Imagining the End

“Somehow, while we had all been busy, while we had been doing those small things which added up to living, the future had slipped into the present – and, despite the fact that we had known it would come, the overwhelming feeling, now that it was here, was of surprise…”

I finished The High House by Jessie Greengrass this evening, a story about the pause between our present lives and the climate-wrecked future. I could have written it myself; I’ve never thought that about a book, until now.

Just as we keep away thoughts of dying, or of our loved ones dying, with the distractions of everyday life—food shops, social media, sunny walks, cups of coffee, emails, kisses, and all other necessary things—so we keep away thoughts of the whole world dying. The world we know.

In human history, worlds have ended many times over. But this time it will be different. It won’t happen all at once, but no one will escape. Even the wealthiest, with their walls and their supplies, will lose their freedom in exchange.

Where will I be in this?

In one future, I imagine the place where I will live as an old woman: a small room, with one window. The city beyond is treeless, grey, all straight lines. I kept my promise not to bring children into the world, to spare myself and them.

But I don’t really think that will be me. I think I will have chosen to leave by then. Certainly, my arthritis would be biting down by that point. Right now, at the age of thirty, my pain-free days cost the state thousands per year; one monthly injection, with a medical delivery van dependably dropping off new doses every two months. There won’t be money for that in a few decades’ time; the government will be too busy trying to keep us all from starving, when the bees and the top soil are gone and there’s no more phosphorous coming over the borders for the fertiliser that hid the damage for so long.

There’ll be no careless cups of coffee or chocolate bars or Sunday banana bread. Coffee, cacao beans, and cane sugar: three addictive substances that work as anchor points to imagine the barer future. Whenever I hesitate over whether to indulge myself, I can’t help conjuring the voice of my future self. She snaps, “Why didn’t you just eat it? What I’d give to remember the taste of that now.”

Even those future regrets—the anticipation of missing coffee, chocolate, and sugar—are selfish. Symptomatic of my being raised a white middle-class Westerner. I’ve never experienced true loss or hardship, so no wonder I expect to rue the absence of inconsequential things.

I believe, though, that I will miss other lives more. By that, I mean the oaks, the birches, the starlings, the buzzards, the hedgehogs, the bees, the moths, the hares, the seals, the dolphins, and every creature I’ve never seen but am glad for the existence of. Some will survive, of course. Something always does. Yet every living thing around us is only because something before it survived. To lose the elephant, the whale shark, or the orangutan now is to lose the future species that could have come from them.

The thinning of the world’s life is happening on a meteoric scale, but with none of a meteor’s helplessness. We are choosing this. Even though we have amassed the knowledge to know what it will cost. We default to the optimism that someone else, somewhere else, will fix it all for us. We are at the beginning of our shared end. We will reach out to grab anything—cut the meat out of every last wild creature we can catch—even while knowing it will only delay; like a falling child dragging on a tablecloth and taking all the plates with them.

We will sit at windows and watch the empty sky, waiting to die.

Magnolia feathers

Scattered around the magnolia,
petals lay, feather-shaped,
as if time had taken raptor form
to seize and pluck
the body of early spring.
The tree did not even belong here,
though its white pink blooming
had found its niche in my soul anyway.
Imported, hybrid,
daring to bask in the city sunshine
while half its wild brethren
were being uprooted from the evolutionary procession.
There was more humanness in that tree
than the tarmac under my shoes,
than the buildings shouldering away the sky.
I think I should aspire
to be like a magnolia petal.
An early shout of life
before time exerts its gravity;
in my case, placing metaphor to one side,
before the world I can see coming
snuffs out every last reason to be.

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