Friday, December 12, 2014

First, thou shalt not scare them



Watch the clip on youtube


A fundamental tenet of scientists and climate concerned people is that "you must not scare people about the climate threat". Sure: we all know that. It is reasonable, it makes sense, it is even obvious: if you say how bad you think the situation is, if you even mention the worst case hypothesis, they will close their ears singing to themselves "la-la-la!" while they run away. If you are not careful, they will not want to hear what you are telling them, and if they don't hear you they will do nothing. And if they do nothing, the problem will not be solved. It is standard practice in risk management.

So, we have always been careful to follow the instructions: avoid scaring people, avoid looking like scaremongers, avoid even hinting that things may be worse, much worse than anyone could imagine. We have been careful to end all warnings with a list of solutions; saying that, sure, it looks bad, but the problem will go away if you just insulate your home, buy a smaller car, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. What we need is just a little bit of good will.

To no avail: the climate problem is still there, bigger and more fearsome everyday. Nothing changes, nothing moves, nothing is being done. Nothing even remotely comparable to the scale of the threat. And, sometimes, you feel that you have had enough; you feel like screaming that this is NOT a problem you can solve with double-paned windows and smaller cars; it is NOT a problem for the next century; it is NOT a problem for another generation, It is here, it is now, it is big, it is damn big, and it is out of control. You feel like screaming that aloud.

So, the scene written by Aaron Sorking for "The Newsroom" is astonishing and refreshing at the same time. It is fiction, sure, it is something that will never happen, but it is an incredible jolt. It is a moment of truth, miraculously appearing in a place where it never appears: in the news. For instance:

"The last time there was this much CO2 in the air the oceans were 80 feet higher than they are now. Two things you should know: Half the world's population lives within 120 miles of an ocean." "And the other?" "Humans can't breathe under water."

I know, I know.... We should never, never even dream of saying this kind of things in public. We should not..... And yet.....


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Below, an excellent commentary on this scene by Randy Malamud on "The Huffington Post" (there is also a commentary by David Roberts on Grist which I found rather underwhelming)








Randy Malamud Headshot

It's The End of the World As We Know It



A scene on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom recently struck me, at first, as simply an astute and amusing commentary on global warming... until the real world chimed in with one of those life-imitating-art occasions suggesting that R.E.M.'s apocalyptic song is destined to be the soundtrack of our future.

First, the HBO moment: Anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) interviews an EPA administrator (Paul Lieberstein, who will always be Toby Flenderson from The Office no matter what role he's playing) about a report that carbon dioxide levels have hit extremely dangerous new highs.

McAvoy begins in the usual mode for this sort of story, poised to emphasize the urgent threat of climate change while reinforcing the conventional platitudes that people need to take this seriously and work hard to remediate the problem.

His conversation, though, quickly goes off the rails.

"If you were the doctor and we were the patient," the anchor asks, "what's your prognosis? A thousand years, two thousand years?" The scientist's response takes him aback: "A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet."

McAvoy: You're saying the situation is dire?

EPA guy: Not exactly. Your house is burning to the ground, the situation is dire. Your house has already burned to the ground, the situation is over.

McAvoy: So what can we do to reverse this?

EPA: Well there's a lot we could do...

McAvoy (interrupts): Good...

EPA: ...20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But now, no.

McAvoy (becoming increasingly uncomfortable): Can you make an analogy that might help us understand?

EPA: Sure. It's as if you're sitting in your car, in your garage, with the engine running and the door closed, and you've slipped into unconsciousness. And that's it.

McAvoy: What if someone comes and opens the door?

EPA: You're already dead.

McAvoy: What if the person got there in time?

EPA: Then you'd be saved.

McAvoy: OK. So now what's the CO2 equivalent of the getting there on time?

EPA: Shutting off the car 20 years ago.

McAvoy: You sound like you're saying it's hopeless.

EPA: Yeah.

McAvoy: Is that the administration's position or yours?

EPA: There isn't a position on this any more than there's a position on the temperature at which water boils.

