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Can you imagine? A warming world needs art

The magnitude of climate change can seem too vast for human intelligence to perceive. Bill McKibben, author of “The End of Nature”, calls on poets, dramatists, and novelists to open our eyes.
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Here’s the paradox: if the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilisation emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter.

But oddly, though we know about it, 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? Compare it to, say, the horror of HIV/Aids in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect. I mean, when people someday look back on our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.

Why is that? Well, some of the reasons are obvious. It’s way too big, for one. When something is happening everywhere all at once, it threatens constantly to become backdrop, context, instead of event. And in this case, since the context is the natural world that more and more of us have forgotten how to read, the changes seem small.

At my latitude, spring comes a week earlier than it did in 1970. The ice on the lake melts, and the snow in the fields; and the fields commence to drying out, which has real implications later in the season. That’s an almost inconceivably huge change in a basic physical system over a short stretch of time – but not quite big enough to be noticeable, unless you’re paying attention with, say, the vigilance of a farmer. In a society that has more prison inmates than farmers, that’s unlikely.

Conversely, when global warming does attempt to show its teeth, the immediate event is usually overdramatic, so vast that the event itself grabs all the attention, leaving none behind for the motive cause. Four hurricanes sweep across Florida in a summer, which is just the kind of result computer modelling says is becoming more likely. But who has time for computer modelling and carbon when there is Storm Surge and Blown–Over Mobile Home and Waiting in Line for Ice, all of which are a lot easier to take pictures of.

And the dramatis personae are deficient as well, being us. Too many villains can mar a plot as easily as too few, and “starring everyone with a car” is a large cast indeed. We don’t much want to be told that we’re the problem, primarily because it implies we would have to change some of our ways. In a consumer society, those habits constitute a large part of our identity, not to mention our net worth; once you’ve got your plasma screen installed in the recreation room of the 3,500–square–foot house, this is an epic you can do without.

Especially since there’s no real chance of a happy ending. We can do better, or we can certainly do much worse – but we’ve already pushed the carbon concentration past the point where the atmosphere can easily heal itself. So far we’ve increased the world’s temperature by about one degree Fahrenheit; the best guess is we’ve stoked the fires enough that another two degrees are essentially inevitable. Past that, what we do now matters deeply. But the difference between miserable and catastrophic is not a compelling dramatic device.

The two large–scale attempts to achieve mythic status for climate change thus far – the movie The Day After Tomorrow and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear – prove most of these rules. To dramatise the first story, the producers postulated a series of physically bizarre and silly events: global warming somehow leads to a kind of flash–freezing, with supercyclonic storms ripping chilled air from the stratosphere and forcing it down on midtown Manhattan. Oh, and watch out for the wolf escaped from the zoo. Crichton, meanwhile, postulates environmental–spawned tsunamis and cannibal kings in order to prove the whole thing a fable.

In the face of all this, how to proceed? If we can’t turn to creative artists, then to documentarians. Their impulse is to gather more evidence so that people will listen and do something; hence the photographers descending on Tuvalu to watch for rising waves and the writers heading north to interview the Inuit. It’s all remarkable stuff – the news that communities in the far north were hearing thunder for the first time in their histories shook me. But it’s also news about people who, almost by definition, are marginal to those of us in the developed world. The question is how to unsettle the audience.

The possibility exists, I think – in part because events get steadily more obvious. The western European heatwave that killed tens of thousands in August 2003 is a good example. Its toll was horrifying precisely because they were not Ghanaians or Bengalis, people who we have become used to blithely and guiltily reading about dying by the thousand. These were people who could easily have been us, with magazine subscriptions and cable TV and the expectation that nature was not going to do them in – that they’d progressed to a point where they were beyond nature’s real reach.

Not only that, but the deaths illustrated another crucial point. The breakdown in human community, the rise of a kind of hyper–individualism perfectly symbolised by the automobile, was both the motive and immediate cause of many of the fatalities. Old people baked to death in their apartments because the temperature got higher than it had ever gotten before (and barely cooled at night); and they baked to death in their apartments because the social structure that always protected each of us from such events had broken down. I mean, nobody was checking up on them. It’s hard to imagine more symbolic casualties, and easy to imagine the play, the novel, that should keep that fortnight near the front of our minds.

