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Age of Miracles: What If Climate Change Were Sped Up?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Sometimes it frustrates me that we feel the effects of climate change so slowly, if at all.

It’s not that I’m an apocalypse-monger, dreaming of mass hysteria induced by floods and droughts, shortages of food and fuel. Rather, I worry about people’s incredible ability to acclimate: to let changes go unnoticed, as long as they’re gradual over time. I worry that people won’t notice that the air is warmer, storms are fiercer, and coral reefs are less brilliant over the course of their lives because these adjustments happen so incrementally. And thus climate change inaction will continue.

For a moment, imagine a world where the whole process were sped up, where the effects were drastic enough for a person to feel and register them over the course of a few months or a year. How would governments react then? People? Society?

This is a question addressed in last year’s widely-acclaimed Age of Miracles, the first novel by Karen Thompson Walker. It’s not climate change that drives the science fiction plot, but rather a gradual slowing of the earth’s rotation, dubbed “the slowing.” And, as is increasingly common in fiction these days, the story is told from the viewpoint of child: an 11-year old girl in southern California named Julia.

The earth's rotation slows, causing extra-long "days" and "nights" in "Age of Miracles." Photo: NASA Goddard

As the earth’s rotation slows, minutes and then hours are added to the length of the day. At first, life goes on as usual: adults go to work, Julia attends middle school, adolescents are cruel. But as the hours pile up and the world experiences 50-hour rotations–split roughly in half into day and night–society splinters. Some people continue on a 24-hour schedule, sometimes spending entire “days” in darkness, while others try to adapt to the longer schedules. The schisms created by uneven, out-of-sync schedules change how these communities, families and people function. As Julia puts it in the novel: “I think we lost something else when we lost that crisp rhythm, some general shared belief that we could count on certain things.”

Of course, the changes induced by the slowing aren’t just societal, but biological. Birds, no longer able to navigate, fall out of the sky. Whales beach themselves. Crops wither in the constant hot sun. Astronauts are trapped in the space station. The earth’s magnetic shield cracks, causing solar superstorms.

Now out in paperback!

Most of the reviews focus on the comparison between the planet’s  global changes and Julia’s adolescent “throes of seismic upheaval,” as NPR put it. And much of the book does focus on crushes and coming of age, making the point that life goes on, people keep doing the things people do, even in the face of environmental destruction.

But it’s not Julia and her adolescent struggles that have kept me thinking about this book months later: rather, it’s the feeling of slow, creeping doom that permeates the novel, one that we perhaps don’t feel enough when we think about climate change. Walker says that “[she] didn’t specifically intend for the book to remind readers of climate change.” But I cannot imagine this book being written in any other time than now, in a culture immersed in the apocalyptic predictions made on the news. A few decades ago, a science fiction novel about the slowing of the earth would have involved people floating away without gravity; this one is about the death of crops, the ocean spitting out its emblematic mammals, birds dropping to the earth, and society slowly splintering.

Walker’s stated goal was to address a slow-moving catastrophe: she wanted to explore “how people would react to a catastrophe like the slowing, which is almost too large to comprehend and which unfolds at a relatively slow rate.” The slowing is a good comparison to most environmental disaster movies, in which cities are blown up out of the blue–surely in reaction to another potential catastrophe, nuclear war–and everything they knew was gone. Julia and her family still have their home, their jobs: it’s the world that’s changing around them while they continue to persevere.

However, her global catastrophe still unfolds at a much faster rate than ours: the whole book takes place over the course of a year or so. So while the characters certainly have time to contemplate their doom, science doesn’t have time to catch up. Plans to genetically engineer crops to grow in long days and nights are abandoned. There is no great technological boom to develop new fuels; electricity is shut off. There is not time to find a planetary alternative for relocation, even if the technology existed.

It reminds me that climate change’s slow movement is a blessing. It probably won’t cause the kind of global catastrophe described in Age of Miracles, but things will change. And its slow movement means that we have the time to anticipate problems and develop solutions. But it first takes recognizing that climate change is an issue worth addressing–and, in that case, its slow drag makes it hard to take that action. As David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker:

Inaction on climate change has an insidious ally: time. As the writer and activist Bill McKibben writes in The New York Review of Books, “Global warming happens just slowly enough that political systems have been able to ignore it. The distress signal is emitted at a frequency that scientists can hear quite clearly, but is seemingly just beyond the reach of most politicians.” When the financial system collapsed, the effects were swift and dramatic. People could debate how best to fix the problem, but they could not doubt that there was a problem and it had to be fixed. Yet, as Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist of the World Bank, who studied the costs of climate change for the British government, has observed, the risks are vastly greater than those posed by the collapse of the Western financial system.

If one of the goals of art is to help people better understand the world around them, let’s take a message from Age of Miracles. We will adapt to the effects of climate change. Life will go on. But let’s make it easier on ourselves and start preparing now, since we have the time.

Thanks to Rebecca Kreston of Body Horrors for recommending the book!

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 4:58 pm 01/25/2013

    “We will adapt to the effects of climate change. Life will go on. But let’s make it easier on ourselves and start preparing now, since we have the time.”

    That is a very optimistic sentiment Hannah. I hope you are right that we can adapt and life will go on. Have you read the article by Lee R Kump published in SA 7/11? It might be happening slowly for the human timescale but it is radically fast on the geologic timescale. I do think some life will adapt but not all life will be able to keep up. Since we are not doing anything to eventually end AGW and since we really aren’t beginning to prepare for it, a reasonable person might feel some apprehension. Please pay no attention to all those biologists who have been talking for years about the increasing extinction rate. Please pay no attention to all those glaciologist talking about the disappearing glaciers. I’m sure the ongoing drought in the US will end soon, never to return. Maybe we will be able get out of this mess in a painless fashion and move from the age of the Anthropocene to the age of miracles.

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  2. 2. rickofudall 12:20 am 01/26/2013

    Hannah, I know the difference between climate change and the expansion of local events, but consider this. When I was five, growing up in the Sacramento Valley of California, one of the things I was used to was being able to see the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada Mountains every day they were not obscured by weather phenomena. By the time I graduated High School pollution was so bad that the only days that those mountains could be observed was when a strong enough weather system drove the pollution out. Seven years ago I was in the north end of the valley near Chico for three weeks. I never saw the Coast Range and could only make out the barest outline of the Sierras on two days. I know what I lost in the first 20 years of my life and the following 40 have only convinced me that it is gone for good and nothing we will do will bring it back, at least not in whatever remains of my life.

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  3. 3. Zintkalazi 2:48 pm 01/28/2013

    I think what i’m saying is that we may be here for a certain purpose that we can’t really understand. Maybe certain species of humans are almost like white blood cells in our body. They keep the infection or disease from taking over too quickly. But at a certain point all living things go in a circle and must complete their cycle. As i said in my writing look at the very smallest life form with a microscope, and think deeply about how all life is designed to carry out a certain purpose. Does it really make sense that this life form we call humans is out of control?

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