Being Ecological When Nature Is Perceived With Limits


A book about ecology without information dumping, guilt inducing, or preaching to the choir.

This new book is mentioned in a description of coming to terms with a life without water, an essay written from the perspective of living in Cape Town, South Africa. The essay is moving in the way a dream can be, which fits the writer’s reference to what we all might come to know as “the water-anxiety dream.”

The essay was effective enough to get me to click through to find out more about the book to the left. Which leads to Timothy Morton, who has somehow avoided our notice until now. How had we missed an author of books with titles like Dark Ecology, and The Ecological Thought, as well as Ecology without Nature?

Nevermind how. My thanks to Rosa Lyster for this, among other gifts from her essay.


For some residents of Cape Town, the memory of the drought is already fading. But, in an increasingly parched world, will the anxiety ever really end? Illustration by Owen Gent

A friend of mine got married in her parents’ garden last year, on a lavishly beautiful late-summer afternoon in Cape Town. Many of the guests were British, and they could not stop remarking on the fineness of the weather. It was a startling reminder that some people still relish hot days with no possibility of rain, that not everyone looks upon February in the Western Cape as something to be endured. After the ceremony, my date and I stood by the swimming pool, drinking sparkling wine and monitoring the canapés. My friend’s stepfather came by to say hello, carefully picking his way past the bride’s two young brothers, who were playing an ecstatic game of hide-and-seek on the lawn, getting grass stains on their tiny suits. After gracefully accepting our praise about how lovely everything had been, he told us that he’d been having torrid anxiety dreams. We nodded. Weddings are notoriously hard on the old nerves—guests to be tended to, speeches to be made, and the pool just lying there, waiting for any old idiot to accidentally fall in and cast an undignified pall over the happy day. He shook his head. His dream, he explained, was about the garden.

Cape Town’s drought was officially declared a national disaster a couple of months ago, but even last year it was bad enough that using the municipal supply to water your garden was tantamount to taking out an advertisement in the newspaper that read, “I Don’t Care at All About Other People, the Environment, or Anything Except My Thirsty Hydrangeas.” Like many residents of Cape Town’s wealthier southern suburbs, however, my friend’s parents had a borehole. The garden had been made wedding-ready using groundwater, which is relatively plentiful, rather than municipal water, which is not. In the dream, though, the neighbors didn’t know that. In the dream, the neighbors believed that my friend’s parents were watering their garden day and night with the municipal supply, and were so enraged at this wanton excess that they staged a protest outside, screaming at guests through bullhorns as they arrived.

At that point, I had not yet developed my own personalized version of the water-anxiety dream, and I remember a brief jolt of surprise at how vividly realized his was. What I mainly remember, though, was the cold thread of worry that vined its way up the back of my neck, spread out along my collarbones, and settled there. I don’t know why it dawned on me then that the water crisis wasn’t a temporary problem, or that “crisis” is probably the wrong word for something that is never going away. Perhaps it was the grim specificity of the stepfather’s dream, which contrasted with the whirling happiness of the day. Perhaps it was the slightly too on-the-nose reference to W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” that I was only just able to prevent myself from making (“how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”). I don’t know why I felt it then, and, a year later, I still don’t know how to describe it. Something like: Oh, no. Something like: We’re all going to have to be scared about this, every day, forever.

In his new book, “Being Ecological,” the scholar Timothy Morton argues that humans must find “a way of feeling ourselves around the age we live in, which is one of mass extinction caused by global warming.” It is an arrestingly horrible requirement to have to meet. I don’t want to think about the implications of the latest U.N. World Water Development Report, which concludes that, by 2050, around three billion people could be living in “severely water-scarce areas.” I want to avert my gaze at the cinema when the trailer for “An Inconvenient Sequel” comes on. Being in Cape Town for the past year has made these feats of willed obliviousness impossible. It has also revealed them for what they always were: luxuries of middle-class thinking. Water insecurity is both a cause and a symptom of poverty; in the government’s latest community survey, South Africans listed it as the most significant problem facing their municipalities, far ahead of unemployment and crime. According to the same survey, more than two and a half million people in the country have “no access to safe drinking water.” Most of them live in the poorer, less urbanized provinces. They do not need to be told to think about something that already defines their lives. The rest of us are catching up.

It’s true that the threat of Day Zero, the date on which the municipal taps will be shut off, does not dominate conversations as it did earlier this year. Now city officials tell us that Day Zero has been “defeated”—pushed back to July, when the rainy season ought to take care of things for the foreseeable future. (Recent projections by two local climate scientists suggest that this has less than a five-per-cent chance of happening.) Some people already look back on those stricken months with a kind of detached bemusement as to what, exactly, the fuss was all about. There are still buckets in every shower to catch runoff, pleading signs in every restaurant bathroom, electronic billboards informing us that the dam levels continue to drop, water tanks planted in gardens where the agapanthuses used to be. Water restrictions remain at fifty litres per person per day. But the gnawing fear of a few months ago has loosened its grip. In our waking lives, we worry about other things. Two weeks ago, Cape Town’s deputy mayor announced that water consumption had increased by five per cent.

Read the whole essay here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s