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Old Soul

Liz Bowen
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If climate change has a face, it’s a fresh one. In a few short years, teenagers have risen to the forefront of radical environmentalism, from Greta Thunberg’s international school-strike movement, to the twenty-one young plaintiffs who sued the US government over its failure to regulate emissions, to outdoors-apparel company Patagonia’s youth-forward ad campaign that cast teens as the high-res faces of our collective doom. Rather than the empty “think of the children” moralism behind most culture wars, this recent strain of activism reflects failure: that of older adults to preserve an inhabitable world for future generations.

Or does it? Certainly, this failure is being perpetrated with every passing second. But who, exactly, are the perpetrators? To cast a generation (or several) in that role risks flattening the landscape of culpability, in which members of older generations are as vulnerable to climate change as their grandchildren—and as far removed from its primary engineers. The pandemic has laid bare the precariousness of scores of seniors, as COVID-19 ripped through nursing homes while government leaders went on about “personal responsibility.” Natural disasters have already decimated living environments for the elderly. The reality is that the young and the old are better positioned as comrades than as adversaries in the fight against ecological destruction. So where is the intergenerational climate coalition?

If Joy Williams’s recent novel, Harrow, holds any clues, that possibility could be right under our noses. In a near future imagined by the cult-favorite fiction writer, with the earth in full-on climate collapse, the elderly are among the few remaining revolutionaries. After an apocalypse scenario, described only as “the harrow,” wipes out much of life on earth, including most nonhuman animals, the surviving society embraces a techno-utopianism that casts the catastrophe as a liberation from the tiresome burden to save the earth. (“We’re free to make our own new innocence now,” notes one civil servant.) The book follows a shell-shocked teen named Khristen as she wanders across this deadened landscape, coming upon an unlikely refuge: a decaying resort occupied by a stalwart band of elderly ecoterrorists who have taken vows of suicide to become “agents of collapse in [a] delicious campaign against the morally colorless and corrupt.” The group manages to operate entirely under the radar because, in a techno-state obsessed with ideals of health and renewal, the sick and the old are “reduced to being only laughably feisty or touchingly grateful or predictably demented or whiningly fuddled.” In other words, “grannies and pappies,” as one onlooker puts it—not the kind of people who might, say, blow up an industrial office, which is exactly what they plan to do.

Though Harrow may be fictional, it would be a mistake to write off the politicization of old age as a fantasy. By our real-world year 2030, not only will global emissions need to be reduced by half to avoid climate catastrophe, but the entire baby boomer generation will be over the retirement age. The effects of aging societies are often figured in the language of ecological crisis, as economists warn of a “silver tsunami,” in which health care, social welfare, and housing systems will be overwhelmed by a population of those needing assistance. And that assistance will become both more necessary and more imperiled as hospitals, assisted-living facilities, in-home care providers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers grapple with the disruptive effects of rising temperatures.

There is, then, a certain moral conservatism to the notion that youth is our only hope, and a progressivist delusion to the notion that subsequent generations must be better than those that came before. The low-income nursing home residents whose insulin is threatened by heat waves are no less worthy simply because they belong to a generation whose elites failed to prevent rising temperatures. This is the underbelly of environmentalist sentiment, which requires figures of purity and villainy in an ongoing calamity where everyone is complicit to varying degrees, yet most aren’t culpable and no one will be spared the effects.

It’s a relief, then, that Williams, one of the great environmental writers of our time, is as allergic to sentiment as she is to the notion that childhood is pure. In her Pulitzer Prize–nominated 2000 novel, The Quick and the Dead, Williams offered a bleak and surreal portrait of adolescence at the edge of apocalypse, following a trio of motherless girls through the desiccated yet mystical terrain of Arizona. The protagonist, Alice, is a teenager seething at the overirrigated gated communities on the desert’s edge and at the ecological complacency of those around her. If Alice has the passion of today’s youth activists, she has the organizing capacity of the Unabomber; her trip wire outrage alienates even her only two friends, and she brutally torments a man she mistakes for a hunter on protected land. Ultimately, we care about her not because she is good or because she will save us, but because she is a human animal. She suffers.

In Harrow, Williams has again trained her eye on the inheritors of environmental collapse—but this time from the other side of catastrophe. In the not-distant world of the novel, today’s archetypal child-activist has long ago burned out. The children who remain in disaster’s wake can scarcely muster Alice’s disdain. The closest we get is a peripheral character named Brittany, who lashes out at her deluded transhumanist mother: “You haven’t left us anything!” Within a few pages, though, Brittany is unceremoniously yeeted (as the kids would say) from the story line, “vanquished” by the punishing atmosphere of a Nietzsche-worshipping prep school. Some decades after Alice crusaded for conservation, Brittany’s environmental rage is more of an outmoded refrain than a provocation. (No cliché has ever gotten past Williams unskewered.)

