The Schoolgirl and the Drunkard

What is the right response to 'unstoppable' climate change?  How do artists craft images which help us turn and meet this situation? Mat Osmond on the death of capitalist realism, post-activism and not being able to answer the question.
is a writer and artist based in Falmouth, Cornwall where he teaches at the University. He is co-director of the Dartington-based eco-arts collective with whom he convened a 2021 online summit on ecological grief and death cultures, Borrowed Time: On Death, Dying and Change. Mat has been a Dark Mountain contributor since 2009.
Back in early March, a week before Covid 19 imposed an abrupt pause on all such gatherings, Falmouth University’s annual Illustration Forum took artists’ and writers’ responses to the climate and ecological emergency as its focus for 2020. Among others we were joined by Empathy Lab, Café Disruptif, the Dark Mountain Project and by the brilliant visual journalist Lauren Redniss, all of whom offered valuable responses to this crisis through their work. The final presentation of the day was from Extinction Rebellion (XR) Art Working Group. Having been myself caught up in the global movement which XR Art’s graphic campaign has helped to foster, I used this introduction to the forum to consider the curious state of collective numbed indifference in the face of mass extinction which their work has set out to disturb.

As the lights went down I relayed Greta Thunberg’s November 2019 COP25 address. A few days previously Greta had joined the many thousands of other young climate marchers gathered in Bristol. A quick scroll of that event’s online coverage showed one comment thread after another silting up with predictably venomous nay-saying. It struck me that almost all of the climate marchers’ hecklers were now entrenching to one of three arguments:

Climate change isn’t caused by humans, so shut up.

Climate change is unstoppable whether you like it or not, so shut up.

You’re a hypocrite anyway, so shut up.

It’s the second complaint that I want to turn to here: that all this activism stuff is pointless –  industrial civilisation cannot at this point put back in the bottle the devastating processes of change which it’s already set loose. This seems by far the most significant of the three, voicing as it does a perception quietly shared by many of the most dedicated climate activists. It’s bitter, suck-it-up tone voices a familiar and tightening knot of rage, guilt and subdued grief that we may all need to get better at speaking to in the months and years ahead. But what if a dawning realisation that climate change will not be stopped, far from invalidating the School Strikers’ campaign, actually served to reveal the gathering social tipping point that these young people have helped to set in motion?


Thick speech 

Here’s a story I’m trying to tell. It’s about ecological loss. It’s got burning forests or vanishing animals or maybe it’s got dying oceans. But what I can’t work out is, how do I end it? If the forests and the animals aren’t coming back, if the oceans are still choking whatever I find to say about them, what can my story do except kick its reader in the stomach?

In the past year alone I’ve encountered a number of versions of this question as I’ve spoken with students and others about their work as artists, poets, storytellers. None of those I’ve talked to put it exactly as I have here, but this seems to be the common thrust of what they’ve been struggling with. However you’d frame it yourself, this question feels like a good place to start, if only because it’s one that more and more of us seem to find ourselves confronted by in one form or another.      

In his most recent book Underland: a deep time journey the writer Robert Macfarlane tells of how, during the long weeks he spent on the thinning ice-sheets of Greenland, he struggled to keep language from sticking in his throat. ‘The black-inked words in my note-books seemed sluggish, tar-slow. Writing lost its point, clotted into purposelessness, there in an ice-world that was unhomely and untimely.’

Trying to get his head round what it was that weighed on his tongue before that vanishing ice-world, Macfarlane turns to the cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, who suggests that ‘when shocked or grieving, we find ourselves able to speak of the experience only in “thick speech”. When speaking thickly, Ngai says, we are challenged in our usual ability to “interpret or respond”. A drastic slowdown and recursion of language occurs, a rhetorical enactment of fatigue and confusion … We speak an eddying speech, cloyed to the point of congealing’.

Last week some of the local XR community met to discuss an online talk by the Nigerian climate psychologist Bayo Akómáláfé: The times are urgent; let us slow down. Before going into what this traditional Yoruba saying might offer us in the face of ecological collapse, Akómáláfé sets a pause on any too-hasty rush towards clarity as if sheer eloquence and criticality might equip us to conquer this challenge, too, once we’ve named it for what it is. Before going any further, then, Akómáláfé invites into the room all of those aspects of our shared predicament which resist being spoken of in human terms: the manifold other-than-human agencies  – not least viruses – acting upon us moment to moment but unwilling to ‘show up’ or be illumined by human thought.

Akómáláfé invites into the room all of those aspects of our shared predicament which resist being spoken of in human terms

So maybe now’s a good time for that kind of pause.

For 18 years we’ve gathered for this annual forum and spoken in one way or another of the act of illumination which our practice as artists offers us – shedding its peculiar light on whatever subject we happen to be engaged with. And while we’ve been absorbed in these excellent conversations, large-scale processes of change have been gathering pace around us. Changes that are now becoming ever harder to leave out of the room, whatever topic happens to be on the table.

