Monday, 4 July 2022

The Story We Can’t Tell Our Children - with Mini Grey

In which Mini listens to too much radio and thinks about apocalypses

Talking on the radio recently, Neil Gaiman recounts how his daughter Holly, at 4 years old, delighted in scary stories. She would come home, climb on his lap and dictate hair-raisingly creepy tales to him -  which ended up being the inspiration behind his book Coraline. “That was what she loved,” said Neil of the terrifying stories. Neil remembers going to a bookshop in Uckfield and saying “What have you got in the way of good horror for four year olds?” and discovering that this thing didn’t exist yet. He says “I think it’s a wonderful think to be in control of our fear. We like scary stories for the same reason that we like going on rides at funfairs…the fictional fear is the joy of being in control… You can always put the book down.”

It’s not just children who delight in scary stories – grown ups do too.

Maybe that’s a reason people have always imagined they’re living in the End Times, that they are the last people at the end of the world.  The story of Apocalypse is an old one, one of the oldest stories humans tell. An Assyrian clay tablet dating to around 2800 B.C. bears the inscription: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” The Apocalyse Story might be perennially popular, perhaps, because the predicament is OUT of our control, and is going to be visited upon everybody by some unkind superpower. In olden times it was usually a cataclysmic intervention of God that was going to happen, but by the time I was a child it was going to be nuclear war that ended everything; see Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows.

And now the End Times is our Ongoing Planetary Climate Emergency.

In his Radio 4 series ‘Tipping Points’ , Justin Rowlatt addresses the people of 2122, 100 years on: What will their lives be like? What will they think of us? What would we like to say to them? What stories will they tell about us and what we were up to 100 years ago? “Tomorrow’s generations will have a lot to say about what we do now and the choices we make.”

And in a story you can imagine future Earthlings; it could be very useful to us now to imagine what future Earthlings will say about us..

The Arctic and the Amazon rainforest – are critical planetary regulators that drive the weather and climate of our planet. And they’re both teetering on tipping points, both about to slide (or maybe already sliding) into a new state – which will be, possibly: a warming ice-free Arctic in summer; and, possibly, eventually, savannah where most rainforest used to be. And this will mean: a stalled meandering Polar Jet Stream (the air current that usually circles the Arctic) bringing extreme blocked weather events – heat or flooding; and loss of the most biodiverse region on earth and all that breathing out of clouds and rivers in the sky that the rainforest does. A warm Arctic means loss of the temperature differences between poles and equator on land and sea which will disrupt ocean circulation. And all these changes will be too fast for wild animals in earth and sea to adapt.  Our present  CO2 levels are around 420 ppm. To find a planet like this you have to go back in your time machine to 3 million years ago: then, Earth’s climate was 3 degrees warmer, and even warmer at the poles, with no Greenland ice sheet and much higher sea levels: this is the equilibrium the Earth will aim for with our present CO2 levels.

If a palaeontologist in the far future – let’s say in 65 million years time, the distance we are from the dinosaurs – was to look at what happened between 10,000 years ago and now in the fossil record, they’d probably conclude, if they didn’t know better, that there’d been a mass extinction event. One moment, (10, 000 years ago) 96% of mammals on earth are all sorts of diverse wild fauna, and then, suddenly, they nearly disappear (becoming 4% of all mammals today) and the rest - 96% of mammals - are suddenly humans and their domesticated animals. Palaeontologists of the future would think a mass extinction had already taken place – something had happened to make all that wildlife disappear, and a  ‘disaster taxa’ of animals that can live anywhere and aren’t fussy (humans and their animals) had spread everywhere, a bit like how lystrosauruses colonized the planet after the super-disastrous end-Permian mass extinction .

And future Earthlings are already with us: what do our children  think about what Earth’s grown-ups are doing now to tackle climate change, and the double threats of global warming and biodiversity loss?

Although he’s been on Friday for Future marches, I didn’t think my 15 year old son Herbie would want to talk about the Climate Emergency – it could be a bleak outlook ahead for young people. But when I ask him, his answer is surprising.

Herbie says: “A mammal species usually lasts a few million years. So we could say the human species could be destined to last a million years at the bare minimum. Which means, if we don’t make ourselves extinct – (which it is very unlikely for us to do, even if we make the Earth very difficult to live on) – we’re not at the end, we’re at the very start of the whole human race. We’ve got 800 000 years at least ahead of us.”

There could be a shift in perspective of where we are in the story – maybe we’re at the beginning rather than the end. Which makes what we do now even more important. 

