The heat has come much sooner than I expected. All summer in Musselburgh we've been sweltering. Even in colossal downpours, the stuffy heat inveigles its way inside waterproofs and wellies. The garden has gone mad. The raspberry plant tripled in size and produced dark bitter fruit. Tenacious nasturtiums spread like a rash. Pots of rosemary and mint rejoiced, remembering their climates of origin. The lemon pine smell of rosemary needles filled the strange dull heat. In a thunderstorm, the cat burst in the door, completely soaked, asking, with plaintive noises, what was happening outside.
I have been attending to the here and now, as it's the only thing I can bring myself to do. In the midst of a somersaulting environment, I've been holding on to immediate things: the changes I can perceive with my senses, the way our plants and fruits thrive or wither, from day to day.
The actions I've taken on the matter of climate are painfully pathetic. I fancifully imagine some future court in which my generation are asked what they did for the people of the next century. 'I recycled!' raises scornful laughter from the jury. Paralysed, I largely do nothing, except watch and listen. I've watched words change. What used to be called global warming in the 1980s and 90s, as my parents campaigned for action, became the much less scary-sounding climate change in the 2000s. Now it has been coined a climate crisis and the true nature of the beast is once more out in the open. A new word is here: Anthropocene. Stunned and frightened, I retreat. I watch, I listen, and I read.
I've been reading New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
, by British artist and writer James Bridle. It is (as you might guess) not an easy or uplifting read, but I couldn't put it down. It is a dense, urgent book, which dives deep in to the history of technology and information systems, to tell of how we ended up here, in a world of mass surveillance, diminishing privacy, rampant inequality, and conspiracy theories run wild.
One of the central arguments of the book is that the flood of information we now live in has not led to any great wisdom. Far from it. Yet we're beholden to the idea that knowledge alone will save us. 'The greatest carrier wave of progress for the last few centuries has been the central idea of the Enlightenment itself: that more knowledge – more information – leads to better decisions […] and so we find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge, and yet we have not learned to think.'
I think Bridle is right: we're debilitated by all the information that we now live amongst. How could it be otherwise? We are bonded so tightly together that time and space has been squeezed out. There is no time to reflect – send that tweet now! There is no space for moodling, pondering, dwelling in thought. No one is allowed to make a mistake, or be uncertain, under the white-hot glare of the Twitterati. There is no time for playing or practising, and no appetite for the slow hard work of building consensus.
Bridle traces our 'failures to think and speak' which have allowed the disaster of climate change to accelerate. 'The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives.' Data has not saved us. It has driven us mad. None of this is good news. It is, though, fascinating and essential reading.
I had hesitated to write about the climate. Who wants to read about dread and paralysis, after all? I have spent many years pruning the knowledge I have about this crisis, knowing there was only so much reality I could bear. I tell myself that a strange hot summer in Scotland in 2019 is still a world away from the heatwave across Europe. Yet what relief is that? Taking refuge in our relative remoteness is a desperate move. It's like saying there's no need to worry, because things won't get really bad until 2050 or so – as if 2050 is too far away to think about.
Trying to outwit despair, I retreat. I work in the garden, cook with the herbs I've grown. Here is rosemary, laden with mythology, a spiky carrier of folklore. This plant is a place where our ancestors stored wisdom for us. The Romans, who revered rosemary as a clarifier of the mind, built bridges fit to last thousands of years. Rosemary appeared in writing some 7,000 years ago, and it's there in Shakespeare: Ophelia says, 'here's Rosemary, that's for remembrance'. Plant of memory and clarity. Rosemary sits on a pot on my patio, smelling of earth and brine. As if it carries signals from actual places of its past, it brings the smells of the forest and the sea.
I know that despair doesn't help. I know that I shouldn't retreat. I've come to consider my parents' belief in the reality of climate change as one of the greatest gifts of my life, because none of this was a surprise. I did not have to do the hard work of moving from denial to acceptance. Now, though, as the results of humanity's recklessness come home to us, I despair, and I retreat. I go in to the garden, where time feels different (there is never a rush), and the living things around me are concerned with their own mysterious, cyclical varieties of progress.
The garden is trying to tell me something. Bridle wonders, in his book, whether the climate crisis is simply too large to comprehend. Perhaps it dwarfs the capacity of the human mind. What we need is decisive action on a global scale, which is very different to having stacks of information about what’s happening. We have to work together. Before any of that can happen, we must change our priorities radically. Are we able to?
On bad days, optimism itself feels like a lie. On good days, I connect to the garden for its store of hopefulness. I find hope in rosemary, and the thousands of years of human history imbued in this plant. While I looked up the properties of rosemary tea on the internet, I came across a curt assertion that there is no scientific evidence for its efficacy as a clearer of the mind, and I had to laugh. This was computational thinking in action, discarding the status of a plant utilised by humans for thousands of years. The statement rather missed the point, I thought. Perhaps a plant's usefulness is partly as a metaphor. Rosemary has known us a long time. It is where we placed our need to remember things, and our yearning for a clearer, more able mind.
There is a kind of thinking that is very different from knowledge: a creative and mysterious kind. This is the kind of thinking that embodied magic in plants and led ancient peoples to consider a distant future. The endurance of rosemary tells me that we have been capable of taking a long view. Once, we built bridges fit to last thousands of years. I hope we can remember that wisdom.