But what emotions should the playwright play with? Fear? Guilt? Sure, but not only those. For me, a kind of wistfulness has always been at the core of my reaction to global warming, a sense that as a species we’re finally and irrevocably managing to crowd out everything else, smudge our fingerprints on every frame of the book of life. There seems to me no more telling turn in our civilisation, at least since the apple in Eden (a crisis that gave rise to more great art than anything in the western tradition).          

But there also needs to be hope as well – visions of what it might feel like to live on a planet where somehow we use this moment as an opportunity to confront our consumer society, use it to begin the process of rebuilding community. They don’t have to be romantic visions, though a little romance wouldn’t hurt.

We are all actors in this drama, more of us at every moment. The great subplot of these few years involves the introduction of Indians and Chinese as principal players, a fascinating confrontation between old privilege and new assertion. It may well be that because no one stands outside the scene, no one has the distance to make art from it. But we’ve got to try. Art, like religion, is one of the ways we digest what is happening to us, make the sense out of it that proceeds to action.

Otherwise, the only role left to us – noble, but also enraging in its impotence – is simply to pay witness. The world is never going to be, in human time, more intact than it is at this moment. Therefore it falls to those of us alive now to watch and record its flora, its fauna, its rains, its snow, its ice, its peoples. To document the buzzing, glorious, cruel, mysterious planet we were born on to, before in our carelessness we leave it far less sweet.

Time rushes on, in ways that humans have never before contemplated. That famous picture of the earth from outer space that Apollo beamed back in the late 1960s – already that’s not the world we inhabit; its poles are melting, its oceans rising. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?

The author: Bill McKibben is a writer and journalist. His books include The End of Nature (1989), Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (2004) and Wandering Home (2005).


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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I agree

I agree

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


如果要用完其他四个星球的资源才能让世界上的其他人享有和美国人一样的生活水平,如果中国的野心是要追求和美国一样物质享受,那么这两个大国要消耗掉多少个星球啊? 有没有其他的星球留给地球上的其他人啊??

yes but what can we do about it?

If it would take the resources of four planet earths for the rest of the world to have the same standard of living as the United States, and if China's ambition is to enjoy the same material comforts as America, how many planets are the two of them going to burn up? And have they got a spare planet for the rest of us?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


虽然你把这个问题概括地说了一篇,但是应该分析怎么去做. 只有促进人们的认识,才能有突破来采取行动- 如果每个人都和你(Grubb)想得一样,我们就没有障碍来获得问题的解决。

Promote Dialogue

You've summed up the problem - but the key is analysing what to do about it. Only by promoting awareness can we move forward to doing something about it - if everyone felt like you, there would be no barriers to a solution.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



some thoughts

How can China really achieve sustainable development? Is it true that the big population in China is the actual reason for the shortage of resources in the country?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



can we add names to posts

it would be nice to know if any of the posts in the thread are by the same people ... maybe if everyone makes sure to sign their post; even a necessary input, like th title?


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



America's role as "model"

In the way it consumes natural resources America has set up a reverse model for other countries, yet China is inadvertently copying America in all its good and bad aspects.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Very good article

Very good article.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Art and climate change

Plenty of artistic work is taking place below the media radar which shows people grappling with climate change. Good art takes time to develop and emerge, and as the poster above (Promoting Dialogue) points out, awareness is still only growing - so the results are not visible to many yet. Bear in mind there is a significant media filter here. (It's interesting that Bill draws quite a strong distinction between "bearing witness" and art...)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



comment with username

Would it be more convenient for us to discuss topics if we could leave our usernames along with the comments?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I can imagine that!

It is wise to reveal evironmental crisis to the public by means of art. It is not possible for each one of us to understand theories of environmental crisis to the same extent as scientists do. Nonetheless, art can make advanced yet complicated theories easily understood, and thus inform the general public of the importance of protecting the earth.