by Maja Lunde
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night stuck in a pattern of thoughts, and can’t go back to sleep again. Images stream through my mind of the world out there – a world that’s on fire.
This fear is living side-by-side with my day-to-day worries and frustrations, and sometimes it dwarfs everything else. It’s an existential anxiety, it relates to humankind’s place on our planet, our species’ ability to survive, and the future of my children. At times this fear is overshadowed by a grief that is also new. I am grieving over all the plants and animals on the brink of extinction, and all the other species that are suffering because of us, the insects, the bees. I’m not alone in this. The fear and sadness I feel have already been named: climate anxiety and eco-grief.
Many people can pinpoint a moment of awakening that was the start of this anxiety and grief. We have known about the crisis for many years, but have failed to face up to it. Then something happens – you gain a new insight, you have a new experience, perhaps you see a change in the natural world, and this becomes a turning point. “Our house is on fire”, as Greta Thunberg puts it. Facing up to the crisis is like standing face-to-face with a fire. What used to be something you knew intellectually becomes a realisation that you feel. This creates anxiety. It may not always be that strong. It may come and go. But the image of a fire is impossible to forget. It bowls you over, it engulfs most other fears.
What is my message? That is a question I am often asked. I don’t have an answer. I don’t write to communicate a message; I write because I have stories I need to tell and a great many questions that I am mulling over. The most essential questions are about the human animal: What is it about human beings that enables us to lord over the other species? And do we have it in us to put things rights?
Homo sapiens surpasses all other species when it comes to communication, storytelling and transfer of knowledge. These abilities have led to many of our achievements: Printing, the agricultural revolution, the digital revolution, among others. Our ability to communicate and pass on knowledge distinguishes us from other animals. So does our ability to empathise with other people’s lives. Nothing symbolises this more clearly than literature. Literature is precisely what distinguishes people from animals. Our ability to communicate is the starting point for all our innovation, development and growth. This ability is also the undoing of our species and all other species. But at the same time, our ability to tell stories and to communicate with one another is perhaps our finest quality.
I believe we need stories more than ever, and we need a language to express the strong feelings many of us are struggling with. These feelings make us look at ourselves from outside and consider our place in the world. They are overwhelming and terrifying because they connect each and every one of us, every little individual, our own significance or lack of significance, to our great planet as a whole, to all the other living beings who have their home here, from the tiniest microbes, to insects and all other animals, to the rich living resources of the oceans, to the atmosphere, to the universe itself.
We need to feel this anxiety, this panic, in order to want to change. We have to acknowledge the environmental crisis, we have to feel the heat from the fire, in order to understand what the crisis means. Literature can awaken the whole spectrum of feelings. It can move us from objective understanding to subjective experience; it can make the climate and environmental crisis personal. Not least, it can stimulate our imaginations and foster empathy, not just with other people, but also with other species. Literature can take us to the heart of the beehive, it can help us understand that we are all part of the same superorganism, whether we have two, four or eight legs, that we humans – the strongest species on the earth – have an enormous responsibility to take care of all the other beings that live here, for the simple reason that they have huge intrinsic value, quite independently of us.
Maja Lunde is the author of international best selling novels History of the Bees and Blue, as well as several other novels, short stories and movie scripts. She’s also my sister, in everything but name.
Now the length of the summer day feeds a darker blue
I watch the Metropolis set in a silver hue
I know nothing is bottomless
I’m leaning into a wall
Another snowy winter waits
at the end of a fall
I would patiently tap the keys,
while you would quietly sing
Water filled the reservoirs every spring
Before the bees began to flee
Before you said you were leaving me
How you would have my sympathy
if it wasn’t me
I've been down the road before, ca 1984
Your sister said we could teleport
to a new world
Then we passed the high water mark
of what they thought I could sell
They called it literature
at the bottom of a well
Before what was once canals had turned yellow and pale
We watched the Adriatic sea from an abandoned hotel
Before the cities of shelter tents
Before the right wing governments
Before I just wasn’t making sense
And someone told you to call
Before a name on a tiny screen
was how you'd remember me
Not for my nuance or empathy
for the new world
Dystopian sci-fi released me from the life I thought I had in front of me
Maybe this is an apology: I want to know how to live. I want to know how to love
I gaze up at the night sky, thinking everything must go!!!
I’m here in a cul-de-sac. Are you coming back?
Dystopian sci-fi for everything I lack
Well, it is what it is, I guess; the new world
The world was old and cowardly
Had Phillip K and fresh batteries
in my flashlight and suddenly: