In ancient Greece, Stoic philosophers believed the Earth would be periodically destroyed by fire (Ekpyrosis) in a ritual cleansing before starting again. Stoics usually believed this event occurred when civilisation was at its very height of sophistication and complexity (like ours is now). In an echo of the modern environmental movement, Stoics believed that when the intact and perfect balance of nature called Gaia was interfered with, then collapse was inevitable.
neonatal damage, the bushfires that killed or displaced 3 billion animals, new fast-moving Covid variants that isolated thousands over Christmas, the 2020 and 2021 snap lockdowns. Of course we want our normal summers back!
James Romm, in his excellent biography of Seneca, wrote of Seneca’s unease as Rome expanded beyond its territorial boundaries, “As in the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, the very complexity of civilisation seemed to carry the seeds of its own destruction … Where once a single ship had disturbed the natural order, Rome had now filled the seas with traffic, scrambling the races and dissolving global boundaries. In Seneca’s view … the ceaseless advance of the empire would turn the cosmos itself into an enemy. When everyone could go everywhere, when no boundary remained intact, total collapse might not be far off.”
In trying to return to a set point of normal, to get things back to the way they were before the summer bushfires, before the pandemic, before the floods, is preventing us from adapting and preventing ourselves from trying to solve the crisis of the world we are living in now. The past is gone. Those summers that we hold in our minds as a set point, a true north, are over. That time has finished, faded into myth and memory. This is how it is now – and we have to wake up.
There is a macabre comfort in this, that we will not live through this again – that is, until we realise these one-in-1000-year events keep happening, they keep piling up before our very eyes, daring us to wake up from our dreams and longings of normalcy. What more will it take?
The new reality is, in Donald Rumsfeld’s words, a known known. It’s been coming at us for some time, hundreds of thousands of reports predicting this disorder. The latest this week came from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which said along with more extreme weather events, there was “very high confidence” that some natural systems had already experienced irreversible change.
If for everything there is a season, what are these destructive summers for? Some ancient and superstitious instinct says they are the Earth itself retaliating after so much abuse, or a portent of a disordered world that is so far out of balance that it must initiate a cycle of creative destruction in order to restore homeostasis.
The vast gap between our memory of perfect summers and the reality we are living through is so vast as to cause a sort of cognitive break. There are cows on the beaches. In order to live through this, we must think of it as a weird blip in the natural order.
A denial of reality is baked into the rhetoric. This week the New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, described the Lismore floods as a “one-in-1,000-year event”, as if it was a freak occurrence, a matter of timing, unlikely to happen again for another 1,000 years.
In an excellent long read in the New York Times on the deadly California fires, Elizabeth Weil tackled the magical and nostalgic thinking we have around the seasons.
T he cows are found washed up on beaches, and in Lismore, they’re cutting holes in the roof to desperately clamour above the rising waters. In Sydney the rain won’t stop, while Perth baked in its hottest summer ever. Throughout the disorder comes the refrain: “When are we going to go back to having a normal summer?”
The nostalgia for summers past is a trap. If we desperately wish to get back to the past, if we think it’s even possible to return, then we are deluded.
She writes the “climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. We’re living through a discontinuity. This is Steffen’s [Alex Steffen, a climate futurist] core point. ‘Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work,’ he said. ‘It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there … There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.’”
Because there is a problem. The problem is both climate change itself but also our mindset: that the last few years are abnormal, that one day, hopefully soon, we will return to “normal” – and that golden seasonal rhythm we knew in the past will return unbroken.
But for those of us in this age of collapse, trapped in a mental construct of what summer
should look and feel like (not like this!), we are surprised and appalled when the predictions become reality.
Roman Stoic, playwright and political adviser Seneca believed Ekpyrosis would take the form of a flood.
A woman looks out the window of her apartment at the North Melbourne public housing flats in July 2020. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images
This fear is an ancient impulse but now that it seems to be actually occurring, we are in deep denial. Signs of collapse are everywhere, but in our minds we think of this as an aberration – that next summer we’ll return to
Vittorio Gallese will livestream “Embodied simulation and its role in cognition” on March 11
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