My drawing for Vigil for the Smooth Handfish is bookmarked by a sense of unease that creeps over me during any discussion about climate change.
You know that disaster movie in which a ragtag bunch of unlikely heroes pull together to save the world from an impending asteroid collision? (Spoiler alert: nothing really happens and they rescue planet Earth.) Well, if you watch enough of those types of films, or if you watch that one enough times (which I’d advise against), you might be lulled into believing the story of climate change is scripted like most Hollywood disaster films. There will be shocks, set backs and challenges along the way, but good inevitably prevails.
And why wouldn’t it? There are so many clever and well intentioned people around the world furrowing their brows over this issue. We have the brains to stall global heating and governments can’t be so blind as to pursue an economic model which would wreck our planet’s fragile ecosystems beyond the point of return. Or could they?
I’m sometimes galvanised by the idea that we need to panic in a more radical way.
I'm sometimes galvanised by the idea that we need to panic in a more radical way. We ought to firebomb guilty industries. Those who profit from markets which exploit the earth should be locked up, or else thrown into deep pits with sharp wooden spikes that point up to the sky. If we don’t overturn neoliberal capitalism soon future generations will curse our inaction and revile our memory. The hot thoughts which invade my brain feel entirely justified.
Yet that’s when I notice myself and the people around me doing something which seems paradoxical, almost silly. We take hopeful action in ways that are small, perhaps trivial, but on a scale we can manage. I may sign an online petition, donate to a worthy organisation, join a protest, avoid flying planes, support green policies, have conversations about this stuff with my family and friends, spread panic among my family and friends, or put pen to paper and make a drawing. I’ll still feel powerless in the broad scheme of things and I’ll still succumb to feelings of dread.
There’s something to be said for doing something, however minute and inconsequential. Perhaps that’s because the doing of something — whatever it is — performs a type of hope. I’m not sure if there’s a term for it because ‘optimism’ suggests the potential for reasonable outcomes and I don’t think we have those.
Maybe it’s to feel good about myself: a type of ‘virtue-signalling’ in the dark? Maybe it’s play-acting: a small scale simulation of what someone with actual power and influence would do to correct the structures that are driving our planet into the ground? In the microcosm of my bedroom, work desk, home and backyard, I make do with small, infinitesimal changes.
Here I think the existentialist maxim holds firm: That meaning is to be drawn from our active engagement and commitment to the world, regardless of how futile those actions are in the grand scheme of things. Our lives may indeed be meaningless and our future slated for ruin. Global heating may well destroy our planet. But what really matters, for now, are our affirmations and our actions.
Amidst the overwhelming pessimism which for me constitutes a realistic synopsis of our historical present, there are small things to be protected.
Artwork and words by Safdar Ahmed