What does emergency feel like? If you’re in Henan, China, perhaps you felt a goldfish nibbling your foot as you waded along the pavement during the summer floods. If you’re in Madrid or Chennai or Sydney, maybe it was stifling heat, the smell of rotting trash, dead insects crisping on the windowsill. If you’re in northern England, it could take on a vague, almost gentle character, like the flowers in the park that opened too early. If you’re in western Zambia, during the drought, perhaps it was the humming of the diesel generators that came on when the mains power cut out, in the murmured conversations of women queuing through the night at the borehole.
Emergency is everywhere, but its many manifestations are bewildering. In some places, climate collapse has created a conflict zone; in others, it shows up as eerie quiet. For many people, it’s devastation, and for a few, it’s a temporary goldmine. How you experience emergency depends on where you are, and how you inhabit that place: what you do there and what it means to you. Rising sea levels have very different implications to the heiress who owns a condo on Mauritius, and the Mauritian fisherman nearby.
It can be difficult to think about something that can’t be captured in a single scene or description, something that is different depending on your location and your identity. Which could be why many stories of climate dystopia often reach for speculative realities: imaginary futures in which emergency can be purified. The author builds a more manageable crisis. A heatwave or a virus. A tsunami or a war. In apocalypse fiction, an emergency can be a single thing. It erupts into the presence of all the characters: it’s sudden, immediate, and takes over their lives. But the real planet is unrulier. In reality, even those at the sharp end of a crisis have other things going on. Work, food, rest, shelter. Arguments and jokes, distraction and boredom. The heatwave happened during the spring your father fell ill. The day of the big storm was the day the baby took her first steps.
I recently spoke with a hydrologist who studies ecosystems that are seeing some of the most extreme effects of climate change. Each summer, he travels to sparsely populated areas of Siberia to study permafrost degradation. Permafrost, like ice cap or rainforest, is critical to the stability of the planet’s atmosphere: where it degrades, it can leak carbon and methane into the atmosphere. He described some aspects of the endangered landscapes he visits: sinkholes, bogs and lumpy earth formations mark the places where the subsurface structure is degrading. He uses satellite imagery to identify them and then travels there, staying with local communities while he takes samples from the soil and water. During the course of his stay, though, something unexpected happens. He comes to learn about the landscape in a different way.
‘I’m working near a lake’, he told me, ‘and the people who live around this lake ask me what I’m doing in the area.’ So he explains that he’s studying mud samples, structural degradation, and the changing profiles of microbial communities or melting permafrost.
They get it. They listen and sometimes they ask questions about the science. But they also have their own stories about the lake. ‘That’s the lake in which we used to swim as children. In those days the banks were higher and more solid.’ Or, ‘Here’s where we were drinking two summers ago, the night that Sergei drowned.’ Or, ‘The best place for ice-fishing in winter is over on that western shore.’ Or, ‘This is the lake where the scientists came from Germany last year. They were doing more or less the same thing as you…’
All these stories are profiles of climate emergency. The ground is collapsing and the ecosystem is reacting to a dramatic rise in temperature. But the lake is also a place for swimming and fishing and it’s the place where Sergei died. The conventional story of emergency snags on these anecdotes. A crisis is supposed to overwhelm daily life, holding a grip over everybody’s attention. But these anecdotes complicate that: where is the crisis? Is it down on the lakebed, buried in mud samples and microbial communities, or around the shores, in conversations about Sergei and ice fishing? Or is it some larger, more nebulous phenomenon, pushing up temperatures and pressing down the active layer where permafrost meets water, below ground? And what do changes in this lake, as signs of planetary emergency, mean in flooded China or drought-ridden Zambia? Why is the heiress effectively immune to them, and the fisherman more vulnerable?
The idea of emergence offers a different way of looking at these messy and uneven manifestations of crisis. Emergence, a philosophical concept used in ecology, involves the creation of something that is more than the sum of its parts: something distinct that emerges as a result of many complex interactions. Ecological collapse holds all these experiences, materials, and beings – Sergei and the mud samples – and draws them into new relationships with one another. When we focus on those relationships, we begin to see something of how emergency exists, is existing, in the world: not as one overwhelming event, but as something that arises from the convergence of many things that are happening at once. It exposes the connections and differences, debts and responsibilities that come up against one another within the emergency, and make it what it is.
Why does this matter? If looking across scales can help a person make sense of a place, it’s because it reveals how that place is characterised through relationships. It exposes who cares about that place and who holds power over it. Crisis isn’t something that transcends the smaller details – the diesel generator, the dying bluebottle on the windowsill, or the baby who is taking her first step. It’s what contains them – and what emerges.
Daisy Hildyard is a writer based in the north of England. Her first novel Hunters in the Snow (2014) won a Somerset Maugham Award at the Society of Authors (UK), and a ‘5 Under 35’ honorarium at the National Book Awards (USA). The Second Body (2017) is an essay on how the porous boundaries of the Anthropocene are shaping human experiences. A second novel, Emergency (2022), tells stories of the global connections, and the human-nonhuman relationships, within a small rural area.
CALL TO ACTION:
Support La Via Campesina, the global movement of peasants feeding the world: https://viacampesina.org/en/