Instead we’re left with Khristen, Harrow’s bewildered adolescent protagonist. Having medically died for a few moments as a newborn, she moves through the living world as if through a veil. She absorbs the uncanniness of her world with an acceptance that others find “simpleminded” and “exasperating,” and she listens far more than she speaks, uttering only a few words at a time. (Her response is often simply “I don’t know.”) This reticence makes her a cipher for others’ projected futures more than an advocate for her own. “You have no self-love,” one classmate observes. “But you don’t have any sense of self-preservation either.” Wandering as an orphan, post-harrow, Khristen encounters a roving band of nihilist teens called The Fallout who bike around the parched landscape bearing the scooped-out shell of one of the last remaining tortoises as a mascot and getting blasted on pain pills. “They doubted they’d last the year out,” Khristen recalls. “They didn’t care.” Elsewhere, on the resort, a precocious, pessimistic kid named Jeffrey memorizes the law at the behest of his mother, who, unlike Jeffrey, still “believe[s] in progress through the generations.” (Readers who come looking for the nonchalantly formal dialogue of Williams’s short stories will find familiar freakish delights in Jeffrey; when one character tries to engage in kid-talk with him about what gerbils eat, he replies, “If that’s what my mother fed me she could be charged with assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child.”)

True optimism remains only for the rickety ecoterrorists who welcome Khristen into their midst. As refugees from a society where old-age euthanasia is encouraged as a means of resource-preservation, the old and the ill are the last holdouts against the “freedom” from care, for fellow human beings and the planet too. The picture Williams presents is thus far more complex than the common generational imaginary of heroic youth and selfish boomers. As it turns out, so much of what children symbolize—innocence, resilience, progress—can be co-opted by the same states and corporations bent on destroying their, and everyone else’s, futures. But as representatives of a past in which vulnerability and interdependence could still be imagined as values—a world the novel’s younger characters have never known—Williams’s oldsters reveal which people are overlooked when children become the sole receptacles of climate grief, fear, and hope. In the novel, as in our world, the dependencies of old age and disability are structurally opposed to people’s attempts to control the natural world. And the failure to address the needs of the coming “wave” of elderly adults is not simply coincident with the failure to make meaningful interventions against climate change; both stem from the fundamental denial of human interdependence. That is what must first change if we are to have any hope of establishing, as the environmental writer Jedediah Purdy puts it in his landmark work After Nature, a “‘we’ that could grapple with the crises of the Anthropocene.” The future can’t be about only the young.

With this provocation, Williams’s first novel in twenty years is a culmination of, on the one hand, the author’s career-spanning development as an environmental philosopher and, on the other, the surreal, unsentimental, and darkly comic world-building that has earned her acclaim as a fiction writer. It is not an easy novel to get a handle on: time flows in physics defying ways, with the harrow seeming to have occurred simultaneously days, weeks, and years before any given moment. But, as Khristen’s wanderings illustrate, it pays to let go of a followable path. Though Harrow is Williams’s highest-concept endeavor yet, it eschews self-seriousness; one of its most memorable scenes takes place in a postapocalyptic bowling alley that sells martinis by the pitcher. The straight-faced absurdism of Williams’s prose is as sharp and hilarious as ever, undergirded by a haunting, nauseating gravity—less like cracking jokes at a funeral, more like dropping acid at the Trinity Site. As it half trolls any critics who might be tempted to invoke the word Kafkaesque to describe its inscrutable protagonist and dystopian institutions, the novel winks at its own readers’ experience when Khristen appraises Kafka’s short story “The Hunter Gracchus”: “I felt the story was revelatory while being impossible to interpret.” 

This book does bear the marks of some of Williams’s more unsavory conceptual hobbyhorses, such as the emphasis on overpopulation that generated occasionally cringe-worthy moments in her otherwise-fantastic essay collection, Ill Nature. When infertility treatments and “deserts blackened with solar panels” show up alongside toxic chemical dumps and twelve-lane highways on a list of conditions that led up to the harrow, the novel’s anti-industrial critique reveals an undiscerning tendency. Nonetheless, Harrow stands out as a climate change novel that is both genuinely playful and deadly serious—a fine line it walks with considerably more grace than Grimes’s infamous attempt to “make climate change fun”—and as an all-too-rare novel that takes seriously the political stakes of old age. Moreover, it refuses to traffic in the tropes of innocence that infantilize the old and condescend to the young. The oldsters are decidedly imperfect victims; several were themselves agents of ecological destruction in previous careers, as fishing trawlers or biochemical weapons engineers who designed germs “not only to kill but to manage all of life’s processes—cognition, development, reproduction, everything.” “They were flawed and their efforts futile,” Khristen says, reflecting on her time at the resort, “but living among them when the apocalypse had come and gone, scrubbing the world of grief and love, was what I had been given to know.” She then announces a desire, for the first time in her life, to attempt the art of living. 

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