When I was a child, one of my very favourite picture books was The Wump World by Bill Peet. We didn’t own a copy at home but the public library did, and I borrowed it repeatedly. The Wump World tells the story of a small planet covered in rolling meadows, twinkling streams and large leafy bumbershoot trees. The only residents of this world are the wumps, a gentle and innocent species of herbivore mammals who live together in a large flock.
The story tells of how one day this peaceful, unassuming planet is invaded by the Pollutians from the planet Pollutus. They arrive in a horde of roaring metal spaceships that vomit black smog into the air. The frightened wumps run away and hide themselves in an underground cavern, while the Pollutians settle into the task of building a vast, heaving civilisation full of skyscrapers and motorways and factories and shopping centres, with cars and trucks zooming around and crowds of stressed-out Pollutians buzzing and bumbling their way through the streets.
It doesn’t last forever, of course; it becomes so awful that even the Pollutians can’t take it anymore. They pack themselves back into their spaceships and go off in search of another planet, leaving behind their devastation.
Any child reading this story will identify with the wumps, sharing in their fear and their misery as they hide underground. Any adult will concede sadly that we are the Pollutians, and will recognise with disquiet the assumptions and behaviour of that race, with their willingness to exploit and pave over the natural world. And child or adult, any human reading the story – humans, with story running through our very blood and our bones – any human will understand in heart and in conscience the sad truth of the Wump World: civilisation as we play it now is a failing game.
But it’s just a story, you might say. What can we do about it anyway, you might say. Stop reading picture books and grow up, you might say: grow up and join the real world. Get a job, pay your bills, live for the weekend. Watch tv, go to the shops, plan your vacation. Calm down, take your pills, join the club.
Well that’s what you may have said, even a week ago. Are you still so sure about the solidity and inevitability of the ‘real’ world? Are you still convinced that ‘they’ will take good care of ‘us,’ that ‘they’ will ensure that ‘we’ don’t go too far? When will it sink in, that there is only us, there is only we – and we are them, and they are us. Pollutians, planets, bumbershoot trees and wumps – this is we, this is us. Social activist Charles Eisenstein refers to this truth as ‘the Story of Interbeing,’ which he explores in his aptly-titled book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
The story of the Wump World ends on a hopeful note: the beleaguered wumps venture out of the caves and eventually find a small, undamaged corner of grass and trees where they can survive.
In time the murky skies would clear up and the rains would wash the scum from the rivers and lakes. The tall buildings would come tumbling down and the freeways would crumble away. And in time the green growth would wind its way up through the rubble. But the Wump World would never be quite the same.