Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Climate change, imagination and culture, part 1


This is the first part of an essay based on a talk given on 22 Oct in the series The Cultures of Climate Change at CRASSH in Cambridge (footnote 1)

Unlike the film from which my title borrows a line, I cannot promise to “hold the world spellbound with new and startling powers from another planet” (2). But I will try to keep you amused for forty minutes or so, and float some ideas to help get a discussion going.

Let me preface my comments on climate change and culture by saying that my view – not original to me of course, and quite widely shared – is that manmade global warming is very likely a matter of first order urgency, a planetary emergency (3). As the alien says in The Day the Earth Stood Still, “If you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to just a burned out cinder.”

My talk is in three parts. First, a challenge to what I understand to be an assumption framing this series. Second, a look at three examples that I think say interesting things about climate change and ‘culture’ in broad and narrow senses of that term. Third, some questions provoked by a recent protest involving venerated cultural objects which many people thought was beyond the bounds of cultural and political acceptability.


OK, first the challenge. Here’s a quote from the framing introduction to this series on The Cultures of Climate Change (4):
There is a conspicuous absence: with only a few exceptions, the artistic, literary and critical communities have so far been quiet on the issue [of climate change].
A similar observation was made by Bill McKibben in his contribution to the spring 2005 British Council/openDemocracy debate on the politics of climate change (5). He wrote:
…oddly, though we know about it [climate change], we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?
McKibben is persuasive but is he right? Whatever the situation in 2005, things have changed substantially in the two and half years since he wrote that. There has been a substantial amount of interesting and useful work from these artistic, literary and critical communities – at least in the English-speaking countries that are the focus of my talk (and I acknowledge that this focus is parochial).

‘Culture’ is one of the most complicated words in the language. I won’t try to define it (6), but I will say that influential cultural productions and (not necessarily the same thing) ‘high’ culture – the artistic, literary and critical spheres which I understand to be our topic for today – exist in a broader continuum, not least popular/commodity culture, the media, and – even – ‘DIY culture’ (7). Where do you stop when talking about culture? Internet venues like YouTube offer a platform for individual creativity/agitprop (8). I won’t try to cover popular music in this talk.

But we shouldn’t forget our political and media/current affairs ‘culture’ – especially when it comes to such a highly politicised issues as climate change. In this regard you can get the feeling sometimes that, in Britain at least, climate change has ‘jumped the shark’. As has been said, “one sign of how far the debate has moved on is that politicians now use ‘climate change’ as a benchmark for establishing the seriousness of other issues. When the Health Secretary Alan Johnson spoke about obesity [last] week he said the threat was a ‘potential crisis on the scale of climate change’” (9).

[Seriousness, yes, but also trivialisation: climate change is the new black is the new rock’n’roll is the new stand-up is the new …]

Popular/commodity-culture products exploiting climate change are several years old. Examples include: The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a commercially successful but pretty clunky Hollywood blockbuster with major flaws in its presentation of the science (reportedly, it left viewers on average more sceptical about the issues than they had been before (10)); State of Fear (also 2004), a pernicious mindfuck; and Crimes of the Hot (2002/03), an episode in the Futurama series from the creators of The Simpsons featuring a satire on geo-engineering in a world ruled by the cryogenically preserved head of Richard Nixon. And there are any number of less known, would-be airport paperbacks out there focussing on climate change (11).

Moving ‘up-market’ (12), there are abundant references and representations in recent works of in photography and the visual arts that would probably be defined by their creators and critics as ‘serious’ work. Exhibitions and books such as Gary Braasch’s World View of Global Warming(1997? – 2007) and NorthSouthEastWest(2004) have been seen quite widely displayed. One fairly well-known focus for inspiration in Britain has been the Cape Farewell series of expeditions taking painters, sculptors, writers and others to the Arctic over the past four or five years(13). [Incidentally, one the organisers of this series asked me what it was like on a Cape Farewell trip. (I went in 2003). I told him there was a lot of getting sea sick and a lot of drinking. That is an accurate but incomplete description. I forgot to say: there was a lot of getting cold. (14)]

Another recent example is Mark Edwards’s Hard Rain (2007), a book and photographic exhibition partly inspired Bob Dylan’s 1963 song. This includes an explicit focus on anthropogenic climate change, alongside various forms of cruel destruction by and of humans. I happened to see the exhibition just a few days ago in the Botanic Gardens in Oxford where it is installed right next to The National Collection of Hardy Euphorbias. You can’t get much closer to a touchstone of the culture-heritage complex in this country than that!

And in Britain we have now had at least two works describing themselves as operas or oratorios about climate change (15).

