An Orwellian view of climate change

Jul 15, 2019 by

Brian Matthews –

A few years ago, there was a spike in the sales of George Orwell’s 1984. One of the reasons cited was Kellyanne Conway’s infamous interpretation of ‘falsehoods’ as ‘alternative facts’. As Orwell scholar, Professor Stefan Collini, explained, ‘That kind of unreality that is propagated as reality [in the world of 1984] is what people feel reminded of’.

George Orwell collects eggs while Big Brother type figures loom in the background. Cartoon by Chris Johnston

What Orwell’s reaction might have been to the Trump regime is a fascinating if rather pointless speculation. But it occurred to me at the time of Conway’s mind boggling ‘logical’ leaps that, if we are going to insist on imagining Orwell facing the complexities of 21st century populism, it might be equally fascinating to wonder about Orwell and climate change. For this there is extensive and persuasive evidence throughout his works.

Writing to Henry Miller on 26 August 1936, Orwell confessed to having ‘a sort of belly to earth attitude and always feel[ing] uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard etc.’ As if to illustrate the integrity of this revelation, he interrupts the letter because he has ‘to go and milk the goat’.

Orwell was living in Wallington, Hertfordshire. He had rented a tiny, 300 year old lath and plaster cottage, sight unseen. There he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier and also set to work to make the house habitable and the plot productive. After a few hard-working months, he was making much progress on all these projects so, when he interrupted his letter to Miller, he really did have to milk the goat!

By ‘belly to earth’, however, Orwell meant not only the uncomplicated, hands-on approach he threw himself into at Wallington (and in later life, at Barnhill on the Hebridean island of Jura) as recorded in his domestic diaries. It also and pre-eminently denoted a quality of engagement with the natural world that he saw to be threatened by the nature of what he considered to be the ‘evil’ times in which he lived — a feeling familiar to many in 2019.

Looked at from one point of view, Orwell’s domestic diaries at Wallington, with their daily entries detailing the hens’ egg production, the vagaries of the weather, bird watching, gardening preparations, and so on, seem trivial: ’14-4-39: Cloudy, and a few small showers. No apple blossom anywhere yet. Eight eggs … 15-4-39: Chilly, windy in the evening and light showers. Began clearing out rhubarb patch. Saw another swallow … Eight eggs. 5-8-39: Raining almost continuously until about 6.30pm … Apples growing very fast. Nine eggs (two small) … ‘

This sort of record is easy to belittle: ‘On this day,’ writes one modern reader, ‘in January 1939: Belgium signed a trade treaty with France, 71 people died in the “Black Friday” bush fire in Victoria, and George Orwell’s chickens laid two eggs’. As notations like these accumulate, however, their effect is neither to trivialise nor to become tedious. What emerges is Orwell’s commitment to understanding, engaging and being in tune with the rhythms and metamorphoses of the natural world.

“Inevitably, were he alive today, he would be the target of the club-footed, philistine pseudo satire and research-free denialism of various parliamentary and other pundits.”

It is not a romantic attachment nor is it ideological. ‘Is it [politically] wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes?’ he would ask himself in later years. But the answer was always clear: Orwell perceived that his small-holder activities (his recording of weather and egg laying, for example) and his general preoccupation with the persistence of nature through no matter what unlikely or unpromising circumstances, were not dwarfed by the great world but helped to give it meaning. Throughout Orwell’s fiction and his essays, what Dylan Thomas, in his own quest for meaning, called ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ is always a powerful if sometimes temporarily muted presence.

Imprisoned in a world fracturing with wars and injustices, every one of Orwell’s protagonists — even Winston Smith in 1984‘s Airstrip One — finds temporary solace in a brief glimpse of natural beauty or the perceived persistence of nature against apparently impossible odds; and not only his fictional characters.

This was what fascinated Orwell about Miller – the author of, among others, Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Plexus and Nexus, and on the face of it the last person we might expect him to spend time on or with. But Orwell saw Miller as an eccentric but remorseless observer of the ‘evil’ times they were enduring. ‘He is fiddling while Rome is burning,’ wrote Orwell of Miller, but ‘unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face toward the flames.’

It is therefore not difficult to imagine from all this what might have been Orwell’s climate change ‘position’. Inevitably, were he alive today, he would be the target of the club-footed, philistine pseudo satire and research-free denialism of various parliamentary and other pundits and of the ‘intelligentsia’ of Sky after dark. I reckon he would have managed.

Source: An Orwellian view of climate change

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