Russia’s Yamal peninsula rarely makes the news, even in Russia. Situated inside the Arctic Circle, it is sparsely populated, mostly by reindeer herders living traditional nomadic lifestyles in what is normally a cold and austere environment.
Last month, though, the environment changed. In what the director of Russia’s Institute of Global Climate called ‘a colossal, unprecedented anomaly’, a heatwave inside the Arctic circle took Yamal’s temperature up to 34° celsius, The heat began to melt the icy ground – the permafrost – and things which had been frozen for decades began to thaw. Among those things were the bodies of reindeer which had died more than seven decades ago; and among those bodies were the spores of the deadly bacterial disease anthrax.
The anthrax spread among the local reindeer population, killing more than 2000 of them, and then jumped to humans. One boy died; unconfirmed reports suggest his grandmother died too. Then the Russian government took action. Doctors and soldiers poured into the territory and began a programme of mass vaccinations and antibiotic treatment which seems to have stemmed, so far, the further spread of the disease. At the time of writing, hundreds of Russian troops are burning infected reindeer carcasses across the region, and a 12,000km exclusion zone is being disinfected to ensure no spores remain in the soil. According the region’s governor, ‘it is unlikely that anything will grow there ever again.’
Across the world, the ice is melting at rates much faster than predicted even five years ago, and as it does so it is bringing buried things to the surface. Viktor Maleyev, deputy chief of Russia’s Central Research Institute of Epidemiology, warns that the smallpox virus could be released again from thawing graves; so too could recently discovered viruses from extinct and as-yet-frozen mammoths. In Greenland, researchers fear that melting ice may lead to the release of underground toxic waste, buried during the Cold War.
What is certain is that the thawing will not stop; it is only likely to accelerate. In Antarctica, monitoring stations reported three months ago that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have now exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in four million years. Five of the first six months of 2016 set records for the lowest ever levels of monthly Arctic sea-ice extent, according to NASA, while every one of those six months has set new records for high temperatures globally.
If there’s a positive side to runaway global warming, it’s that it should, at least in theory, put human problems into perspective. Down at the human level, though, there seem to be enough examples of runaway politics and runaway economics to distract us from the bigger picture. From the rise of Trumpism in America and nativism across Europe – both symptoms of the cultural and economic turmoil caused by the globalisation project – to the continuing crisis in the Middle East and north Africa, political ructions in South America, spiralling rates of inequality, record rates of migration … every day the old normal is replaced by a new one, and the new one never seems to last very long. All is not well in the citadels of progress.
‘We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling,’ we wrote seven years ago in the Dark Mountain manifesto. ‘All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.’ When we wrote those words they were, to many, highly debatable. They seem less debatable today, and I would bet they will seem a lot less debatable in a decade’s time. I sense that already there is no turning back; that all over the world, people are pulling their fingers out of the dams and starting to reluctantly turn their minds to the big question: what happens now?
This is the question that will form the loose theme for the eleventh Dark Mountain anthology, to be published in April 2017. In times like these it can sometimes be tempting to talk, in hushed tones and to people we trust, about ‘the end of the world’. But there is, surely, no one end to any world – instead, there are many endings, small and large, tumbling over each other all the time, building up to a crescendo. If you live in Yamal, or Syria, or in a logged rainforest or a spreading desert – your world is ending now.
In our eleventh book, we’d like to dig deeper into what this means. What happens if, instead of focusing on some predicted future catastrophe, we look around us at the many smaller ones which are happening as we write? The word ‘apocalypse’ is often thrown around loosely when referring to frightening phenomena like climate change. But the original meaning of that word is not ‘catastrophe’ but ‘revelation’. As the carapace of progress cracks, as the ice thaws – what is revealed? What dies away, and what is born to take its place? Frightening times can also be exciting times. From the collapse of one way of seeing or being comes the opportunity to build another. As stories crumble, new ones can be told. What do they look like?
Submissions for Dark Mountain: Issue 11 are now open; as ever, we are looking for prose, both fiction and non-fiction and anything in between, poetry and visual artwork, and we would like it to explore, in any way that seems appropriate, what it means at this time in history to be facing the many ends of the world – and what might come from them.
Over to you.
Dark Mountain: Issue 11 will be published in April 2017. The deadline for submissions is 15th November 2016. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines.
PS – After publishing this call, we realised where the phrase ‘The Ends of the World’ had come from. It is the English title of a book by Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (due to be published later in 2016 by Polity Press). Déborah and Eduardo have been friends of this project for a long time and one of the members of our editorial team had read a draft of the text some months ago, which is how the phrase found its way into our conversations. We can warmly recommend their book to Dark Mountain readers, especially those of you with an interest in philosophy, and we hope that it will stimulate further discussion, on this site and elsewhere, about what it means to be in search of ‘a mythology that is adequate to the present’.