Some well-regarded writers have also approached the issues in the extended non-fiction/literary essay form. Examples include Edward Hoagland’s Endgame (16), and articles in the LRB by John Lanchester (Warmer, warmer) and Neal Ascherson (Diary, 18 Oct 07). I think there are hints in the work of the late W G Sebald (17), and at least one poet has tried to tackle the issue head on (17.5)

As for full-length works of fiction in the age of anthropogenic climate change (18) that may still be read and seen in ten or twenty years time, here’s my starter list (19):

Children of Men by P D James (1992), film version directed by Alfonso Cuarón (2006)
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (1995 – 2000) with film scheduled for release in 2008
Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006), with film version in development.

Clearly, these are not novels ‘about’ climate change. Sure, all four describe a global catastrophe, but (I think) only two of them – the Dark Materials series (20) and Oryx & Crake (21) – explicitly describe warmer worlds. You could say they are simply part of a long tradition of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction that long predates awareness of man made, or anthropogenic climate change. Still, I think it’s hard to read these books now without thinking of the nexus of real issues that ineluctably include climate change and its consequences. And I for one can’t help thinking the creative process in these authors was informed, consciously or not, by global environmental change (22),(23). But please challenge me on this if you want to. My comments are, after all, supposed to help start a conversation (24).

This is the first of three parts of an essay about climate change, imagination and culture. Part two is here. Part three is here.


(1) Edits include expanded and updated references to 30 October.

(2) Quote from the trailer of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

(3) Substantiating and defending this position would require another talk as long as this one. Here I take it as a given. (For a different view see, for example Climate Resistance or Benny Peiser on Stabilisation 2005). Let’s note in passing, however, that analysis and evidence reported over just the last few days continue to be consistent with and/or strengthen a coherent picture built up by many thousands of scientists over several decades. On 20 Oct it was reported that researchers at UEA have found uptake of CO2 in the North Atlantic halved between the mid 1990s and 2000 to 2005 (Oceans are ‘soaking up less CO2'). On 21 Oct Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Steven Chu was reported as saying that even on the most optimistic models for the second half of the century, 30 to 70 percent of California’s snowpack would disappear, jeopardising the water supply of tens of millions of people: “There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster…and that’s in the best scenario.” (The Future is Drying Up). Also in California, we have witnessed the biggest fires in many years resulting in the evacuation of more than 800,000 people, and while these may not be directly attributable to anthropogenic global heating, future dry conditions as a result of climate change could make such evens increasingly frequent and serious.
All evidence needs to be rigorously scrutinized by first-rate scientists and mediated through a transparent process such as that undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But consensus documents such as the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report are the product of highly constricted political circumstances which typically require a higher standard of proof than is applied in almost any other set of circumstances where evidence-based policy decisions are made. As they say, even Saudi Arabia has to agree with every line. For example, the IPCC 4AR does not take account of most potential carbon cycle feedbacks because of the uncertainty surrounding the issue. Ignoring risks because you don’t fully understand them is not necessarily a good idea. See, for example: Rocketing CO2 prompts criticisms of the IPCC, New Scientist 24 Oct; CO2: Don't count on the trees New Scientist 27 Oct -- “We thought [reduced carbon uptake by tropical forests] wouldn’t happen until global temperature increased by 2 C. It would be terribly worrying if that feedback is already kicking in”; and James Lovelock: 'Humans at war with Earth on climate change'(Royal Society) and It’s too late for greenhouse gas cuts, says scientist. The draft for Lovelock's talk is now up on his site here.
Climate change is, of course, part of a wider nexus of environmental and development challenges – see GEO4, 25 Oct.

(4) Cultures of Climate Change

(5) Can you imagine it? A warming world needs art, 22 April 2005

(6) See, for example, the entry for 'Culture' in Key Words by Raymond Williams.

(7) Bill McKibben is among the believers in the value of locally-produced art, placing value on the fact that, for example, “A hundred years ago Iowa had 1,300 opera houses”. As some amateur musicians may agree, what matters in many cases is not necessarily the quality of the output but the fact we are doing it ourselves.

(8) e.g. a competition for one minute films about climate change organised by Friends of the Earth

(9) Robert Butler, Ashden Trust Editor’s Blog, 22 Oct 07. Among its activities, the Ashden Trust supports dramatists and other artists exploring climate and environmental change.

(10) The jumping the shark moment in the film is surely when the ferocious ravening WOLVES (Waaooooh!!!) escape from Central Park Zoo and pace the mean, frozen streets of Manhattan. And thanks to Marc Hudson for pointing to the following paper: Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change by Thomas Lowe et al -- "while the film increased anxiety about environmental risks, viewers experienced difficulty in distinguishing science fact from dramatized science fiction. Their belief in the likelihood of extreme events as a result of climate change was actually reduced. Following the film, many viewers expressed strong motivation to act on climate change. However, although the film may have sensitized viewers and motivated them to act, the public do not have information on what action they can take to mitigate climate change".

(11) such as the thriller Sixty Days & Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson. See review by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, 25 August 07.

(12) The idea of hierarchy in cultural production is often challenged. Why shouldn’t 'high' culture include knitting as well as opera, as Ian MacMillan, presenter of The Verb on BBC Radio 3, almost puts it?

