Monday, March 03, 2008

Climate change, poetry and tragedy

Here are the notes from which I spoke at Making nothing happen, part of the London Word Festival, at the Bishopsgate Institute on 29 Feb 2008. My talk was part of a set that included presentations and readings by Neil Astley, Melanie Challenger and Mario Petrucci.

1. Context

In Spring 2005 I edited a debate for and the British Council on the politics of climate change. Much of this was about politics and economics, of course, but we also looked at culture and the arts. I commissioned a piece from Bill McKibben (whose The End of Nature, published back in 1989, was of one the first major books on climate change for non-scientists). He said:
oddly, though we know about [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?
Well, as this and many other events show, there is now a great deal of activity in the arts on the fringes of the boiling cataract of climate change. I thought I knew this, but I was surprised to learn just how much there is when I prepared for a talk last Autumn at a place called CRASSH at Cambridge University, part of their series on The Cultures of Climate Change. In that talk I referred to examples in the visual arts, music (including opera), film, novels and other media but hardly at all to contemporary poetry, of which I am shamefully ignorant (footnote 1).

More has appeared since then (a recent example of a work straddling politics and art is Burning Capital which I discuss here).

2. Apocalypse or not

Many of the examples I touched on in Cambridge last autumn were apocalyptic visions (for example I referred to the novels Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood, Children of Men – book by P.D. James and film by Alfonso Cuarón, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman). In this I was arguing against a point made by the writer Robert Macfarlane in September 2005. He wrote:
The problem is that climate change is not - not yet - apocalyptic in its consequences. Apocalypse comes swiftly and charismatically, and as such offers great opportunities for the literary imagination …

By contrast, climate change occurs discreetly and incrementally, and as such, it presents the literary imagination with a series of difficulties: how to dramatise aggregating detail, how to plot slow change. Though the cumulative impact of climate change may be catastrophic, and may push us into a post-natural world, this is not yet scientifically certain….climate change does not yet have its millenarian icons:

…any literary response to the present situation [needs] to be measured and prudent, and [needs] to find ways of imagining which remained honest to the scientific evidence. It might require, one would think, forms which are chronic - which unfold within time - and are therefore capable of registering change, and weighing its consequences. And it might require literary languages which are attentive to the creep of change; which practice a vigilance of attention and a precision of utterance (one thinks back to Thoreau, recording the day each year on which Walden Pond first froze, or of Ruskin, in his home on the shores of Coniston, making painstaking daily measurements of the blueness of the sky, to check the effects of air-pollution upon its colour).
I acknowledge the strength of Macfarlane’s argument. But I also want to put it in question because the science of climate change is looking pretty apocalyptic these days. As Joseph Romm wrote in the US online magazine Salon a couple of days ago:
According to both the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports, neither Greenland nor Antarctica should lose significant mass before 2100. They both already are. Here again ['again' because he’s given other examples in the piece], the conservative nature of the IPCC process puts it at odds with observed empirical realities that are the basis of all science (2),[2a].
3. Names and feelings

It’s not just the IPCC that is slow on the uptake. The labels used in the media and everyday conversation to describe what’s going on lag behind the scientific reality [never mind the debased, jumped-the-shark clichés now common in politics and popular culture, of which one of the most jaw-droppingly stupid, as I mentioned in Cambridge, has to be a remark by a UK government minister late last year that ‘obesity is the new climate change’.]

A problem with well-established terms like 'global warming' and 'climate change' is well laid out in a post in Dot Earth, Andy Revkin's blog for the New York Times. Revkin quotes Seth Godin, a marketing expert:
Global is good.
Warm is good.
Even greenhouses are good places. How can “global warming” be bad? If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.
Sober scientists don’t go quite that for, but John Holdren suggests ‘climate disruption’, while James Lovelock suggests ‘global heating’. What are the right labels? As poets know at least as well as anyone, words really matter here(3).