Then last week, an actual piece of journalism, the lead story in Monday's New York Times, confirms that things are indeed pretty much as desperate as Sorkin depicted on his pretend newscast. As the latest UN summit on greenhouse gases convenes in Peru, climate scientists report that a 3.6 degree rise seems inevitable, which they believe is "the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding."

Flipping back to one last bit of patter from The Newsroom: The EPA administrator tells McAvoy, "The last time there was this much CO2 in the air the oceans were 80 feet higher than they are now. Two things you should know: Half the world's population lives within 120 miles of an ocean." "And the other?" "Humans can't breathe under water."

I propose that it is time for us to accept as a premise in whatever environmental discussions we have -- or indeed, in any deliberations on anything taking place in the future -- the fact that the world is coming to an end.

Well, not the world itself: The planet is actually pretty resilient, and will likely continue on its orbit unbothered by the warm spell; it's just people, along with most other life forms, that will disappear. Geologically, there's not so much to worry about; biologically, on the other hand, we have a situation.

Over the past decade -- since Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth brought global warming into the mainstream consciousness -- the rhetoric has been dire, but at least minimally hopeful: If we start doing this and stop doing that now, we can perhaps just barely salvage what is left of our ecosystem.

For a while it made sense, as Will McAvoy was trying to do on his newscast, to cling to a thread of hope in order to motivate reform and prevent people from descending into a paralyzing sense of helplessness.

But now it's time to accept our impending demise. Those are profoundly difficult words to write, but they are necessary: Our times demand a new rhetorical honesty. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it's time to start talking about how we will die.

(Maxine Kumin has a poem called "Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief." It was.)

As depressing as this is, it has at least the virtue of being true, unlike the kick-the-can-down-the-road policies that pretend the solution for global warming lies in producing (someday!) cars that get 150 mpg and cities powered by wind farms. And expecting Westerners (the 12 percent of the world's population who consume 60 percent of its resources) to use less stuff.

If there's a silver lining, it is not a very satisfying one, but for what it's worth: I think it may prove refreshing, even exhilarating, to develop a new trope, a new truth, that lets go of the pretense that things will turn out ok.

"The progress narrative" that has undergirded Western culture for millennia was nice while it lasted, but it's also responsible for getting us where we are today, as it stoked the fantasy that we were invincibly moving ever forward, and that our rampantly voracious overdevelopment (exploration, imperialism, conquest, growth, "civilizing" nature) had no costs, no limits, no consequences.

As an English professor, I find it exciting to consider the possibilities for a new voice, a new style, a new writerly consciousness that may accompany and chronicle the winding down of our sound and fury.

Other cultures at similar points in their trajectory -- past the zenith, clearly waning yet close enough to the glories of the past -- have often produced keenly insightful literature and art. Being on the cusp of decline provokes incisive self-reflection -- as the Greeks called it, anagnorisis: recognition.

Cervantes achieved this in Don Quixote toward the end of Spain's Golden Age, as did T. S. Eliot in "The Waste Land," his report from the front lines of the cultural disintegration that accompanied the collapse of European imperialism and the War to End All Wars: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

On a personal level, we have lately begun to do a better job of dying, and of accepting death -- writing "death plans," forsaking heroic measures of resuscitation. So too as a species we may learn to accept the inescapability of our impending ecological fate. We can celebrate the bright spots from our past human heritage, acknowledge our follies, and finally, deal with it: It is what it is.

There will be a limited future audience for this brave new art, since we're hovering on the verge of extinction, but it will leave an interesting time capsule for whoever might come to recolonize the planet after we're gone.

"Anthropocene," a recently coined term for our present epoch, reflects the unique phenomenon of human impact that has changed (disrupted, ruined) the earth. Complementing this scientific assessment, a parallel aesthetic movement must acknowledge, better late than never, that we have irreparably fouled our nest.

We might demarcate our cultural expressions of this period as "epitaphal": our last words, as on a gravestone, inscribed with a solidity that will outlast our mortal frames and will announce for eternity (even in its conscribed scope) what kind of people we wanted to be and how we hoped we might be remembered.