Here’s another place, then, from where we might start our discussion: during the 18 years that we’ve been gathering here, 8I% of insect life has vanished from Northern Europe. I’m neither an ecologist nor a mathematician, but having a rough idea of the foundational role that insects play within ecological communities, and doing the sums on my fingers, I’d suggest that this situation is not one whose significance we’ll still be debating 18 years from now.

Akómáláfé promises his audience that in relation to ecological collapse, they’ll leave his talk neither more eloquent nor more woke. He admits that he’d actually prefer that those who roll up to this conversation with a spring in their step, confident in their ability to articulate the challenges it presents us with, might walk away with a limp – or with a newfound lisp thickening and slowing their speech. So here’s one way we might come at our question: that to find ourselves struggling to supply any meaningful resolution, our tongues thickened by a lack of obvious answers, may simply be a sign that we’re paying attention. So again, maybe we’d do better to pause, and to consider – to feel – where not being able to answer this question leaves us.    


Poster by Extinction Rebellion Art Group

One more round                                                             

Last winter the world’s mass media pricked up its ears as Australia was engulfed in wildfires larger, in some cases, than European countries. And as each new wave of apocalypse porn now pours across our screens, something’s gradually beginning to catch on, maybe: for all the suffering entailed, these fires, these floods, these cities running out of drinking water are in themselves no measure of what global heating amounts to. If we’re to be taken in by such wild-eyed extremists as the academic reviewers of the IPCC, or the EU’s own advisors on climate, these early symptoms of runaway change are something more akin to the whining of metal rails as we stand on a station platform – the first faint rumour of an oncoming train. And what none of us can see, for all the self-appointed experts shouting their online opinions on the matter, is exactly what that train’s arrival will mean for us, nor quite how soon it will mean it. So we wait.

Ever since the surreal unravelling of the COP25 climate negotiations in Madrid last year I’ve had a story stuck in my head about this weird sense of collective waiting – a broken mutation, I suppose, of The Emperor’s New Clothes: 

Schoolgirl confronts addled drunkard, imploring him with reasoned argument and occasional, carefully deployed flashes of temper to kick the habit that’s about to cause all of our deaths. Slurring old drunk, who’s become weepy and contrite at this point as old drunks will, almost means it as once again he promises to get sober. Then pours himself another and a bigger round. Meanwhile the rest of us stand by and watch, as this curious game unfolds before our gaze, where all of us know that the drunkard has absolutely no intention of stopping. But we all agree, without saying a word, to leave this knowing shut outside the room for a little longer – 12 years, say – because allowing it in would surely bring an end to the game, and none of us are quite sure where things would go from there.

So there’s my not very helpful story, and as you can see I’m stuck as to how it ends. But I do know it’s not a story about one teenage climate activist, any more than it’s about one malignant glove-puppet of a politician. What it’s about is the rest of us.


Walking away

Luckily Bayo Akómáláfé turns to a better story than mine to help us peer around the blind corner we find ourselves standing at: Ursula Le Guin’s classic 1973 thought experiment, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. What would you do, Le Guin asks us, if you found yourself living in your ideal culture – a place where whatever manner of communal living you most long to see had been fully realised – and then at some point you discovered that the whole thing depended for its existence on a single child being kept locked in a basement, deprived of any manner of kindness, left alone and naked in their own shit, year after year, in order that the wonders of the time and the place you’ve been born into may continue to exist?

To speak of this most intersectional of crises is to speak of the invisibilised suffering that Empire has always depended on

I think Akómáláfé chose the perfect storyteller to help us fathom the ecological emergency. Le Guin’s quiet sanity promises no quick or easy solutions. To speak of this most intersectional of crises is to speak of the invisibilised suffering that Empire has always depended on. But in global heating, today’s growth economy has found the perfect hiding place for the collateral obscenities required to prop it up for a little longer: that most secret of locked basements, the future, where no irritant hack is in danger of finding them: a time and a place where every child’s home, to borrow an image from the poet Warsan Shire, has become the inescapable mouth of a shark.

So how do we craft images by which we might help each other to turn and meet this situation? And faced with the terrifying scale of what’s already unfolding around us, what does responding to ecological emergency as citizens even mean? Le Guin leaves us with an image that offers a place to start, at least: in every generation, there are always some in Omelas who never do become well-adjusted enough to ignore the toxic bargain required to sustain its wonders; nor do they find some magical solution by which Omelas might continue to function without the need for such a bargain. What they do is to get up one day, and walk away. We hear nothing of where they go or of what happens next.