4. Poetry and consequences

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963, the Greek poet George Seferis said:
The Greek language has never ceased to be spoken. It has undergone the changes that all living things experience, but there has never been a gap. This tradition is characterized by love of the human; justice is its norm. In the tightly organized classical tragedies the man who exceeds his measure is punished by the Erinyes. And this norm of justice holds even in the realm of nature.
“Helios will not overstep his measure”; says Heraclitus, “otherwise the Erinyes, the ministers of Justice, will find him out”. A modern scientist might profit by pondering this aphorism of the Ionian philosopher...
In 1999 I interviewed James Lovelock for a magazine called Green Futures. At the time, the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that life and non-life are a tightly coupled system, was out of favour. Despite Gaia’s supposed lack of credibility as a scientific hypothesis, leading researchers at the UK’s Hadley Centre (which housed then and continues to house one of the world's leading climate models) were trying to take account of carbon cycle feedbacks. In other words, they were working within the kind of framework to which Lovelock had made such an important contribution. As anyone who has heard of threats such as Amazon dieback will know, the findings of this work are potentially extremely serious. At the time, Lovelock was disturbed but not surprised. He went on to say something that resonates with what I just quoted from Seferis. I quote from my 1999 article:
Much of what Lovelock has to say is decidedly grim. But there is a positive side to Gaia that he is particularly keen to emphasise. Of at least equal importance to [Gaia theory's] usefulness to science, he thinks, is the [moral] guidance it can offer.

"This has been occupying my attention probably more than anything else [says Lovelock]. People do need something to revere or worship, and religion is beginning to fade all over the world because it's failing to deliver in two fields. One: it used to be the source of information about life, the cosmos and everything - in other words it did science's job for it. And science now does that job so superbly well that religion has become almost redundant in that sphere. Two: it used to give moral guidance. And it's beginning to fail in that too...And so what do we do instead? Science offers nothing, or hasn't done so far, where moral guidance is concerned".

"But now it just happens, quite by accident and not by any conscious thought on my part or anybody else's, that Gaia does offer moral guidance. It does so because its rules are simple: any species that improves its environment favours the welfare of its progeny, whereas any species that adversely affects the environment dooms it for its progeny. And this is very moral. It gives us something to which we are accountable - the Earth itself".

Gaia, Lovelock stresses, is not and should never be the basis of a religion, because religions have faith. "The word I prefer to faith is trust. If we put trust in Gaia then it gives us something that will fulfil the same kinds of needs as religions have." And the problem is that industrial civilisation in its present form is profoundly betraying that trust
5. Science and justice

I recently read an estimate that much of the most carbon-intensive deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia could be drastically reduced for less than $10bn. You may know that deforestation currently accounts for around 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions. And reducing it is probably one of the single best and cheapest ways of significantly increasing the chance of reducing the risk of dangerous climate chance. [Another is massive and co-ordinated effort to use energy more intelligently (which will include regulation and incentives for demand management, and investment to unlock the benefits of much greater energy efficiency). Investment in genuinely clean energy technologies is important too. Serious support for adaptation and livelihood creation for those least able to protect themselves is also vital.]

The estimate of the cost to reduce deforestation looks to be well grounded, but let’s assume it's a serious underestimate, and that the cost is at least three times that - $30 billion. That’s still about zero point five per cent of the cost of the Iraq war, which according to Joseph Stiglitz is at least $6 trillion [$30 bn is perhaps a half to a third of what the UK government has staked on Northern Rock].

This looks like very like a world in which our priorities are massively, screamingly, madly out of kilter. Perhaps we should contemplate something Seferis quoted in his Nobel speech all those years ago: “We are lost because we have been unjust”.

6. Appetite and fear

A subheader in today’s paper says Spanish scientists warn of a ‘brainless menace’. They are referring to a massing of jellyfish in the Mediterranean, the 'result of overfishing and global warming'. It is likely to be a small but typical example of how human over-consumption can tip natural systems into turbulent change.

But I think there’s something more here. It speaks to a lurking sense that – in a cut-price, third-rate horror movie kind of way – we, humanity, are collectively the brainless ones, the zombies satirized in World War Z, the ‘hungry dust’ in a phrase from the narrator of Gould’s Book of Fish…or both subject and object of terrible forces unleashed by human folly in a Greek tragedy.

There is a sense, too, that over-consumption and fear feed off each other, running out of control. Is it too late to stop dangerous climate change? Does the increased instability it very likely brings risk accelerating the slide toward a nuclear exchange? One source for reflection here is Jonathan Schell's analysis in The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of the Nuclear Danger, where he writes that nuclear weapons were “born into the world...propelled by a momentum that no one knew how to stop” – what Einstein called the "ghostlike character" of their "apparently compulsory trend" – because the bomb's momentum is "rooted in the structure of the modern scientific enterprise".

