Climate Change and the Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles is author Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel written in 2012.  Already a fan of the dystopian master Jose Saramago, Walker was inspired to write this book after the 2004 earthquake/tsunami in Indonesia. This event was so powerful that it reduced the length of our 24-hour day by a few fractions of a second than it was before.

Walker’s book is about what happens to ordinary people when a natural catastrophe alters everything about their world. The main protagonist is named Julia and, though she’s now in her 20s, most of her narration is retrospective, taking us back to her 11-year-old self — the year everyday life fell apart. The following is an early passage in The Age of Miracles that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

We did not sense, at first, the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.

We were distracted, back then, by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours too weren’t still pooling into days, each the same, fixed length known to every human being.

But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big-rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick. These people were accustomed to waiting out the night. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.

On the sixth of October, the experts went public. This, of course, is the day we all remember. There’d been a change, they said, a slowing, and that’s what we called it from then on: the slowing.

“We have no way of knowing if this trend will continue,” said a shy bearded scientist at a hastily arranged press conference, now infamous. He cleared his throat and swallowed. Cameras flashed in his eyes. Then came the moment, replayed so often afterward that the particular cadences of that scientist’s speech — the dips and the pauses and that slight Midwestern slant — would be forever married to the news itself. He went on: “But we suspect that it will continue.”

Our days had grown by fifty-six minutes in the night.

At the beginning, people stood on street corners and shouted about the end of the world. Counselors came to talk to us at school. I remember watching Mr. Valencia next door fill up his garage with stacks of canned food and bottled water, as if preparing, it now seems to me, for a disaster much more minor.

The grocery stores were soon empty, the shelves sucked clean like chicken bones.

The freeways clogged immediately. People heard the news and they wanted to move. Families piled into minivans and crossed state lines. They scurried in every direction like small animals caught suddenly under a light.

But, of course, there was nowhere on earth to go.

The news broke on a Saturday.

In our house, at least, the change had gone unnoticed. We were still asleep when the sun came up that morning, and so we sensed nothing unusual in the timing of its rise. Those last few hours before we learned of the slowing remain preserved in my memory — even all these years later — as if trapped behind glass.

My friend Hanna had slept over the night before, and we’d camped out in sleeping bags on the living room floor, where we’d slept side by side on a hundred other nights. We woke to the purring of lawn mower motors and the barking of dogs, to the soft squeak of a trampoline as the twins jumped next door. In an hour we’d both be dressed in blue soccer uniforms — hair pulled back, sunscreen applied, cleats clicking on tile.

The consequences of this phenomenon are at first subtle but become increasingly more dramatic as the story progresses: longer days and longer nights, alterations in gravity leading to pandemic sickness, the earth’s changing magnetic field, mutations to the tides, and more-all of which affect plants, animals, and humans.

In spite of these obstacles, Walker’s characters strive to carry on as normally as possible. In my estimation, here lies the novel’s greatest strength. Rather than resort to platitudes about the moral state of humanity, Walker strives to tell a particular story that is meant to focus on the ordinary moments in people’s lives, and all the ways that this extraordinary event would (and would not) change them.  The particular type of disaster does not interest her as much as the way humans respond to chaos in general. Walker reminds us that it is in times of crisis when we learn what it truly means to be human. She writes: “The only way that I could imagine telling the story of this global catastrophe was through the memories of a woman looking back on her childhood. It was a way of making this unlikely story feel personal, and, I hope, realistic. Similarly, I’m not sure  I could have written the coming of age story without the slowing. For me, the looming catastrophe helped call my attention to everything that’s precious and meaningful about an ordinary suburban childhood.”

Although Walker may not have intended her fictional story to be a simple metaphor for global warming, the comparison is worth exploring in greater depth. When there is no reversal to “the slowing” the government decides to enforce the 24-hour clock regardless. This results in “white nights” and “dark days,” and robust sales of sunlamps and blackout blinds.  A passive rebellion begins. “Real-timers” throw out their clocks and return to their circadian rhythms, forming communes in the desert. But “the real-timers made us uncomfortable,” Julia says. “They were a threat to the social order.” 

The changes occurring to our planet are no less revolutionary in some parts of the world than the changes Julia and her family experience as a result of the “slowing” in Southern California. From Kyoto to Katmandu, the lives of people are being turned upside down by the slightest increases in planetary temperatures. low-income countries will remain on the frontline of human-induced climate change over the next century, experiencing gradual sea-level rises, stronger cyclones, warmer days and nights, more unpredictable rains, and larger and longer heatwaves. In fact, one of the last major UN assessments in 2007 predicted runaway temperature rises of 6C or more by the end of the century, which is sizable enough to devastate crops and make life in many cities unbearably hot. East Africa, for example, can expect to experience increased short rains, while west Africa should expect heavier monsoons. Burma, Bangladesh and India can expect stronger cyclones; elsewhere in southern Asia, heavier summer rains are anticipated. Indonesia may receive less rainfall between July and October, but the coastal regions around the south China Sea and Gulf of Thailand can expect increased rainfall extremes when cyclones hit land.  Life in many developing country cities could become practically impossible, given that urban temperatures are already well above those in the surrounding countryside. Much higher temperatures could reduce the length of the growing period in some parts of Africa by up to 20%. In fact, Oxfam predicted that world hunger would worsen as climate change inevitably hurt crop production and disrupted incomes. The number of people at risk of hunger might climb by 10% to 20% by 2050, with daily per-capita calorie availability falling across the world. The report stated that “A hot world is a hungry world. If the remainder of the 21st century unfolds like its first decade, we will soon experience climate extremes well outside the boundaries of human experience.” (http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/sep/27/climate-change-poor-countries-ipcc)

