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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

Steven Millar
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Labour MP for Midlothian Danielle Rowley: "I get my politics from my mum as well as my dad"

The daughter of Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley on being the youngest Labour MP.  

Danielle Rowley, the new Labour MP for Midlothian, wants to get one thing straight. “A lot of people automatically assume all of my politics comes from my dad,” the daughter of Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Alex Rowley, says. “While I am influenced and inspired by him, I grew up with my mum and her parents. I have politics in all sides of my family.”

Both Rowley’s grandfathers were miners and Labour party activists. Her mother was a trade unionist and a case worker for the last Midlothian Labour MP, David Hamilton. “She was a very strong woman, a single parent, a hard worker,” Rowley says. At 27, she is upholding the family tradition by becoming Labour’s youngest MP.

When we meet in Portcullis House, in Westminster, she is dressed soberly in a navy suit jacket and blue print dress. She hopes to inspire young women in her constituency. “I grew up on a council estate,” she says. “I hope it shows them they can do any job they want to.”

Even so, Rowley’s election was a surprise. In 2015, Hamilton resigned and Midlothian went to the Scottish National Party’s Owen Thompson with a 23.4 per cent swing. Rowley, a campaigns officer for the housing charity Shelter, kept her expectations modest. After a nail-biting night, she won with a majority of 885. 

“Obviously I had the aim of winning, but I was not getting my hopes up too much,” Rowley recalls. “I was thinking I could really reduce the SNP majority, that was all. But every day on the doorstep I got more and more hopeful.”

Rowley’s father Alex is a firm supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale backed Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership contest), and is seen as being softer on independence than the official party line.

But Rowley says her anti-independence views come from her constituents: “People were fed up of the idea of another referendum.”

In 2014, the independence movement caught the imagination of much of Scotland’s youth – the majority of young voters opted for Yes. So why did Rowley buck the trend? “I am very strong willed,” she says. She spent the referendum working for Gordon Brown, and was there in Kirkcaldy when Yes supporters egged the Labour MP Jim Murphy. “I got a bit of egg on me that day. You can see me [in the photos] in a red raincoat ducking out of the way.”

She believes the same hope which pushed young voters towards independence may now be blowing in the sails of Labour. “I have got a lot of friends who were part of the Yes movement,” she says. “I think there is an assumption they would support the SNP, but actually most of them voted Labour.”

The Corbyn surge, then, is real. “People were fed up, but they needed to be given something to give them hope,” she says. “I think Labour gave them something to offer.

“Whenever we had younger voters on the doorstep, they were excited about the manifesto. Even some of my friends who hadn’t voted were excited about it.”

As for the suggestion – floated by the Labour MSP Neil Findlay – that it should have spent more time talking about Corbyn and less about independence, Rowley demurs. “You couldn’t have just opposing independence, you couldn’t just have the manifesto,” she says. “You had to have both.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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