The last great rush

Jeff Murray's new novel imagines a world in which climate change puts New Zealand at the centre...
Jeff Murray's new novel imagines a world in which climate change puts New Zealand at the centre of geopolitical power plays. Photo: Supplied
Climate fiction has exploded in recent years, telling tales of sunken worlds and dust-bowl post-civilisations. Now, in a new novel, it’s Otago’s turn to have its future told. Author Jeff Murray tells  Tom McKinlay why he sees the South moving centre stage.

In the middle of winter, New Zealand is closer to nowhere than the Antarctic.

Sea ice stretches north during the long southern night, shading all other neighbours.

Scientists say it might creep closer still in coming years, as ice melt on the continent proper - three trillion tonnes of it already since 1992 - releases fresh water to extend the thin frozen corolla.

It will nonetheless be a story of thawing, of heating. And then, possibilities.

This future, this certainty, is what prompted Aucklander Jeff Murray to write his first novel, Melt.

Newly published, it describes in kinetic geopolitical detail what might happen when the Antarctic mining moratorium - the Madrid Protocol - expires in 2048. Soon enough. Then, the earth's last untapped land mass, twice the size of Australia, will again be up for grabs; its prizes including massive oil reserves and mineral wealth.

At that moment, the map, which until now has drawn New Zealand as an island apart, remote from the world's great narratives, will be flipped 180 degrees.

As the southern continent melts, New Zealand will become central to the climate change drama, Murray contends. Never mind a voice in the chorus, Aotearoa will be ushered into the spotlight and handed a script written elsewhere.

"Our story in New Zealand is that we are peripheral," the softly-spoken Murray says. "If we keep our heads down and we do a few things we will be able to sneak through without really having any big impact on our economy or our nation," he says of our approach to global heating thus far.

But when he began to think about the refugee crisis and changing Antarctic landscape climate change guarantees, a different scenario emerged.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand, a relatively empty country in the high latitudes, will become an obvious refuge for those fleeing heat and storms closer to the tropics. And its proximity to the ice will make it a logical staging post for Antarctic exploitation by the world's mid-century superpowers; China, India and the US.

"I thought Otago and Dunedin would be the ideal launch point down into Antarctica, because the city is already there."

The Taieri Plain, he points out, is the same size as the urban area of Hong Kong, so why not develop it to house the displaced millions and service Antarctic trade.

"Once I brought those things together, Antarctica, New Zealand and the issue of access and refuge, I then had the making of a story," Murray says.

"What I wanted to do was really give people a bit of a start and a shock because I think we are very complacent about how climate change is going to impact our lives. I wanted to say, `what about this idea, where we agree to end up hosting a major city'."

Murray says the moratorium on Antarctic mining was really only put in place because at its signing those eyeing its resources did not have the technology to get at them.

"What essentially was shaping up was a fight between environmentalists and the mining sector and then the mining sector turned to the governments and said, `look, let's not have this fight because we can't actually get down there, we don't have the technology - let's push it all out by putting in place the moratorium'."

It left the legal status of the land mass unresolved and indeed much of Melt's action takes place on Marie Byrd Land, a portion of the Antarctic that has been claimed by no sovereign nation to date.

"If you look at what's happening right now in the Arctic, the powerful nations are viewing the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity, which is precisely what I have posited in my novel."

Climate change will bring great misery for many, but in parallel, people will do what they have always done and rush to opportunity, Murray says.

The local government planning contractor was doing a second master's degree at Cambridge University, on land economics, when the idea for the novel came to him. He heard a talk there by someone involved in modelling climate change who was saying how difficult it was to communicate the issue based on the numbers because they can look quite small; two degrees of warming, perhaps three or four. It's all single digit stuff.

"Well, people think `my mortgage moves around more than that'."

Fiction, Murray thought, could do the job better because of its ability to draw people in through the human narrative.

The narrative he's talking about is a departure.

Dunedin, for example, has been stripped of any vestige of its settler narrative of progress.

Here's how it looks in 2048: "A disappointment of old buildings and old houses laid over land that was too low ... It looked like an old towel that had been forgotten at the beach".

By 2048, the cost of holding back the rising tide has emptied the city's treasury.

