Science historian Daisy Hildyard shows us where we are headed

Hildyard’s family lost their home to floods.  (iStockphoto)
Hildyard’s family lost their home to floods. (iStockphoto)


Daisy Hildyard's ‘The Second Body’ shows that nothing drives home the reality of climate change as personal tragedy

In the blazing summer of 2024, when temperatures were hovering around 50 degrees Celsius and air-conditioning units in the National Capital Region were blowing up in flames, I discovered The Second Body, an odd gem of a book by the science historian, Daisy Hildyard, which was published in 2017.

I read it in a day, in a state of feverish excitement, savouring one of those rare encounters with an author who dares to strip away the film of familiarity from their readers’ eye, forcing them to see what has remained long unseen.

A curious mix of cultural history, investigative journalism and philosophical analysis, it’s hard to classify The Second Body. At its broadest, this slim volume is a critique of the ills that humanity continues to inflict on the biosphere, which encapsulates all life on the planet. It follows in the footsteps of a hallowed line of writers, starting with the American scientist Rachel Carson in the 1960s, who have held up a mirror to the perils of the Anthropocene Age.

Yet Hildyard brings more than her scholarship to her work. As the final chapter of The Second Body reveals, the book is an outcome of a devastating personal experience—of the author and her family losing their home, and everything else in it, in a flash flood in North Yorkshire in England.

Nothing drives home the reality of climate change until it is experienced as individual tragedy. All the best scientific minds could keep making foolproof cases on the impact of human action on all lives across the globe. But until the water supply runs out in our neighbourhood, or the birds begin to drop dead on our terraces scorched by the sun, climate science feels abstract and intangible to most of us.

At its core, The Second Bodyis an attempt to actualise the irony of this double bind. It all starts with Hildyard rescuing an injured pigeon in her kitchen one day and immediately thinking that she could have just as easily wrung its neck and eaten it herself. But, as she writes, “I could see its mind in its body," and that moment of intimacy sparks a thought, which changes everything.

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Over the next few days, Hildyard begins to notice animals she hadn’t “really noticed" before—they hadn’t “felt as real" as “her" pigeon. As a human, the dominant life form in the Anthropocene, it’s easy for her to lapse into the possessive pronoun, even as she feels a shift in her perspective. But, to her credit, Hildyard pursues the hard path of logic, breaking down fallacies step by step, only to realise that “there are different ways to exist in a body." Be it freak storms, changes in seasonal patterns, or the extinction of species—every catastrophe that has befallen the earth is a direct consequence “of actions performed by your body," she tells the reader.

Your decision to consume what you do, create the carbon footprint that you leave, and cause the emissions that your actions result in are directly related to global events. It may seem incredulous but as the Butterfly Effect states, the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly can cause a typhoon. Or, as Hildyard reminds us, “You…have a second body which has its impact on foreign countries and on whales."

The idea isn’t entirely original. As early as 1962, Carson’s Silent Spring used an ingenious narrative technique of zooming in and zooming out to highlight the impact of humanity’s reckless actions on the natural world. She went on to argue, for instance, that the killing of sagebrush, considered a nuisance in rural America in her time, by indiscriminate spraying of toxic herbicides could lead to the death of cattle that graze on land containing the residue of these poisons. Decades later, Hildyard notes the same phenomenon in a different language: “The geography of wildlife exploitation maps pretty much directly on to the geography of human exploitation."

The front cover of the book.
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The front cover of the book.

In the first three sections of the book, Hildyard sets out to explore this map of exploitation through four characters, each occupying a specific position vis-à-vis their second bodies. There is Richard, a butcher in Yorkshire, who sees pigs not so much as animals but as boiled ham. As Hildyard notes after meeting him at work, “The meat was too far down the production line to be readily identifiable as a part of an animal’s body." Gina, an environmental criminologist, understands her relationship with the animal world in terms of trafficked leopards and minks. Luis, a biologist, is obsessed with the Big Questions of life, while Nadezha, who studies fungi, wants to go back to the first principles and define what it means to be an animal.

Each of these interviews produce meandering reports, touching on a wide array of topics, from the latest developments in scientific thinking to 17th century modes of being in the world, especially as articulated by Shakespeare through the characters of King Lear and Hamlet. The essays are richly ruminative, with jagged insights, and not exactly cohesive as in a tight-knit philosophical treatise. But Hildyard’s project is not about giving an existing idea structural polish or crafting an infallible thesis to defeat its precedents.

The Second Body shines the brightest when the author embraces doubt and opens herself to the unfathomable mysteries of existence. It pushes us to see for ourselves who we are, what we do, and where we are headed. In Hildyard’s case, the final turn of the screw comes as a nasty shock, with the loss of everything in the flood. It’s not as though she and her husband were unheeding of the warnings—but they had become inured to the possibility of actual destruction after a series of false alarms.

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Hildyard and her family were away when the river finally gave way and the water level reached the ceiling of their house. By the time they came back, the tide had receded, but also taken with it all traces of their former life.

In a striking reaction to the situation, Hildyard decides to use the compensation given by the state to go away to a Mediterranean island with her husband and daughter, instead of buying things and rehabilitating the family. It’s her penance of sorts for the sheer materiality of her first body, a desire to redeem her second body from the reactions it has caused around the world, including the hellish flood that destroyed her home.

At the end of the great deluge, there was life again. But who knows what’s awaiting us on the other end of melting polar ice and infernal summers? All we can do is to remember that our bodies are not merely interconnected with other bodies. We, humans, permeate the biosphere. “Your body is infecting the world," as Hildyard says, “you leak."

Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.

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