But whatever it is, the questions we are asking, the way we are framing them, and the new stories and remade stories we seek in these pages seem to feel less and less marginal each year. Something is changing. When our manifesto was first published we were mocked in some quarters as ‘doomers’ and ‘crazy collapsitarians’. Back then, the talk was still of stopping climate change and building global justice for all, and asking questions about collapse and decline and the nature of the assumptions behind these stories was the same thing as ‘giving up’, which was the worst thing of all. These days, you can read newspaper editorials that seem strangely similar to some of our early blogs, and this project is receiving glowing five-thousand-word write-ups in, of all places, the New York Times.
In his recent book Feral, the environmental writer George Monbiot makes much of a concept he calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. The idea is simple enough: our expectations of what is normal change so gradually that we don’t notice normality itself shifting quite radically over fairly short periods of time. So, for example, if you grow up in a landscape in which no birds sing, the rivers are polluted and you can’t see the stars at night, you assume that this is just The Way Things Are. Just a generation or two before, children may have grown up in the same landscape and it may have been noisy with birdsong, clean water and starbright skies. Within a relatively short period of time, something enormous has changed – but because the change has been gradual rather than instant, it has been barely noticed.
Once you start to think in these terms, you can see this kind of thing everywhere. In Britain, we have seen it in the increasing regularity of winter floods. Major floods here were once rare events. They happened once every few decades perhaps. Now, they happen every winter without fail: in the Somerset levels, on the banks of the Thames, in the fens of the east and on the coasts of the northwest. ‘Major flooding events’, in which hundreds of people are washed out of their houses and whole towns and villages are brought to a standstill have very quickly become the new normal. Our baselines have shifted to accommodate them, and the Winter Flood is now something taken for granted. The streets of major towns awash with water have become normal sights. The first time London floods it will be a huge event. The second and the third times, it will be just like the time before, and then we will forget it was ever anything novel at all.
What lessons can we learn from this gradual falling away? One of them is the old lesson that we come back to again and again in our work: that we – humanity, and especially civilised humanity – are not in control. In the enlightened West, learning this lesson is going to be long and hard, and we may never admit that we have learned it at all. But another lesson is perhaps an even harder one: that nature, which we thought we had subdued, was never subdued at all. For most of our history, ‘nature’ was something Out There, something terrifying and threatening: our old fairytales are dripping with this fear. Then, for a brief time, nature became something fragile and threatened which we had to protect wisely and fiercely. Now we are beginning to see that if this was never the case, it is not the case any more. Suddenly we are back in the dark forest with the wolves howling all around us, and we can see light in the distance and there is nothing to do but head for it, though we don’t know what we will find when we reach it.
When we put out a call for submissions for this book, we asked people to imagine how the world would be if this grinding-down of our control and a power continued; if the waters kept rising, our old selves and old stories floating on the new current with them. What you see here is the many currents that have swirled in response to this question. From David Kenkel’s strange vision of himself as history to Joan Menefee’s story of the drowning of Venice; from Zedeck Siew’s dragon-summoner to Chris Smaje’s look at the future of farming; from the Great Salt Lake to the mythworld of an Amazon tribe, this collection sees new visions arising from the wreckage of the old, over time, slowly, unbidden, as it will always be.
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.