One thing I learned from researching and making my latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is this:

It’s amazing and terrifying to know that, in Earth’s history, complex animal life has occasionally been REALLY close to being snuffed out (the worst ever was 252 million years ago). The Earth has sometimes been a TERRIBLE place to live in the past (possibly even trying to get rid of life, you could suspect…): there have been huge volcanic lava outpourings, there have been tremendous freezes, there have been times when the ocean became anoxic and hostile to life. About 20 thousand years ago a cold world that swung erratically in and out of ice-ages started to thaw and turn into the gentle friendly stable climate of the Holocene where us modern humans have made our homes, and that benevolent climate – not too warm or too cold – is what we – and everyone else on the planet – is used to. And it’s been a lucky time: no big asteroid strikes, no massive lava outpourings.

But now we realise that just one animal, us, is controlling the whole planet…but it’s not in our control. And if certain tipping points get triggered, it will roll into a new climate mode, and there will be nothing we can do to push it back to something like the dear old friendly Holocene.

We are living in a critical moment for our planet.

  And also in making the Greatest Show I discovered – we are only half way through the life of our Earth and Sun – there’s a whopping 500 million years left for animal life of all sorts – for “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” to evolve . The Tape Measure of Time which is unrolled in my book by Anton, Anatole and Annette the Ant Time Team, is at a scale of one centimetre to a million years. When you think that all of Homo Sapiens’s business is contained in the last three millimetres of the last one centimetre on the Tape Measure of Time, and we feel that even those few hundred thousand years is a long long time, imagine the vast time distances that stretch before us. All the Holocene is contained in the last tenth of a millimetre of the Tape Measure of Time; just rolling out another centimetre takes us a million years into the future – and there’s a possible 5 or 6 metres of time still to come.

Looking into the future is so difficult: even looking forward 50 years is hard. 



Can we go through the Crystal Ball: what COULD the future be? Can we get in an imaginary time machine and travel to a thousand years in the future?.

The secret special fantastic superpower of humans is our crazy overactive imaginations. And those imaginations feed on the power of story: story lets us share collective imaginary ideas like nations, money, gods, the past and the future.

With stories and empathy we can imagine the far future, and what that

might be like.

Can we imagine Earth is 1000 years time? 10,000 years time? 100, 000 years time? What could a planet where humans and the rest of nature live in balance be like? How much space would each need?

Then we can start working out what we have to do to get there.

 So here it is:

The Story We Can’t Tell Our Children.


Here’s how the story starts:

But this story has a sad ending: the wild animals disappear, and Earth ends up a bit inhospitable. Actually I can't tell you this story. It's just too sad. 

So I'll tell you a story that was once in my book, Space Dog, about a furry planet.

Imagining our possible futures is useful. It can help us work out what’s important. Imagining what future people will say about us who are on Earth now is useful. Having an imagined conversation across time with future beings could be useful, to galvanise ourselves into making changes now.

So back to the APOCALYPSE: The original word in Greek — apokalypsis — means an unveiling, a revelation. An apocalypse helps us see something that was hidden before.

Maybe our story can have a different ending.

So here it is: The Story We Might Wish our Children will tell:

And this story has many possible happy endings. Here's just one.

And then the people of Earth decided they wanted to make sacrifices right now so they could give their planet a good future: they asked their governments to put a price on carbon dioxide and methane so it was expensive to pollute Earth’s atmosphere with them. They stopped eating meat – except for special treats – so they could give back half of Earth’s land surface to nature, and everything they planned and made from then on, was planned to give more habitat to wildlife. And it took a long time, and it wasn't easy, but people and planet eventually at long last were in balance. And endless forms most wondrous continued to evolve.

And how on Earth do we get to the happy ending?

Well, all you story-makers,  that’s another story….


Some links:

The Climate Tipping Points by Justin Rowlatt (Radio 4 broadcasts)

If Sketching Weakly Ruled The World  A post from 2020 about climate action

CCLUK - working towards a price on carbon with dividend to all citizens



Mini’s latest book is The Greatest Show on Earth, published by Puffin.




Pippa Goodhart said...

Wow, Mini! Such a BIG and SCARY topic, but so very very important for the upcoming generations to understand and feel enthused to do the necessary positive things about. Thank you for this.

Mini Grey said...

Thanks Pippa! Ald also I think it's important for the people in charge right now especially to know our climate is in peril - why don't we have more politicians with science backgrounds???