Murray doesn't have it in for Dunedin. His Hawke's Bay of mid-century is a complete right off, burnt to a crisp and all but uninhabitable.

We might all need to become more comfortable with this sort of failure sharing the page with progress, he says.

Murray's protagonist is Vai Shuster, whose Pacific Island home of Independence has been battered by storms to the point of oblivion. In dramatic opening paragraphs she literally clings to life through days of tempest. Vai is sent by her people to New Zealand to try to negotiate their emigration. However, in 2048 she is just one of many seeking sanctuary.

"It is the story of Vai trying to find her way in," Murray says. "She is seeking to be an insider to the change that is occurring and trying to succeed inside the political environment in front of her."

Vai becomes surrounded by genuine but ineffective people. Typical New Zealanders, Murray says. Nice, genuine and ineffective. The characterisation is another of Murray's attempts to prod us into, at the very least, some serious reflection.

"I feel like that is very much what is happening in New Zealand. We are genuine people, we are concerned but we are also completely ineffective. Our emissions are going up not down. The Zero Carbon Bill seems to be underpinned by a commitment to not reduce GDP, that we are not really willing to sacrifice anything."

Already today that option has gone for people in some parts of the world, Murray says.

"They are desperate already."

Melt keeps company with the likes of the drowned New York of Kim Stanley Robinson's novel 2140 and the post-apocalyptic dystopia of Omar El Akkad's American War.

In terms of recent publishing it also sits alongside the likes of US journalist David Wallace-Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth, a work of non-fiction that aggregated the most unameliorated predictions of climate impacts to deliver a rude wake-up slap.

Murray stopped short of apocalyptic in his tale, because he wanted to provide a vision that was more relatable, more relevant.

But he's happy enough if it's unsettling. He's uneasy with the anaesthetising assurances that accompany some of the politics around climate change, and accompanied the release of the Zero Carbon Bill last month. It laid out an apparently confident pathway forward of commissions, rules and targets, which risked crowding out the reality that "we remain on track for catastrophic failure".

"I feel the approach of not frightening people is actually quite negative," Murray says.

A too-positive approach to discussing climate change - where small victories or the promises of technologies to come are overemphasised - risks putting people to sleep and hems politicians into a very small space.

In the same way, unwarranted positivity means the discussion around Pacific refugees is not being had.

"What we are really saying is, `it is going to be OK'. So the message to the people of New Zealand is, `well we don't really have to talk about or prepare for mass migration into our country, because it is going to be OK'."

That creates a sequencing issue. If we first target then miss a 1.5degC upper limit to global heating, then a 2degC limit, then rely on carbon sequestration and a science and technology saviour later in the century, we never have the hard conversation about bringing in migrants. That disadvantages them, and risks the issue becoming coloured by race and ethnicity, Murray says.

"Effectively it is the brown and black races who are going to be in the toughest situation because they are in the hottest parts of the world."

A not unrelated discussion broached by Murray, through Vai, is our conception of what it means to be moving into the Anthropocene, a geological epoch characterised by human impact.

Perhaps, scientifically, there's an argument for the label Anthropocene, but to understand it as meaning we are somehow now in charge is just hubris, Murray says.

"While we have species collapse and we have climate change and we have enormous inequality it really is nonsense to talk about the Anthropocene unless you are happy to view all this negativity as what humans are about."

An alternative in the novel is the idea of abundance, championed by some of the environmental advocates we meet in Melt.

For Murray, it was important to think about alternatives to the future playing out in Melt.

"I put it in there as a counterpoint, I guess, where we are saying we could have had it better if we had the maturity. We could have reached out towards abundance and we could have arranged the way we live in the world so that we work with the world, not against it."

The maturity to identify environmental limits has been absent from the atomising neo-liberal scramble after material gain of recent decades, he says.

But he's also happy to observe that damaging way of thinking about the world is on the wane.

"Western societies are really on the move intellectually. They have come to realise that what we have done hasn't worked and in many respects has been terribly negative. So, intellectually we are on the move for what's next."

What's next could be the Otago of Melt.

Ground Zero for Antarctic exploitation, characterised by enormous economic opportunity, enormous environmental impact and decisions made for us by superpowers offshore.

It's one future Murray can see. To avoid it, some decisions would need to be taken 30 years earlier. Some time about now.



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