Towards the end of my novel ‘The Journey’ Terran, a young botanist takes a train to Saranath, a university town with an older woman named Amara. During the trip Amara fills Terran on in the recent history of Saranath. Before the university was established the town had been the centre of a coal mining enterprise. The coal had been transported down to Pennington, the old State capital by train.
As the train picked up speed and the hamlet was left behind Amara told Terran the story of the trains of Saranath. Back in the coal mining days trains had transported the coal down to Pennington. When people realised how burning coal contributes to climate change the mines were closed but the tracks into the mine tunnels were never taken up. They were all but forgotten until rising seas began to flood the libraries and art galleries of Pennington. Important cultural art and books were loaded into containers and hauled by train up to Saranath and left in mine tunnels. The original plan had been to leave them until flood proof buildings were erected in Pennington but the effects of climate change were far more devastating than people had expected. As conditions worsened entire trains were hauled into tunnels that were then sealed.
Terran’s mind reeled. ‘What happened to all the art and books?’ she asked. ‘There must be some amazing stuff,’ The story sounded implausible but here she was sitting on one of the trains.
‘For a long time everything stayed where it had been stored,’ Amara said. ‘The chaos at Pennington mirrored what was happening across the globe. Life became a test of survival as we struggled to adapt to the changing climate and the breakdown of the old system. It’s only been in recent decades that we’ve had time to open up the tunnels and explore the treasures we’ve inherited. The dry air in the tunnels protected the trains and their contents. Many of the trains have been put back to use and their contents are being catalogued. What we’re discovering is that we’ve inherited an archive of art and culture that stretches back for millennia. We exhibit some of the art and artifacts at the university but the atmosphere in many of the tunnels is more stable than in our old buildings. We’re in the process of creating libraries and galleries there. Temporary reading rooms have been set up in some of the containers in the meantime.’
Terran’s mind was abuzz. ‘Could I go there?’ she asked.
‘Of course. Everyone in the Alliance has free access to knowledge. It’s essential if we are to create a better future.’
Deep in thought, Terran gazed out the window. The idea of having access to a treasury of cultural artifacts from the past was foreign to her. Back at the institute, there were a few historical reference books in the electronic databases but most were of a technical nature.
Once at Saranath Terran explores the library tunnels.
Over the following days she spent her time in the tunnels delving into the vast repository of knowledge and creativity stored within the pages of old books trying to discover why she felt separate from the natural world. Researching the history of Western thought she came to see that many of the ways of thinking she’d been taught at the institute had developed during the 1800s when reason and rational thinking led to the scientific discoveries that powered the industrial age. The roots of such thinking lay further back in the development of scientific thought during the Renaissance. The more she read, the more tangled her thinking became. While she could see that analytical scientific thinking reduced the world to a series of separate parts, she could not deny the benefits such investigations had brought to humanity.
‘You look worried,’ Amara said when they met for dinner that evening.
Terran explained the convoluted thinking that had her tied up in knots. ‘We haven’t ditched scientific rationalism at Saranath,’ Amara said in response. ‘It still forms the basis of much of our understanding of the world but investigations into how plants, insects and animals within environments interact with each other has led us to think in terms of systems. Rather than seeing the world as a collection of unrelated parts we have come to see that all life is interconnected. The parts can only be understood within the context of the larger whole. Looking at the world in this way we come to see that humans are part of nature and depend on it to live. We have a responsibility to care for the natural world for, if we don’t, we jeopardise the survival of ourselves and all life on the planet.’
Terran shivered as a sudden draught of cool air crept into the dining room through the cracks and crannies in the old stone building. The ideas Amara described worked on her mind in much the same way. They were like a mental blast of cool fresh air that cleared away old, stuck thought patterns and created room for more expansive ways of thinking to develop.
‘It can get cold up here sometimes,’ Amara said, unaware of the effect of her words. ‘These old stone buildings are hard to heat. There’s always the temptation to burn coal and fire up the old central heating system but we know that is the one thing we must never do. As it is, it will take thousands of years for the climate to stabilise and even longer for the seas to stop rising. Continuing to burn coal will only exacerbate the effects of climate change. If people continue burning fossil fuels and pumping carbon into the atmosphere until there is nothing left to burn, it will take hundreds of thousands of years for the atmosphere to return to pre-industrial revolution levels.’
Terran thought of the black coal gleaming in the slag heaps. ‘So every day you’re confronted with a way to solve your problems in the short term, yet you know taking that option is the one thing you can’t do.’
‘Exactly!’ Amara sat back and looked into the blackness of the night outside the window. ‘We’re at the coal face of climate change,’ she said wryly. Her voice grew reflective. ‘This is the challenge we all face. Do we continue the behaviours that led to climate change, or do we strive to find new ways of living on the planet? Everything we do has to be weighed against the long term consequences of our actions.’