Scan today’s headlines and climate change in the Anthropocene might appear horrifyingly novel: Manmade monstrosities like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and “dead zones” seem like problems unique to the contemporary era. The human response that such devastation demands, however, may sound familiar to students of history.
The British author Paul Kingsnorth, for one, knows that humans have experienced the end of the world, or at least, of their world, before. As he writes in an appendix to his 2014 novel The Wake: “The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation.” The unprecedented ferocity of the invasion, he explains, brought about an almost complete break with the pre-Norman past. In short order, an entire world vanished. The Wake, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is the first volume of a planned trilogy, is set against this tumultuous historical backdrop—it tells an audacious story of how humans have always found ways to survive an apocalypse.
Now, Kingsnorth, a former climate-science journalist turned novelist who has long explored the interplay between society and environmental collapse, has a new installment, Beast, that follows a similar theme: It’s the present-day tale of a man searching for alternatives to the superficial consumer culture responsible for ecological degradation. Leaving his family and job behind, the protagonist Edward Buckmaster instead spends his time tracking a mysterious black beast, emitting a kind of optimistic fatalism along the way. In both works, tremendous loss is balanced by a belief that humans are at least as tenacious as catastrophe is relentless. And in both works, Kingsnorth makes clear, ruin, as well as hope, are perpetually present and perpetually incomplete.