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Laurie Penny: Watching the Arctic melt, I realise apathy must be frozen out

We can choose abject complicity, or we can decide that it's not too late to build a better world.

There's nothing like a glacier crumbling into the sea in front of your eyes to remind you that climate change is more than an abstract reason to recycle egg boxes and wine bottles.

Right now, I'm writing from a small ship's cabin in one of the most isolated, desolate places on earth: the northern tip of Svalbard in the high Arctic, where I have come on an expedition, part of the point of which was to see what I've just seen. Which was a shelf of translucent blue ice the height of a house falling into the water like wet cake.

It's not that I didn't believe in climate change before this. On the contrary: I am of the background and generation that grew up in the mid-1990s with the notion of environmental destruction as an inevitability.

I was raised on the animation FernGully: the Last Rainforest and traumatic colouring books full of sad baby seals and herons choking on plastic bags. This gentle indoctrination was supposed to motivate us to grow up and save the planet, but by the time we were old enough to object, the forests were disappearing and the oilfields burning fast enough for it all to seem too late.

I now realise that, even before the Copenhagen Summit 2009 put paid to the prospect of a green international deal, I had decided that there was nothing I could do. At some point, I decided that my special fight was simply to make sure, to the best of my limited ability, that whatever society is left after the floodwaters settle is as fair and free as possible. I have this luxury, of course, because I grew up in a hilly place in England and my house is not going to be underwater for a while yet.

This, for the generation that grew up after the collapse of communism, is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a bonfire. When I tried to explain the sense of finality to a friend who is old enough to have collected vinyl records before they were niche, he laughed at me. "Don't talk to me about Armageddon," he said, "when I was your age, we had the bomb to worry about."

The bomb, however, was a very different apocalypse from the inevitable, collective entropy of climate change and it demands an entirely different sort of complicity.

The greatest threat to the future of humanity is now not political brinkmanship, but paranoid indifference: the certainty that the future is both finite and short and that all we can do is burn what little of the remaining money we have and hope civilisation outlasts us.

This is a terribly foolish way to live. The anarchist thinker David Graeber writes in Debt: the First 5,000 Years that in response to the blinding obviousness of economic and ecological world buggeration, "the most common reaction - even from those who call themselves 'progressives' - is simply fear. We can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn't be even worse." Graeber adds: "About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe."

Little rituals

There is a bitter paradox to this apathetic fatalism that somehow incorporates its own denial. The abstract enormity of climate change and economic meltdown encourages a sort of helpless liberal Calvinism, complete with little rituals of composting orange peel and purchasing sustainable lingerie, as if such devotions might somehow spare us . Which, in a way, they will - if we are lucky enough to live in the cosseted bourgeois west, where you have to be flown out to witness a melting glacier to appreciate the cold reality.

Of course, many millions of people don't need to be told that burning half a trillion tonnes of fossil fuels has had some dodgy consequences for humanity.

At the same time as I'm on a boat watching the Arctic ice-shelf contribute theatrically to rising global sea-levels, hundreds have died in flooding in Pakistan, and over five million have been affected.

There comes a point when you have to make a choice. When a colossal wall of thousand-year-old-ice explodes right in front of you, with a noise like a very large bomb falling very far away, and you feel the chill sting of spray on your face as the ice is eaten away by human greed, you realise that a choice is still possible.

We can choose abject complicity, or we can decide that it's not too late to build a better world. My boots are still wet, so I'm for the latter.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

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PMQs review: George Osborne is improving but Angela Eagle gives Labour MPs cause for cheer

The shadow first secretary of state revelled in the Tories' splits. 

For months, Labour MPs have despaired at their party's failure to exploit the Tories' visceral EU divisions. But at today's PMQs, Angela Eagle gave them cause for cheer. Facing George Osborne in her capacity as shadow first secretary of state (David Cameron is attending the G7 in Japan), she brandished Iain Duncan Smith's description of him as "Pinocchio". "Who does the Chancellor think the public shoud listen to," she dryly remarked, "his former cabinet colleague or the leader of Britain's trade unions?" Eagle later roused the House by noting the scarcity of Brexiters on the frontbench. Her questions were too broad to pin Osborne down, and she struggled to match the impact of her first performance - but it was a more than adequate outing.

After recent reversals, the Chancellor delivered a ruthlessly efficient, if somewhat charmless, performance. When Eagle punched his Google bruise (following the police raid on the company's French offices), Osborne shot back: "She seems to forget that she was the Exchequer Secretary in the last government, so perhaps when she stands up she can tells us whether she ever raised with the Inland Revenue the tax affairs of Google?" 

He riled Labour MPs by describing the party as anti-Trident (though not yet announced, Corbyn will grant a free vote), a mark of how the Conservative leadership intends to use the issue to reunify the party post-referendum. "We look forward to the vote on Trident and he should get on with it," Eagle sharply retorted at the start of the session. But Osborne inevitably had more ammunition: "While she's sitting here, the leader od the Labour Party is sitting at home wondering whether to impeach the former leader of the Labour Party for war crimes." He compared Labour MPs to prisoners on "day release". And he gleefully quoted from Jon Cruddas's inquiry: "In their own report this week, Labour's Future, surprisingly long, they say 'they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the working people of Britain."

The muted response from the Tory benches demonstrated how badly the EU vote has severed the party. But Osborne will be satisfied to have avoided any gaffes or hostages to fortunes. His performance today, his best to date at PMQs, was a reminder of why he is down but not yet out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.