Greetings from Brendan's scriptorium, fitted these days on the back of an endangered whale.
There was a disturbing essay on the harsher threats and looming realities of climate change in the in the June 9, 2017 issue of New York magazine. David Wallace-Wells laid it all out in the title: “When Will The Planet Be Too Hot For Humans? Much, Much Sooner Than You Imagine.”
Wallace-Wells starts with the assumption that the human community will continue fail to rally the sufficient motivation, energy and resources to address the immediate problem of climate change; that the Paris Accord temperature rise boundary of two degrees Celsius by the end of this century will be flagrantly surpassed, and that the planet will have been warmed at least by four degrees with eight degrees at the upper arches of probability. If you live in the United States, it’s easy to see how likely this more dire scenario may come to pass.
Noting that the last time the planet was four degrees warmer the oceans were hundreds of feet higher than now, Wallace-Wells then looks at the array of consequences which go far beyond the mere drowning of our coasts: massive animal extinctions; insufferable heat rendering uninhabitable large swaths around the Equator; diminished food production; droughts withering the world’s arable lands; diseases not seen for millions of years released as permafrost melts; ozone smog pollutions rising to levels that will make the Chinese “airpocalypse” of 2013 look like blue sky forever. Heat breeds violence, and incessant war will lead to permanent economic collapse. Oceans will die, and Earth will become a dead zone, survived only by bacteria living at the vents at the deep ocean.
And let’s remember, these processes will continue to build over time, so if the Earth’s temperature eventually rises 11 or 12 degrees, Earth becomes Venus—a dead broiler. No wonder Eton Musk and Steven Hawking are separately urging us toward rapid deployment of extra-planetary colonization.
Wallace-Wells doesn't believe all these things will come to pass because eventually humankind wake up, smell the burning and commit finally to act. But what is so daunting (and perhaps damning) is that we haven't reached that point yet. We’ve become accustomed to rough news and harsh predictions about the earth; but with the terms so abstract, our narratives are hard-pressed to factor them in. (Where were you when carbon in the atmosphere passed 400 ppm?) And how much must be lost to future generations before enough is enough?
Wallace-Wells received some flack from scientific community for the essay–not because the science is wrong, but because it focuses so intently on worst outcomes. Pennyslvania State University's Michael Mann, a climate researcher who has been sharp in fighting climate change skepticism in the past, posted a rebuttal on his Facebook page soon after the essay's publication. "The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now is overwhelming on its own," he wrote. "There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness."
In a follow-up post, Wallace-Wells rejected Mann's "doomist" characterization of his essay. "Personally, I don't think we're doomed, just facing own a very big challenge. But I own up to the alarmism in the story, which I describe as an effort to survey the worst-case-scenario climate landscape. We have suffered from a terrible failure of imagination when it comes to climate change, I argue, and that is in part because most of us do not understand the real risks and horrors that warming can bring."
In the original essay, Wallace-Wells wondered why it is that humankind is so ill-equipped to deal with this enormous challenge. We have the technology to address it (many are now focusing on carbon capture, developing the means of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere): but our will to act is weak, distracted, enervated by tiny screens and mindless pleasures. He cites a book-length essay, The Great Derangement by novelist Amitav Ghosh, which suggests that our failure is primarily one of imagination. According to Ghosh, writes Wallace-Wells, “the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.”
Could it be that our human imagination needs to grow up in order to see the peril ballooning before our eyes?
Two books I read recently provide some examples of how to accomplish that. In While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change, M. Jackson writes about studying glaciers in Alaska at the same time she experiences the death of one and then the other parent. Her grief provides the imaginative scale she needs to find words for the titanic theme of melting glaciers:
I cannot untangle in my mind the scientific study of climate change and the death of my parents. My whole life, climate change has been progressing, and I cannot understand realistically what has happened to my family without stepping back and seeing what is happening to this world. There are too many parallels, and, at times, there is too much darkness. They can't be separated. The language and, to some extent, the experiences for both remain deeply similar. Just as when I could not imagine my parents' deaths, so I now hear us talk of climate change as an event we cannot look beyond, we cannot imagine, of which we cannot see the other side. The blindness clouds the reality that we are both in the midst of and on the other side of climate change. The unimaginable is happening right now. Our job remains, then, to begin re-imagining courageously. (21)
The other book is Jedidiah Purdy’s After Nature: A Politics For The Anthropocene. In it Purdy finds a way to move our imagination of nature from private experience into the public (and political) arena. A healthy environmental imagination means seeing clearly what has been lost while at the same time envisioning the possibilities of what remains. “Losing nature need not mean losing the value of the living world, but it will mean engaging it differently,” he writes.
It may mean learning to find beauty in ordinary places, not just wonder in wild ones. It may mean treasuring places that are irremediably damaged, learning to prize what is neither pure nor natural, but just is—the always imperfect joint product of human powers and the natural world. All of this will require a vocabulary, an ethics, an aesthetics, and a politics, for a time when the meaning of nature is ultimately a human question. And since it is a question we must answer together, it should—but not necessarily will—receive a democratic answer.” (10)
If we are stuck here (we may not survive to the day when the extra-terrestrial visions of Hawking and Musk can come to pass), then we have to figure out a better way to see our world and co-habit in it. Collective self-restraint within a framework of political and regulatory action may not seem quite like the drastic measure needed, but that in itself represent a radical change from the present. And it is at essence an imaginative act, one we have to collectively dream our way toward.
Without finding a way to charge our imaginations to this task, we are left with living-dead and atavistic head-in-the-sand metaphors and daily footage of slow annihilation. How long we wait will define the weird sense of time to come. Wallace-Wells writes,
Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size. Humans used to watch the weather to prophesy the future; going forward, we will see in its wrath the vengeance of the past. Early naturalists talked often about “deep time” — the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. What lies in store for us is more like what the Victorian anthropologists identified as “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience, described by Aboriginal Australians, of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea — a feeling of history happening all at once.
And this, my fellow Pondsters, brings me at last to today's challenge.
In a poem of any length or style, imagine for us the plight of this world and your place in it—as citizen, sibling, primate, victim, survivor and singer. What do you love, what would you not lose, and where can you take us which shows us how that place will continue?
Some other ways into this vision challenge:
- How is poetry best suited for imagining the world now coming into view as a result of climate change?
- The other day, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from the Larsen shelf Antarctica. Relate that event to the intimate details of your own life that day.
- How is our sense of time changing? How do our short human lives stand in relation to deep time, and what does it mean to become a change agent of that eternity?
- What does if feel like to have a heart full of grief for a changing world?
- What is there to celebrate as the sixth massive species die-off in the history of the Earth now unfolds?
- Do humans have a place in the world's future, or should we stop advocating for our survival?
- In a world that has been largely changed or damaged by human influence, just what does the natural now look and feel like, and how might that be different from the sublime encounters of a John Muir?
- If the world is visibly transforming before our eyes and we are yet finding it difficult to see, what else are we missing?
- Are we developing a cultural autism, rendering us unable to read affliction in the face of the world? As nature degrades, is there something forever lost in the human as well?
Take a good, deep, long, grieving, loving look at the world ... then come back and tell us what you behold.