Change the world

Akómáláfé frames such walking away as a matter of decolonisation. Of the ways we might come at that work, I suppose I’d start with the condition in which it finds me. Which is to say, occupied. What does it mean to shrug off our dominant culture of occupation? If we find ourselves unable to fully disentangle our lives from the structural violence of the growth economy, what we can do, perhaps, is to learn not to fear the contradictions this saddles us with, nor to be silenced by them. As Timothy Morton puts it, we can learn to ‘deepen to our own hypocrisy’. Decolonising begins at home, we might say, in attending to the occupied territories of our own lived experience: of getting acquainted with the ground from which our ambition to change the world proceeds – including the assumption that anthropogenic global heating amounts to one more challenge for human ingenuity to conquer. Caught as we would seem to be in an inescapable bind, one that includes our own well-learned determination to defeat it, we might do well to get better at being ourselves defeated. Not in order to do less or care less about the emergency upon us – far from it – but to attune to more sustainable and unconditional reservoirs of courage than poor beleaguered hope.

‘Post-activism’ is what Akómáláfé calls this regenerative work. Whatever name you give it, the sort of lingering curiosity he proposes is surely one of the things that we can and we do bring to this crisis as artists and writers. If we’d speak truth to power or offer something of consolation and encouragement to our grief-stricken reader, such noble aims may thrive best when grounded in the no less radical undertaking of changing the world we live in through learning to pay a closer, more intimate attention to what it has to say to us. Through learning, if you like, to shut-up for a minute and listen.

Changing the world we live in through learning to pay a closer, more intimate attention to what it has to say to us

I’ve tried to keep statistics out of this, but here’s one more research finding that for me has everything to do with decolonisation and with what’s at stake as we allow an unsought encounter with ecological grief to redraw our lives. Perhaps counter-intuitively, a recent survey revealed a significant drop in the take-up of psychiatric medicines among School Strikers. Twelve years ago Mark Fisher spoke of the UK’s youth being so heavily medicated that to be a teenager now amounts to a mental health diagnosis. His brilliant 2008 examination of the contemporary mindset of capitalist realism tracks the pervasive condition of ‘reflexive passivity’ which now colonises our variously medicated lives, co-opting and feeding upon our every attempt to challenge the system we’re born into. Occupied territories indeed.

Fisher doesn’t pull his punches concerning the grip that this corrosive, disenchanted realism holds over our shared lives, but he does nod towards a paradoxical sort of hope, one that Le Guin herself well understood: that in the onset of ecological crisis we meet an unstoppable force before which capitalism on its final fossil-fuelled binge is about as immoveable an object as a spider’s web in a hurricane. Strangely, in the very predicament that grieves and frightens us, we also meet an agent of change so utterly non-negotiable as to be the one player capable of overturning all that we presently take as ‘the way things are’, and of precipitating a collective walking away of a sort that seemed impossible only yesterday. The kind of root and branch social transformation that might just take hold once enough of us realise that we quite literally have nothing left to lose here. None of this requires knowing for certain that we can still stop or even slow global heating. It’s much simpler than that. It’s about uncoupling our lives and our communities from a drugged acquiescence in ecocide, and finding that decolonising work to be its own abundant reward, irrespective of whatever comes next. 


IMAGES: Miles Glyn
Various Linocuts 2018–2020
Designed for use on the human form, as part of the Extinction Rebellion project, as well as banners and flags. All these blocks are utility tools and continue to be used. Made with XR Art Group discussion about the subject, while actively dwelling on our predicament and in direct response to the movement’s needs rather than personal whim. All these images are available for hi-res download and can be used for any non-commercial use (from Dark Mountain: Issue 17)



Robert MacFarlane, Underland: a deep time journey, Hamish Hamilton 2019, p.364

Ursula Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, included in The Unreal and the Real, Volume Two: Outer, Space, Inner Lands, Small Beer Press 2012

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative?, Zero Books 2009


Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.


Read more
  1. I am reminded of when I was about 12 years old and we were shown terrifying videos at school about how horrendous for your health cigarettes are and all the horrible ways in which you could die. My mum smoked heavily, she was a single mum. I could absolutely not comprehend how she could be doing this to herself and that, if she knew what I knew, how she could put her life at risk like that, didn’t she understand that her three children’s lives depended on her? I felt the sense of annihilation that I would feel if she died early of smoking. I tried to tell her and she refused to listen, I tried to hide her cigarettes, but she just stormed into my room enraged: did I want her to have to waste more money buying more? There was shouting and crying. There was no exterior vision of how this dualistic conflict could be overcome or transformed. The schoolgirl does not yet have the resources to birth a new way of visioning a possibility that the drunk could recover and the drunk doesn’t have the resources to believe they can recover and heal their own trauma. They are locked in a contract of reinforcing each other’s suffering. The breaking of contracts on a psychic level is what we are now engaged in.


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