Affluent nations will also continue to be impacted by these changes. Wide-ranging impacts of climate change have already been documented in Europe, including retreating glaciers, longer growing seasons, species range shifts, and heat wave-related health impacts. Many economic sectors, such as agriculture and energy, could face severe challenges. In southern Europe, higher temperatures and drought may reduce water availability, hydropower potential, summer tourism, and crop productivity. In central and eastern Europe, summer precipitation is projected to decrease, causing higher water stress. Across Europe forest productivity is projected to decline. The frequency of peatland fires is projected to increase. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that the impacts on North America are also dire. Warming in western mountains is projected to decrease snowpack, increase winter flooding, and reduce summer flows, exacerbating competition for over-allocated water resources. Disturbances from pests, diseases, and fire are projected to increasingly affect forests, with extended periods of high fire risk and large increases in area burned.

 Moderate climate change in the early decades of the century is projected to increase aggregate yields of rain-fed agriculture by 5-20%. Crops that are near the warm end of their suitable range or that depend on highly utilized water resources will likely face major challenges. Increases in the number, intensity, and duration of heat waves during the course of the century are projected to further challenge cities that currently experience heat waves, with potential for adverse health impacts. Climate change will likely increasingly stress coastal communities and habitats, worsening the existing stresses of development and pollution. (http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/international.html)

Just as Walker’s characters are unwilling to accept the new temporal paradigm and stick to the government’s “clock time” solution,  there are climate change deniers today who are calling global warming a conspiratorial hoax. Senator Marco Rubio, for instance, is on record saying, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.” Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has received $295,138 from the oil and gas industry in his career.  Former Governor Rick Perry has said, “Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice to the country, and I believe a disservice to the world.” Perry (R-TX) received $977,624 from oil and gas for his 2012 Presidential Campaign. And Lisa Murkowski, Chairwoman of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee has stated, “The emissions that are being put in the air by that volcano are a thousand years’ worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles, all of the manufacturing in Europe.” Senator Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK) – has received $733,144 from oil and gas industry in her career. (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/12/31/top-10-misguided-climate-deniers-quotes-2014)

Just as mayhem breaks out in the streets of Walker’s fictional California, there are groups of people in our world who are literally fleeing for the hills to establish isolated survivalist camps. And then there are the religious leaders who are actually proclaiming that climate change is a harbinger of God’s immeasurable wrath on humankind.  Quoting directly from the pages of the Hebrew Bible, these prophets of Armageddon profess that when God saw the violence and wickedness of man He was grieved in His heart and vowed to destroy all but Noah and his family through a flood: “I will cause it to rain on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Gen 6.4) God also causes drought. As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, God gave them the Ten Commandments, together with many sundry laws. He warned Israel to obey them and if they did not then one of the consequences would be drought; ‘The heaven which is over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you iron. And the Lord will make the rain of your land powder and dust …’ (Deut 28.23,24) But if they sought God and turned away from their rebellious ways, then God promised to ‘heal their land’ (2 Chron 7.14). And when some Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, they were more interested in making nice houses than in the restoration of God’s house. As a result, God caused drought, resulting in a lack of produce (Hag 1.11).

Fortunately we also have the scientists. The great biologist Edward O. Wilson has written, “The race is now on between the technoscientific and scientific forces that are destroying the living environment and those that can be harnessed to save it. . . . If the race is won, humanity can emerge in a far better condition than when it entered, and with most of the diversity of life still intact.”

Lierre Keith has written: “Our best hope will never lie in individual survivalism. Nor does it lie in small groups doing their best to prepare for the worst. Our best and only hope is a resistance movement that is willing to face the scale of the horrors, gather our forces, and fight like hell for all we hold dear.”

 As with Walker’s characters, life must go on. Julia is more concerned about her parents unraveling marriage, preparing for the 6th grade dance party, and navigating the treacherous world of teenage friendships than she is the irreversible consequences of the earth’s slowing rotation, 50 hour days, and the mass extinction of biodiversity. Yet for those who happen to live in a gradually sinking city such as Tokyo, Venice or Miami, the stark reality of climate change is undeniable. Soon enough the whole world will be forced to change. From eating to sleeping our routines will be altered by a new climate.

So,  given where we are today, Walker’s novel is a superbly timed book that offers a much needed glimpse into what this shift in global consciousness will look and feel like. There is, however, one crucial difference between the world of Walker’s fiction and the reality of our heating planet. We do have the ability to stop our catastrophe from reaching its most violent zenith.  Unlike “the slowing,”  we can work to stop global warming because we know what and who is causing it.         Age of Miracles

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