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Culturing Science

Culturing Science

Biology as relevant to us earthly beings

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

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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!

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

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