Randy Malamud is Regents' Professor of English and chair of the department at Georgia State University.

18 comments:

  1. Looks like we finally may be starting to get real ....took a while though...

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  2. The link marked "Watch the clip on youtube" doesn't go to the clip.

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  3. Dear Randy Malamud. What a refreshing piece! Well said. Of course we have crossed the tipping point.

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  4. I erased this comment by mistake. Reposting it.

    ______________________________________

    Steve Bloom has left a new comment on your post "First, thou shalt not scare them":

    Roberts is right on the substance and Malamud is wrong in that (and this must always be part of even the direst prognostications) we can make things worse, are doing so every day, and this will continue to be true no matter how bad things get.

    But what Malamud and you get and Roberts (no activist he) misses is that humans respond to calls of alarm. Without a cacophony of such, we won't get off our current trajectory. (Oh, we'll get off it eventually, forced by climatic events, but we won't much like that process.) So Malamud fails to recognize that we can still greatly mitigate damage to the ecosphere, and Roberts fails to recognize that it's counterproductive to go around tamping down arguably excessive calls of alarm. Without more of those, the overall level of alarm will fall short.

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  5. At the end of the next millenium, there will be human beings on Planet Earth. I really have no doubt about this. In my estimation, there will be a lot fewer than there are today (Seens to me the long-term stable population of our home planet is in the 750-1,000 million range.

    The extant human population in 4,000 CE will retain a history mentioning us. But what and who we are will mean nothing to them. We will be historical bits of trivia like Lucius Cornelius Scipio (consul 259 BC).

    It kind of saddens me watching the well-trained and privileged beneficiaries of today's culture calling for the end of the human race. The only thing dying here is a privileged way of life.

    There will be a massive and incomplete die-off of the human species. Yup...no doubt. There will be a serious reduction in overall species count. There will be disruptive weather events, major climate change, sea level rise, coastal inundation, and all the ills thus predicted.

    But, take a look at the cave art at Pettakere, and you will realize that all the things that make up humankind can be held in few hands, living much more primitively than we care to imagine.

    No, Professor Malamud is wrong. We are not "hovering on the verge of extinction", we are merely returning home.

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  6. Great article!

    Just a technical note on that 80 feet higher sea level. Actually, last time CO2 was *this* high (i.e. in mid-Pliocene, around 3 mio years ago), sea level was 49-66 feet higher. But I am quite sure we will work out it to those 80 feet eventually. And let's be sincere - *who cares*?

    That correction of 80 feet i got from Dave's Cohen piece

    "The Newsroom" Tackles Climate Change.

    Best,

    Alex

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  7. There are near-term paths to extinction for us, Degringolade. Take an P-T-like abrupt climate transition leading to ecological collapse and add to it widespread nuclear warfare featuring release of multiple gene-engineered diseases followed by collapse of public health systems. Maybe some long-term survivors, but maybe not. Have a nice day.

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  8. Alex, Dave Cohen is a sloppy googler. Paleo range goes up to 32 meters. IPCC chopped that off with no explanation. AFAICT this was done to make the ice sheet model results (primarily DeConto and Pollard 2009, a little long in the tooth considering how rapidly ice sheet models have been evolving) seem more plausible. Note that numerous recent (post-AR5) results, both paleo and observations, are making that upper end look a lot more plausible. I would even go so far as to say that the referenced AR5 ISM results now look absurdly wrong.

    More critically for our near future, the ISMs are similarly unreliable in establishing an upper end for the rate of SLR.

    As a general matter, the AR5 WG1 deadline for inclusion of results is now about 2.5 years ago. People need to be very careful when citing it. Of course that was true from the moment it was released.

    Dave has closed comments on this.

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  9. I would also add that it simply does NOT MATTER what we say to people. If you say it is solvable, they will wait for some miracle technology to solve climate problem, or you say it is serious and beyond repair, they will wait for the end. In NEITHER care there is significant change in behaviour.

