Decennium Horribilis

The Queen famously reflected that 1992 had been, for her, an annus horribilis. At the moment if feels like the 2020s might come to be known as the decade of horror. Even as we wobble (possibly), out of a devastating pandemic, the world’s worst nightmares of climate change are becoming a reality. In the coming days the UK will experience temperatures never before known. For several days, the sun will extend its scorching heat all the way from the cool cloisters of Oxford colleges to York Minster; from the industrial north, to the vast storage heater that is our capital city. In all their antiquity, buildings will be placed in the stress of temperatures for which they were not built, and from which they may not survive unscathed.

A word that became over-used in the pandemic was ‘unprecedented’. Yet here we are again, facing a very different health emergency. As is so often the case, Shakespeare expresses this experience with economy when he puts the following text in the mouth of Claudio:

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”

Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V

Michael Rosen, writing in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian, hits the nail on the head when he reflects from personal experience that we have not even begun to digest the catalogue of pains which have touched us all: “we are chewing over several levels of trauma at the same time: personal, social, national and possibly global”. I suspect that for many of us these traumas have been shelved, as much as they can be. The rapid succession of crises means that even as one drops from the headlines, a fresh assault has already muscled into prime position. It was all COVID; then a connected string of economic shocks, labour shortages and inflation; a war in Europe and displaced people to support; spiralling energy bills; and now a sustained period of temperatures we normally associate with Andalucía. I’ve probably missed some, and there are certainly other emerging concerns snapping at our heels.

Coastal resorts will offer some cool respite from the high temperatures, for those able to travel

For the privileged and well resourced these challenges are inconvenient, rather than definitive. Isolation for the well-heeled may not have been welcome, but it came with interior space; expansive gardens; and possibly gyms or swimming pools. Excessive heat might be worrying, but it will be tolerated in large rooms, behind thick walls and with high ceilings. Perhaps, even, with air conditioning. For the poor in our society it will be a different story. Small spaces, tower blocks, no private garden, an infrastructure of roads and pavements that will absorb the heat throughout the day and emit it during the night. In the 1980s I was staying in Argentina during a spring heatwave with temperatures in excess of 40°. I was in student accommodation, sharing a small room, close to the centre of Córdoba. During a sleepless night I reached out to touch the wall and found it still warm, stalling the drop in temperature for which we were all waiting. People survive in these temperatures, but they do not thrive.

There have been few decades in human history that have all been sweetness and light. In terms of the title of this blog, it is also worth considering the question: ‘horrible for whom?’ Just like the Queen, our perception of events can be very parochial. It may concern our home and our family, but touch little on a broader political context. Once out of the long Edwardian summer, European history of the 20th century is a sorry story of futile destruction; a second war that followed disastrous economic turmoil; the physical division of Europe and the threat of nuclear destruction. However, both with the pandemic and the UK weather forecast, there are measurable impacts which can only be described as ‘unprecedented’. This is not simply an endless human story of generational angst. These experience are either entirely novel or the fresh occurrence of a crisis last experienced a century ago.

As Rosen observes, talk of memorial events to recognise the 200,000 COVID deaths in the UK appears to have been kicked into the long grass. Our attention has moved on (but, perhaps, not our feelings or our analysis of events). I certainly meet many people who think of COVID as last-year’s news. As we move beyond the first quarter of this decade the signs are not good that peace and prosperity will be more prevalent by the end of 2029 than they were in 2020. The carousel of crises shows little sign of stopping and its pace certainly feels much faster. My hope and prayer is that we shall – eventually – begin to reflect on the cost of our inequalities and the toxic world they are creating. More importantly, that reflection and prayer leads to action and a stronger sense of how we, as a global community, act to ensure that the sorry story of the last couple of years does not become our permanent reality.

Holy God,
earth and air and water are your creation, and every living thing belongs to you: have mercy on us
as climate change confronts us.
Give us the will and the courage
to simplify the way we live,
to reduce the energy we use,
to share the resources you provide, and to bear the cost of change.
Forgive our past mistakes and send us your Spirit,
with wisdom in present controversies
and vision for the future to which you call us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


© The Anglican Church of Australia

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