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BW Businessworld

The Bear Hug Of A Calamity

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When long esoteric essays on environment have continuously failed to arouse human consciousness, here is an attempt in the form of fiction to meet the same purpose. I'm With The Bears is a collection of 10 short stories written by award-wining writers such as Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell who have written the anthology to send home a message and some money, in form of royalties which the book would generate, in their collective quest to save the mother earth. It starts with a quote by John Muir, the wildlife conservationist,"If it ever came to a war between the races, I would side with the bears.

We have always had tales of the future in which technology rules and the world is not what it was or should be, but these stories come with a warning that is far more chilling. More chilling than the holocaust that was the rage in literature and cinema a decade or two ago. In the introduction, Bill McKibben, the environmentalist, writes, "The scientists have done their job — they've issued every possible warning, flashed every red light. Now it's time for the rest of us — for the economists, the psychologists, the theologians. And the artist, whose role is to help us understand what things feel like."

Yes, global warming is not only restricted to the pages of a book any more. We have started getting a taste of it now through climate change, which is occurring in most part of the globe; we are witnessing torrential rains at places where it was once a desert and rainy terrains are turning into parched patches. The Arctic glaciers could start melting any time.

In his book End Of Nature, McKibben encapsulated the perils of climate change twenty years prior to they are anticipated. The strong message was reiterated in its sequel — Earth where the writer implied that we (read humanity) have tampered, rather fooled around with nature for way too long. If this uneven economic growth were to continue, we would change this hitherto stable earth into something beyond repair.
       
The stories in this collection are far ranging in their themes. In a story by Lydia Millet, the author narrates a haunting story about man's desire to dominate animals by caging them and ill-treating them, without giving a faintest thought about the isolation these animals feel? Similarly, another story — The Siphoners by David Mitchell is another powerful narrative set in the future which is weaved around an old Kurdish folk tale about the wisdom of the old.

One can also read Diary of an Interesting Year by Helen Simpson that foresees year 2040 when everything has broken down in London and surrounding areas. Even the most basic technological boon of this century — Internet — ceases to work. The feeling of helplessness gets compounded by slush and filth strewn around everywhere. People have started killing for small tins of sardines or beans and the young woman's partner, a professor, who had known all along that we had it (disaster) coming is ridiculed for his I-was-right  attitude.

The stories are quite diverse to each other but what binds them is the fact that all are set in the United States, the only reason which can make an Indian reader feel out of place. Though we all are bound by the common fear of degradation of this earth but some of the western perceptions are not shared by the citizens of developing world. We have already faced (and facing) multiple shortages which the west has never experienced in past. The book delineates lack of power and energy as the symbols of doomsday, whereas in India, we have to cope with long stints of darkness owing to prolonged power cuts. 

The book is delightful as it lets you savour the writing of some of the best writers in the world, all in a single book. The Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood perhaps sums it up best in her 2-page story Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet which, being the last story makes it an epilogue-of-sorts of the book. She writes, "In the first stage we created gods; in the second stage, we created money; in the third stage, money became a god; in the fourth stage, we created deserts. These words are found inscribed in a capsule found on a dead planet." Art warns and gives us the grey picture between those slabs of black and white.  It also invokes hope. The story ends on an optimistic note, "Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly."

So can fiction achieve where tomes of essays on sustainability or climate change cannot? To say time will only tell is not a cliché, but a warning in time as well. Royalties from the sale of this book will go to 350.org, an international grassroots movement working to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  There is some hope in such initiatives like this but if the third world war is ever fought over water, I am with the bears!  Provided any are left by then.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-12-2011)