We die so others can be born
We age so others can be young
The point of life is live,
Love if you can
Then pass it on.
– Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
It’s autumn in Oxford. The trees are browning, leaves litter pavements and turn to mulch under persistent grey rains. The air has a nip to it. Behind the ancient stone walls of this ancient town rests the ancient knowledge of human beings, deposited in millions of books by millions of book writers, old and new.
We are a clever species. Mountains of our knowledge line libraries with avenues and carrels, exquisitely sculpted words lie in wait in books with unprepossessing covers. Waiting to pounce; wanting to duel over ideas.
Hundred-year-old paintings celebrate dead men. Stained glass windows celebrate dead saints. Walls made of brown and “seasoned timber” hold memories of drunken dons, other-worldly professors long departed to their other worlds.
It all makes me feel deeply nostalgic when juxtaposed with the fresh young faces, on bikes and in bookshops, in libraries and walking the streets, in love with their lives, wracked by nothing worse than laughter.
They were me once. Once I inhabited their bodies, bounced around in inflected laughter. I knew their hope.
It’s not that Oxford in the 1980s wasn’t a time of sturm und drang. It was. Margaret Thatcher was in power. So was PW Botha. We marched with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We marched with the striking miners. We marched in Trafalgar Square with the anti-apartheid movement hurling insults and hope at South Africa House, squat and unmoved on its corner.
But it bent.
Returning after 30 years I find not much changed. It still rains. The two rivers still swell and flood their banks. The leaves brown. Students still throw up on the streets. Mothers still push prams along riverside tow-paths. The divide between Town and Gown though seems less apparent. This university has democratised. More black, more brown, more European, more genders, more universal. Elite nonetheless.
But the world has changed and I struggle to reconcile the two. They always were different, but they are growing apart. Ironic, in light of the fact that after I left Oxford freedom came to many parts of the world, including ours. One world still holds hope and promise, albeit a false and foolish promise – as the 21st-century bard Kate Tempest can tell us. The other is increasingly dry and desperate.
Back home my Yellowwood tree withers for want of water. It’s dying, quietly.
Back home I see a message about the murder of four lions, killed for paws and jaws, by a new type of hunter. Less heroic.
The Eastern Cape is dry. Pictures of dead fish, dam detritus. Damn. We didn’t see their death dances. They floundered before they died. Now they just lie, eyes vacant, looking like wannabe fossils. Dead cattle mimic them.
Gauteng bakes while we drain away the dams and pollute our rivers.
Back home, a friend tells me how in Zambia the famous Victoria Falls is nearly dry, a victim of a drought exacerbated by climate crisis. She sends photos of the river’s bed. The pictures seem to lament the end of its riverhood. The great falls still roar out as memory, a wonder of the world we have had since childhood, now loud in their absence. A roaring silence. No more river mists.
So, even at this great distance, with my feet in the old world, I feel forebodings of loss. I can’t suppress the contrasts.
When things are taken away it stands to reason that we don’t see them anymore. Gone is gone. That’s bad enough. People tend to visualise the climate crisis as melting glaciers, vanishing forests. This is the source of our solastalgia. What we don’t imagine or even look for is the impact of climate loss on human geography, the people that remain, out of sight. The people we don’t see are the untolled toll of climate change on people.
For hours every day, Zambia sits in darkness because no water means no electricity. What once was electric power is now an electric powerlessness, a charge that surges backwards into homes and takes its toll on children’s dreams in ways you won’t imagine. Homework by candlelight.
World wide web-lessness.
In the Karoo, schools are closed because toilets don’t have water. Dreams and hopes of achieving equality through educational opportunity get dry-flushed away.
Across our sun-blasted country and continent, millions of people are on the move, migrating, becoming objects of scorn and xenophobia, moving from once-fertile valleys into polluted camps, surrounded by waste, because the rivers are dry, cyclones have blasted away homes, the earth won’t yield its miracles anymore.
So, I feel solastalgia for our loss of humanity.
We talk of “inter-generational equity” but this risks being the world we bequeath to our children. Our failure to take the science seriously, or at least act on it. Our dereliction, handing responsibility over to kids and then making a virtue of it. We bequeath a world of things that were, species, birds and butterflies that we killed off, dead as dinosaurs, now only available in picture books.
Solastalgia is a new word in clinical psychology. When I checked, it hadn’t made it into the Oxford English Dictionary yet. But you bet it will. The kids already know it. They used the word in their complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Solastalgia is a clinical term for a mental health condition found in both children and adults described as “mourning the destruction of a cherished place” or the sense of loss that comes with “losing a place that is important to them”.
And so back to Oxford where it still rains on time, where seasons still distinguish themselves, where the grass is still green. When I was a student here Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem, To His Coy Mistress, was one of my favourites. It urged me to “rather at once our time devour, than languish in its slow-chapped power”. But it also reminded me of mortality, an inevitable ageing process that, for me, was far in the distance.
Now far is near.
But 36 years later what I find most frightening, and the cause of my solastalgia, is not my own mortality but that “time’s winged chariot hurrying near” is a threat that could apply to all that we hoped for of human civilisation if we don’t urgently address the climate crisis and overthrow the failed economic and political systems that are stoking it.
People tell me it’s not too late. But we are cutting it fine.
It’s time to act. MC
Mark Heywood, the editor of Maverick Citizen, is currently a visiting researcher at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Mansfield College, Oxford University. He’s immersing himself in Oxford’s marketplace of ideas and experience to try and puzzle out if there is a pathway to a green and human rights economy in South Africa or anywhere else in the world – and how our South African Constitution can be used to frog-march us there.