Coming Up For Air: Writing the Climate Crisis

Amidst the threat of the climate crisis, how do we ‘come up for air’ and find new, positive ways to think and write about the environment, the natural world, and our impact on it?

Coming Up For Air is a 1939 novel by George Orwell, in which the protagonist, George Bowling, a 45-year-old insurance salesman, disillusioned by his dreary life, returns to the rural village of his childhood in an attempt to recapture childhood innocence.

After the past two years, living through a pandemic, lockdowns, masks, social distancing and uncertainty, the idea of ‘coming up for air’ takes on a new importance – a way of pausing, resetting, taking a breath, and thinking about what really matters.

What opportunities could there be for new approaches to tackling the climate crisis moving forward? How can we ‘come up for air’ and work together to protect our planet?

Below we have put together some prompts, inspired by Orwell’s own writing, to help you to start thinking about the theme. Or click here to browse our list of potential reading and listening about the climate crisis today.


All the way down the hill I was seeing ghosts, chiefly the ghosts of hedges and trees and cows. It was as if I was looking at two worlds at once, a kind of thin bubble of the thing that used to be, with the thing that actually existed shining through it.”

In Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air, the main character returns to the village of his childhood to find familiar places changed. Look at the places around you – how have they changed, or how might they be changed, by the climate crisis?

I remember the Thames water as it used to be, a kind of luminous green that you could see deep into, and the shoals of dace cruising round the reeds. You couldn’t see three inches into the water now. It’s all brown and dirty, with a film of oil in it from the motor-boats, not to mention the fag-ends and the paper bags.” 

Go for a walk and examine the built environment and nature around you. What steps can be taken to ensure that future generations can value the environment?

It’s only because chaps are coughing their lungs out in mines and girls are hammering at typewriters that anyone ever has time to pick a flower. Besides, if you hadn’t a full belly and a warm house you wouldn’t want to pick flowers.” 

We know that climate change affects different places and people in different ways, making existing inequalities worse. How can we find just ways to fight climate change?

I remembered a bit I’d read in the paper somewhere about these food-factories in Germany where everything’s made out of something else. Ersatz, they call it. I remembered reading that they were making sausages out of fish, and fish, no doubt, out of something different. It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of.” 

Food production is a key issue in the climate crisis. How can we feed the world sustainably?


I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of Spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets.”

George Orwell, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad

Look at some of the uglier, less glamorous parts of nature, which might not make glossy headlines or pretty poetry – how can we make people care about all parts of the natural world?

With the aid of the atomic bomb we could literally move mountains: we could even, so it is said, alter the climate of the earth by melting the polar ice-caps and irrigating the Sahara. Isn’t there, therefore, something sentimental and obscurantist…in wanting to leave a few patches of wildness here and there instead of covering the whole surface of the earth with a network of Autobahnen flooded by artificial sunlight?” 

George Orwell, ‘Pleasure Spots

Human life has a huge impact on the planet – what responsibilities do we have to preserve its wildness?

The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.”

George Orwell, ‘A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray’

The impact we make on the natural world will long outlive us – how can we make our treatment of the natural world a priority, through small, simple actions?

I am not suggesting that one can discharge all one’s obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.

George Orwell, ‘A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray’

Could there be a system, as Orwell suggests, where every time you ‘commit an antisocial act’ you must make up for it by doing something good for the environment? What would you suggest?

We made a short film about Orwell’s essay ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ to mark its 75th anniversary, which you can watch here.