    Maybe this seems as a pessimistic stance, but after writing hundreds articles on climate change, I think I am in the position to state that.

    I didn't change the world, bu certainly I DID change.

    Best,

    Alex

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  10. Randy Malamud says: But now it’s time to accept our impending demise. Those are profoundly difficult words to write, but they are necessary: Our times demand a new rhetorical honesty. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it’s time to start talking about how we will die.
    ==

    Time to Go

    Once we no longer deny
    That it’s over, why should we lie?
    Things will only get worse,
    So it isn’t perverse
    To talk about how we will die.

    ReplyDelete
  11. for the germans here a translation and script of the video and flapsy comment from the 10th of Dec from me here: http://www.be24.at/blog/entry/695833/lima-cop20-cmp10-methan-und-warum-investments-in-energie-hoch-riskant-werden/fullstory

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  12. However dire the situation may be, I'm going to consider it just barely possible to pull out of the nose dive, for to do otherwise is to be certain that no such possibility exists. If it becomes widely accepted that whatever we do now does not matter, we will continue on a path of profligate fossil fuel consumption -- and MAY enact a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    It's important to keep in mind that there are natural methods of extracting carbon out of the atmosphere. Ask Albert Bates, of The Farm. He knows. He told me that if we both dramatically reduce emissions AND extract carbon in known ways -- collectively called Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration (TCS) -- we can pull out of the nose dive.

    - James Martin

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    Replies
    1. > If it becomes widely accepted that whatever we do now does not matter, we will continue on a path of profligate fossil fuel consumption -- and MAY enact a self-fulfilling prophesy.

      We can all accept that the situation is hopeless and start living on less to prepare for later. We could teach the children that living simply is better, so that they might have a shot at survival.

      Delete
  13. Progress undergirded Western culture for millennia?

    I thought the whole progress thing was something for the lay elites of the last 2-3 centuries. And that it was a translation of sorts of Christian theology.

    But neither Christianity in the 1500 years before, nor the various forms of paganism before that knew "progress" as a category.

    Even more recently, the concept of progress was absent in the more backwards regions of Europe (I am thinking of inland Italy, Spain and Greece until right after WWII). And with the economic crisis, I think people there will go back to thinking more in terms of shifting balances, and less in terms of an upwards arrow.

    Western culture is not per se scientific, technocratic and rational, and it might very well go back to being something else without losing its defining traits. Progress is just a very recent, very shallow fad.

    Having said that, yes, I think we are screwed.

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  14. If one believes that the end is near (as in a few decades at most), the question whether one breaks the news to others is an honest quandary. It’s ironic, true to our nature, that the news in the YouTube clip is fake news yet real news filtered through an entertainment lens where it can still be kept safely at arm’s length. Joe Bageant had a great line about this: “We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.”

    Telling others about the looming demise of nearly everything is at this point still like telling young kids that Santa Claus isn’t real. But as time wears on, the truth will be undeniable. It’s hard to say yet whether it’s too soon to let on that we’re all dead men walking, but I observe that those few messengers in the vanguard have not been treated well.

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  15. If one believes that the end is near (as in a few decades at most), the question whether one breaks the news to others is an honest quandary. It’s ironic, true to our nature, that the news in the YouTube clip is fake news yet real news filtered through an entertainment lens where it can still be kept safely at arm’s length. Joe Bageant had a great line about this: “We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.”

    Telling others about the looming demise of nearly everything is at this point still like telling young kids that Santa Claus isn’t real. But as time wears on, the truth will be undeniable. It’s hard to say yet whether it’s too soon to let on that we’re all dead men walking, but I observe that those few messengers in the vanguard have not been treated well.

    ReplyDelete
  16. As we begin to believe that the future has an expiration date and that it is closer than we want, we the people will grieve, and grieving includes a lot of anger, denial and bargaining. That will be interesting. "Bless their hearts" - the southern colloquialism for pitying in a gentle way the soulfully feeble.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)