Saturday, 23 November 2013

How fragile we are

The Lighthouse Keeper isn’t an avid reader of modern-day fiction but, determined to unearth a holiday read for a change, succumbed to the much talked about first novel by Karen Thompson-Walker ‘The Age of Miracles’, first published in 2012.

Written from the viewpoint of a woman looking back at her childhood, the ordinary moments of life and adolescence become more profound in the light of an unfolding disaster affecting all life on Earth.

The apocalyptic story is conjured from the idea of a ‘slowing Earth’, the germ of which, according to Thompson-Walker, stems from the powerful Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004 which physically affected the rotation of Earth and shortened our days by a fraction of a second.

‘The Age of Miracles’ pursues the concept to its maximum - the rotation of Earth continuing to slow and slow, thus inflicting enormous and ultimately unmanageable changes on our normal daily existence.

Whilst making broad 'scientific' assumptions in parts, it is convincingly unsettling and points ultimately to how fragile society at large really is.

As it happened, I finished reading the novel in the wake of the giant typhoon that devastated the Philippines in November 2013, killing thousands of people and wrecking the lives of many more.

The suggestion that the increasing frequency and potency of such storms, droughts, intensive heat waves and floods around the world are linked to mankind’s increasing consumption of fossil fuels and the resultant global warming is ignored at our peril.

If, as a global population, we continue to release more and more energy into our system we shouldn’t really be surprised that it will have consequences.

Heat a pan of cold water on the stove and what happens? The more energy in the form of heat that transfers into the water the hotter and more agitated it becomes - a previously relatively stable environment is soon transformed.

Thompson-Walker describes ‘The Age of Miracles’ as a novel about a catastrophe that no one was expecting. "We sometimes over-estimate what we know about the world but I think we all live with more uncertainty than we like to think," she says.

Such a point is brought resolutely home when we view pictures on our TV screens of a natural disaster like in the Philippines caused by one of the largest and most aggressive typhoons ever recorded.

Yet distance and the remote nature of such events in relation to our own daily lives logically means we are seldom moved to any kind of action - either direct or indirect, on behalf of those affected or our future selves.

If, as a global population, we continue to rack up the temperature of our planet then we shouldn’t be surprised when stronger and more devastating natural events are unleashed at more frequent intervals.

We are, perhaps incontrovertibly, becoming just like the anecdotal frog that is placed in a pan of gradually warming water and gets so accustomed to the rising temperature that by the time it is too hot it can no longer jump out.

The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to ultimately significant changes that occur gradually.

Today, in respect of climate change, we just about still have a choice. But the point of no return is creeping alarmingly close and there are warning signs all about - not least in the just ended UN Climate talks in Warsaw.

The blog title is taken from the lyric of ‘Fragile', a song composed by English musician, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, activist, actor and philanthropist Sting and first released on his 1987 album ‘Nothing Like the Sun’. Sting (Gordon Sumner, CBE) was also the principal songwriter, lead singer and bassist for the rock band ‘The Police’.

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