7. Tragedy and hope

I'll finish by quoting again from Seferis's 1963 speech. We should recall that he was writing shortly after the Cuban missile crisis which nearly sparked a nuclear exchange that would probably have killed hundreds of millions of people:
poetry is necessary to this modern world in which we are afflicted by fear and disquiet. Poetry has its roots in human breath - and what would we be if our breath were diminished? Poetry is an act of confidence - and who knows whether our unease is not due to a lack of confidence?

Last year, around this table, it was said that there is an enormous difference between the discoveries of modern science and those of literature, but little difference between modern and Greek dramas. Indeed, the behaviour of human beings does not seem to have changed. And I should add that today we need to listen to that human voice which we call poetry, that voice which is constantly in danger of being extinguished through lack of love, but is always reborn.

Footnotes (added on 5 March):

1. To get less ignorant, a good place to start is Earth Shattering, an anthology of ‘ecopoems’ edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe, 2007).

2. See also Climate set for 'sudden shifts' and Antarctic glaciers surge to ocean. And, of course, RealClimate passim.

[2a. (added 5 March) For a response to Romm see Revkin: Do the Media Fail to Give Climate its Due?]

3. A cartoon accompanying Simon Retallack’s article in the March edition of Prospect has one executive saying to another: “ ‘Climate change is preferable’ to ‘global warming’, but the public doesn't like change, so let’s call it ‘a different weather opportunity.’ ”

4. James Lovelock has been pessimistic about climate change for longer than the press generally reports. An interview published in The Guardian the day after this talk was given says “Lovelock became convinced of the irreversibility of climate change in 2004”. My impression in 1999 was that he was already sure. For the record (once again), I disagree with Lovelock about nuclear power.

[update 7 March: audio original has been uploaded by festival organiser Tom Chivers here, with this contribution starting approx 15 minutes, 55 seconds in.]


dan said...

can you blog one day abvout poalr cities?

News article here: published January 2, 3007

Below are several illustrations [by Taiwanese illustrator Deng Cheng-hong] depicting the interior of a model "polar city", circa year 2121 A.D. For more information about ''polar cities'', google the term, or look the term up at Wikipedia, or see a text-only blogsite at

James Lovelock, the acclaimed British scientist who has done pioneering work on global warming issues, when asked by email what he thought about this concept of polar cities for survivors of global warming in the distant future, replied: "Many thanks, Danny, for [sending me] your thoughtful images. It may well happen and soon."

Caspar Henderson said...

Dear Dan,

Thanks for the comment. There are at least two parts of a solution to the challenge of anthropogenic climate change: one, mitigation (reducing emissions); two, adaptation (investment in an enormous range of measures to help human and non-human life fare better during the disruption).

Radical, effective and rapid action on both mitigation and adaptation are necessary to reduce the likelihood of even greater, wider scale appalling tragedy. At present, we see very little evidence of either. As the poet Mario Petrucci says, "Sometimes, the environmental 'debate' resembles a juggernaut rushing towards a cliff
 while its occupants fiercely contest whether they are doing 105 or 95 miles per hour."

[In the UK, where I live, the government claims to be leading. They say this country has 'the best words on climate change'. But practical actions are pitifully inadequate to date. And the reality is hidden behind what are, basically, lies. As the economist Dieter Helm and colleagues point out in a recent article, “On the UNFCCC basis, UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 15% since 1990. In contrast, on a consumption basis, the illustrative outcome is a rise in emissions of 19% over the same period”. (Too Good To Be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record page 23).]

'Polar cities' could be one among many adaptation measures that might help. I agree with Rob Gelbspan, who commented in the piece about your idea on IPS news, that we need to be thinking very hard about the next one to three decades.

But we need to take account of the reality that the overwhelming majority of the world’s people would be most unlikely to benefit from your proposal. So we should try to come up with ideas and actions that will - ideas and actions that also accord with justice and democracy (as distinct from capitalising on disaster and fear). We should strive especially to work with political cultures, such as that in India, that may – if we are extraordinarily fortunate – offer some of the best models for hope.


Teeny Poet said...

I agree. A lot more artists need to come out with painting or drawings that will leave you astonished by what we are doing to the world.