Saturday, July 15, 2017

Weekend Challenge: Imagining a Changing Earth

Konstantin Vasilyev, "Fires Are Burning" (Wiki Art)

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.


Kerry O'Connor said...

This is a fascinating subject, Brendan and thank you for so much effort put into the writing of this article. It brings to the fore so many things which are of grave concern.. almost to the point where it is too much to bear thinking about. I will be very interested to see what poetry arises from the prompt.

Brendan said...

Thanks Kerry -- I'm very interested to see what comes forward as well. I've taken a couple of stabs at poems on the theme and feel so small and partial in the attempt. I suspect the only way we can visualize something like this is through the collective of individual attempts--what Wallace Stevens called "the complicate amassing harmony." Every shade, view and hue called for!

Kerry O'Connor said...

That is a grand idea - the collective of individual attempts. I like it.

Marian said...

I read that article earlier this week and it is quite overwhelming. I will work on responding to this challenge, Brendan... have a lot going on so it might not be a quick response but I want to respond. xoxo meanwhile

Brendan said...

M Jackson writes in "While Glaciers Slept," "Because we do so little together each day in the face of climate change, it can often feel as if nothing is being done, or worse, that nothing can be done. As though there is no way through. But the perfect answer to climate change remains an immobilizing myth that sits on the mantle and stares at us, all marooned in armchairs. The imperfect, partial, wild and radical solutions to climate change form a web of approaches enacted each day by a host of people (including you and me) with feet and mouths and minds ... We must gather together, physically, mentally, in the physical world and in cyberspace. A part of each day must be devoted to imagining a better future."

My solutions could sure use your imagination ...

brudberg said...

I had not read the article, but it was referred to in Swedish Newspapers... I immediately thought about the four horsemen of the apocalypse... pestilence, war, famine and death... but no lamb.

Fireblossom said...

*longs for haiku*

Brendan said...

Deliver one then. Or is that a worse fate?

Anonymous said...

Where is everyone?

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I read While Glaciers Slept too. What an interesting and well thought out article this is, Brendan, on the topic of greatest concern to me. An interesting thought that we have developed climate else to explain our apathy when we have all the information? I will write to this challenge for sure, but possibly not till i get back home to my computer. I am hindered by having only my in B.C. we have 133 wildfires burning, towns evacuated, domestic animals abandoned and wildlife fleeing in terror. It is all happening now.i have friends who have devoted their lives to clean energy. Corporate influence on governments has suppressed the logical switch to abundant clean energy. This is criminal, in my opinion, when governments put money ahead of planetary survival.


Ha ha ha. This slayed me. ;)

Julian said...

Thank you for the Challenge, Brendan. The article posted was extremely interesting, and frightening too.

Anonymous said...

This landed in my inbox 5 mions ago. We have been without internet here due to inclement weather. I will sit with this. Not a speedy write this one.Thanks Brendan.Epci prompt.

Brendan said...

Sherry, climate autism a cultural derangement, avoidance of a changing reality at all costs. Amid all the bad news I have to keep going back to that line by Holderlin -- where there is darkness, salvation too is on the increase. Maybe we poets can help sing the the hope ...

Paul, the challenge stays open through Monday and you can always post to it at a later Tuesday open platform. Looking forward to your response and glad you got the juice back.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Brendan. I've submitted. The juice was always there. I was the problem ;)

hedgewitch said...

We watched a bit of Soylent Green on cable last night--1973, and already predicting today and beyond--what most wrung my heart was Edward G Robinson's death, where before entering the recycler,'The Corporation' allowed him twenty minutes of film of all the species no longer extant --flowers, fish, birds, deer--his awestruck face as he beheld these things he'd never seen...yes, it's coming. I believe I may have written something along these lines-will see if I can make a poem out of it.Thanks B.

Kerry O'Connor said...

I'm having internet woes this evening, and finding it almost impossible to load posts. I shall return tomorrow to comment and hope for better service.

Outlawyer said...

Hi Brendan, mine is rather silly, not worthy of your thoughtful post--thanks. k.

Susie Clevenger said...

Such great information Brendan. Not sure mine is worthy of your challenge, but I thank you so much for providing it.