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On the evening of the 12th of July, bookseller Lynn Gaspard received a text from her mother, concerned that their west London bookshop would flood yet again. “We were really worried,” she says over the phone, “but thinking, ‘What can we do?”
It’s a desperate question that has reverberated around the world, perhaps this month more than ever. The floods that have swept across the southeast of England in July caused significant property damage, leading to evacuations in London – on the 12th of July and, remarkably, again on Sunday – and the cancellation of Standon Calling festival.
But they are not yet comparable to the devastation in Germany and Belgium, where over 180 people were killed in flash floods, nor the horrific scenes of submerged homes in India or flooded subway train carriages in China. In the UK, many are praying that it won’t take an equally significant loss of life for the government and media to call these events what they are: climate disaster, the kind that refuses to loom menacingly on the horizon, but instead stares us directly in the face.
If you spent any amount of time getting high with political science undergrads in the last 15 years, you’re probably familiar with the boiled frog concept. The theory goes that a frog placed in boiling water will immediately leap out again, but a frog placed in tepid water before being slowly heated to boiling point will barely notice the change and, in true English spirit, die out of politeness rather than complain. Unfortunately, no less a figure than the Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at Washington DC’s National Museum of Natural History made his position beautifully clear on the veracity of the theory: “Well that’s, may I say, bullshit.”
Nonetheless, it’s proved to be a hugely expedient analogy in both political and psychological terms, with an irresistible climate change parallel; unsurprisingly, Al Gore borrowed it for his 2006 climate treatise An Inconvenient Truth. While the theory may not tell us much about amphibian cognition, it reminds us that climate disaster doesn’t necessarily start with Dwayne Johnson attempting to navigate a speedboat up the crest of a tsunami. It starts with a punch-up at a public swimming pool in southeast London.
On the 15th of March, 2019, children around the world walked out of school and took to the streets to march in the first global climate strike. Across the world, classrooms from Tokyo to Kampala emptied to send out the message; in Stockholm’s central square, particular attention was being paid to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, whose activism had seen her nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize just one day prior.
The strikes received sufficient media attention to call them a success, but Thunberg knows better than anyone that placid token gestures can be more dangerous than silence. The now-famous speech she gave at Davos hit home specifically because it took aim at those polite expressions of contrition – what we might call the “thoughts and prayers” narrative – in the way we talk about climate emergency. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” she said. “I want you to panic.”
Morning has broken, like the first morning. And the next morning. And the mornings that follow. A different break each time: hearts, promises, that lampshade you totalled pouring in from another night of Jager-induced bravado. Morning, like the withered spirit that rises to neck painkillers and denounce all its misjudged pronouncements on Twitter, is now completely and utterly broken.
But you love it, don’t you? The pain hangs from your chest like a medal, even as you swear you’ll never do it again. The world’s pubs and bars are lousy with apocryphal quotes from Sinatra, Hemingway, Churchill, Franklin – men of a bygone era commonly regarded as heroes of one kind or another, promoting the glory of alcohol. For all that millennials and Gen Z youth get ribbed about their acai berries and yoga, though, we’re still pretty keen on getting smashed as a society. If anything’s changed, it’s that we might be becoming more brazen about the after-effects.