autumn Ali Smith writes: ‘whoever makes up the story makes up the world’. And Venetia Welby, author of Dreamtime, says: “Writers can say what others cannot, can explore hypotheticals and reach something true. Everyone has a part to play in halting the juggernaut and hauling it round – inertia is death.’
As far as work went, I thought I could bend my job to my will, and forge a climate writing career as an academic. But I soon realised I had lost heart in the whole enterprise, so I walked away. Now I devote my time either to writing directly about the climate emergency or working on fictional narratives that address this issue imaginatively, and through which I hope to reach more readers. I know I am lucky to have the choice, and I hope to use that luck well. The stories we tell about the climate crisis matter, and this is mine.
Sally O’Reilly is a journalist and writer. Her articles have been published by the Guardian, Evening Standard, Sunday Times and New Scientist, and her novels have been published by Penguin, Picador US and Myriad Editions. She is an Honorary Associate in Creative Writing at The Open University.