(13) The Cape Farewell project has published a book, Burning Ice: Art and Climate Change, and held some joint shows. Individual artists who have been on the expeditions have followed their inspiration in various directions. Cape Farewell is also heavily involved in educational work, among other things. Another enterprise, Tipping Point, brings together artists, writers and others in a conference-type setting to share ideas and inspiration.

(14) See Cape Farwell: An Arctic Diary May 03, and Arctic Dreams, May 05. For photographs from the 07 expedition see Nick Cobbing's Noorderlicht and landscapes.

(15) And While London Burns (2006) from Platform London, which I have reviewed here, and The Water Diviner’s Tale, performed at the BBC Proms, 27 Aug 07

(16) Endgame: Meditations on a Diminishing World, Harper’s Magazine, Jun 07

(17) In On the Natural History of Destruction (2001), for example, Sebald writes: “In contrast to the effect of the catastrophes insidiously creeping up on us today, nature’s ability to regenerate did not seem to have been impaired by the firestorms” (page 39, US hardback edition 2003). The Rings of Saturn (1999) does not contain explicit reference to climate change so far as I recall, but it is permeated with, among other things, the precarious nature of human existence, especially in coastal zones, and the capacity of people to destroy thanks to, among other things, psycho-pathological lack of imagination and care.

(18) Ruth Padel's "Slices of Toast" (thanks to Marc Hudson for alerting me to this).

(19) “Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three”, Philip Larkin wrote. What about climate change? I suggest we settle for 1988, when James Hansen gave his dramatic testimony to the US Senate. This helped create a space for, among other things, at least two influential non-fiction polemics: The End of Nature by Bill McKibben (1989), and Earth in Balance by Al Gore (1992). Obviously human impact on the global climate change began long before 1988. Most take large scale burning of coal from the late 1700s as a starting point. One hypothesis, known as the early anthropocene, takes in the agricultural era as a whole, from (first) widespread forest burning and (second) methane release from rice paddy and livestock production, about ten and seven to five thousand years ago respectively. Most everyone agrees, though, that the rate of change in the biogeochemical cycle over the past few decades is unprecedented in millions of years.

(20) Others may have better examples. And there is writing from the period before widespread awareness of anthropogenic global warming which prefigure the issue or could be seen as in some way "prophetic". Philip Pullman, for example, recently referred to JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) (One week in September). The work of Philip K Dick is probably another place to look.

(21) For example, “The climate’s been changing. The summers are hotter than they used to be. They say that people have been interfering with the atmosphere by putting chemicals in it and the weather’s going out of control” from the character Will Parry on page 322 of The Subtle Knife (Scholastic Press edition of 2001). The Subtle Knife was first published in 1997.

(22) [Find a quote from the novel]

(23) Children of Men vividly imagines what some environmentalists call ‘the death of birth’ – a notion going back to at least to Rachel Carson (1961). The Road depicts a world devastated by, most probably, nuclear war. You could argue the toss as to whether that destruction has come about as a result of destabilisation in which climate change played a role, and whether that’s relevant. Still, the reviewer who called it “a novel for the globally warmed generation” is on to something. Climate change is, obviously, not the only major global challenge, environmental or otherwise, facing a world of nearly seven billion soon to be nine billion people. See, for example, Our Final Century by Martin Rees (2003).

(24) None of the four novelists mentioned is a scientist. There is a lively field of scientists turned writers - see for example, Science and Art in the Novel: When extremes converge. Michael Crichton is a medical doctor, but then so was Harold Shipman.

(25) To be trite, metaphor is often but not always central to art, writing and film-making. Alien (1979) may not be ‘about’ cancer or some other horrible disease, but it resonates with concerns about those things.


Anonymous said...

I cannot accept Mr. Gore's "the debate is over", when there are many credible dissenting views from the best climate scientists, and since the mainsteam media does not allow them to get air time, I hope you will allow one report to be presented, which I find very important in it's facts. the link to the report is I thank you for not burrying crucial evidence and allow your readers to decide for themselves. Many thanks and let there be dissenting views forever, it is that , that is required for us not to be dictated by the views of the funding parties.

Caspar Henderson said...

Well, I cannot accept that the debate about an Earth-centred solar system is over. So there.

Seriously, though, I do not write anonymously and you should feel no need to. The debate here can be open and transparent.

It is simply untrue to say that dissenting voices such as Lord Monckton’s are censored when they continue to get prominent billing in major publications and media such as The Daily Telegraph, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

Good science always benefits from well-grounded challenges. But this does not extend to unreasonable doubt, magical thinking, logic chopping and the repetition of claims that have, again and again, been demonstrated to be false. Unfortunately, these practices remain the stock in trade of The Daily Telegraph, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

Caspar Henderson said...

I should have added it was Arnold Schwarzanegger, the Governor of California (R), who said "the debate is over".