“A powerful essay highlighting the crucial role the world’s oxygen and carbon cycles play in keeping us all healthy – an effective way of getting the climate crisis message to a different audience” – Nada Farhoud
In all the universe, it must be a novelty that humans are aware of what surrounds us. I doubt most fish know what water is, nor birds what air is. Do stars know what space is? I’ve never asked one. I think we’re entirely unique.
And what a thing air is! There are (broadly) two ways humans can use air. The first is take it in, mainly through breathing, and use it to do and know various things. Think of every beat your heart has pumped, every step your feet have taken, every thought your brain has considered. Think of every piece of music you’ve heard, every scent you’ve smelt, every gust of wind on your skin, it’s all from the air. But air does more than that. Humans are clever, and figured out a new way to use air. We breathe it out, and use it for speech. Every word ever spoken is air, every rousing speech or stirring tirade, all little snippets of twisted air. Sure, other animals make noises to communicate, but none like us.
And this new technique was powerful. With speech came words, and with words came law and rhetoric and complex knowledge. We can look backwards into history and chart the progress of civilisation by words. We can mark the great speeches, great laws, great advancements in science. Humanity, not a species given to humility, patted itself on the back, and marvelled at the strength of words, and this new use of air.
But air is under threat. Actually, let’s consider it as capital A, the Air, like we talk about the Earth. The Air this under threat. I won’t repeat the whole process. CO2, methane, pollution, greenhouse effect, feedback loops, breaking points, yada yada yada. You know it. I’ve been bloody well hearing about it since Year 6. We know the scale of the threat to the Air better than ever before. We know about the changes in gas concentration to within half a part per million. The peril is immense. Maybe not quite enough to literally choke all humanity, or stop up our lungs. There will still be heartbeats, and footsteps, and thoughts, and words in the future. But it’s enough. Enough to kill – 7 million people in 2016, according to the World Health Organisation, not to mention the extinction of species affected by ecosystem collapse.
So the Air is bloodied and beaten, and we can see the next hit about to come in. What’s the weapon humanity has boldly seized, charging to aid the poor Air? Why, the Air itself, naturally. That’s right, the best that humanity can come up with – the species that brought every other to heel, that conquered the world and invented science and government and smartphones and rockets – is air.
But not air to power our muscles and minds to fix the damn problem. No, humanity has chosen words to fight this calamity. Fearful words, stern words, powerful words. The 21st century has witnessed perhaps the most prodigious use of words in history. We heard thunderous speeches, fearsome rhetoric, and conference centres that shook with applause. Agreements were signed, targets were set, new ages were heralded. This was humanity’s finest oratorical hour. If words ever worked, these had to.
For all the good that it did, we might as well have stood on our roofs, huffed and puffed and tried to blow greenhouse gases into space.
Words are a feeble weapon. That’s the secret humanity has deluded itself to. Anyone that has ever said ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ has obviously never been stabbed. If words have ever seemed to work, they had the backing of some action; that man with a pen had a scary bloke with a sword behind him. Laws don’t apply because of words alone, they apply because of the power of the state to enforce them. No oppressed group has won their freedom by asking their oppressors nicely, or through any great speech. Rights battles are won when pressure is exerted, whether that comes through politics or sanctions or civil disobedience. Science helps nobody when it exists in a book. Science helps when it changes lives through tangible inventions or new processes. If the lightbulb were imagined and discussed and understood but never created, words would have done little to improve the human condition.
This is not a manifesto. It’s not even really a call to action. I have no plan, no answer to the question of what, exactly, we can do to move beyond empty words. This piece of writing itself, I’m aware, is words bemoaning the futility of words. This is an expression of worry. I’m worried humanity has forgotten how to act. I’m worried we can’t support our words with deeds. I’m worried the last oxygen on earth will be used, as the seas boil and the land fizzles down into desert, not fighting to do anything, but for one human to say to another, “I told you so.”
Of course words have some role to play. Just as a body needs air, movements need words to recruit and discuss and demand. But they need actions too. Often, air is synonymous with absence – we talk about vanishing ‘into thin air’. Our words have vanished. We need people to hear them, to take the air in, to act. Air is nothing without something to breathe it.