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.....


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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)