Climate Change Challenges the Human Imagination

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Climate Change Challenges the Human Imagination

At times of crisis, we turn to art and myth, the realms where hope resides

Posted on Dec 29 2017 by Martin Holladay

We live in strange times. It's clear that our politicians have been remarkably inept at addressing the climate change crisis. Scientists tell us that we have already injected so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that, especially in light of the ineptitude of political leadership, it is almost certainly too late for the human race to avoid environmental catastrophe.

In short, the chain of events we have set in motion is in all likelihood irreversible.

While most of us know these facts, we busy ourselves with other concerns. We have to pick up a dozen eggs on the way home from work. We need to stop at a garage to get the oil changed. We need to reschedule an upcoming dentist appointment.

The tension between our everyday concerns and the certainty of climate change — an impending catastrophe that is largely unaddressed — creates a type of insanity. Our insanity is socially acceptable, because we all share it.

How do we understand this tension? Scientists have tried to help us achieve understanding by using data and argument, but these scientists have failed — at least if success is measured by counting the number of politicians who display leadership skills, or by a tally of effective actions taken to address the crisis.

We are facing an existential challenge: a moral challenge as well as a challenge of the imagination.

Perhaps the human soul can only approach an understanding of these issues through art or myth. While art and myth are unlikely to result in reduced carbon emissions, they may help heal our broken souls as we march forward into our uncertain future.

Art and myth are the usual ways we explain geologic time. These days, as geologic time becomes suddenly compressed — as glaciers that have endured for millennia melt in a matter of decades — we will all be depending, necessarily, on art and myth for support.

Going into overdrive

The tension I’ve described — between our gut-level understanding of climate change and our inability to adjust our habits to the gravity of the crisis — affects the daily lives of many Americans. We carried this knot in our stomach through the Clinton years, the Bush years, and the Obama years.

Already hard to bear, that underlying tension went into overdrive a year ago, with Trump’s election. We are all now living on the far side of Alice’s looking glass, and many of us feel powerless to affect the course of our current emergency. With the planet in crisis, Trump has cancelled Obama’s Climate Action Plan, reneged on our country’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, and is trying to “bring back coal.” We feel helpless and alone. It's unclear why; we aren’t really alone, because most of us are feeling this way. We are just powerless.

Our lives resemble a dream where we want to act to avoid a scary event, but we realize that our bodies are paralyzed. We want to stand up, but (inexplicably) we can’t.

We find ourselves living in a country we don't recognize, ruled by an unstable, ill-informed leader who expresses contempt for the environment and endangers our children's future — a leader supported by a spineless political party with a vanishingly small number of courageous voices.

In short, we feel a level of alienation resembling that experienced by characters in a Kafka novel or a work of science fiction.

Brooke Gladstone interviews four authors

I’ve been feeling this hard-to-articulate tension for many years. Recently, a radio show came close to expressing the alienation I’m trying to describe. It was an episode of “On the Media” called The show’s producer, Brooke Gladstone, explored climate-change angst by interviewing four authors:

  • Robert Macfarlane, author of Generation Anthropocene.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, author of New York 2140.
  • Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy and Borne.
  • Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.

In the radio interview, Robert Macfarlane discussed the words and phrases we use to describe climate change, as well as a few new coinages. “Species are blinking out, phenomena are blinking out,” said Macfarlane. “So any desecration phrase book needs to be alert to disappearances and vanishings.”

Macfarlane explained the origin of the word “solastalgia.” He said, “It was coined by an Australian philosopher, an ecologist, Glenn Albrecht. It’s a variant on nostalgia: a form of psychic or existential distress formed by environmental change. What’s specific about it is that the people who are experiencing this pain are not leaving these landscapes; that would be nostalgia … The landscape is changing around them because of mining, because of temperature shifts. It has become unrecognizable to them. It is as though they have moved.”

He also discussed the phrase “apex guilt.” Macfarlane said, “Living within climate change, we are all criminals as well as victims. That wasn’t the case with nuclear war, the apocalypse of my parents’ generation. That was one you could outsource to the villains — the world leaders with the big red buttons. But climate change doesn’t work like that, on the whole. We are aware on some level we are all part of this. That sense of a collective culpability is there with ‘apex guilt.’”

“We have mispriced things”

Kim Stanley Robinson said, “There will indeed be billions of climate refugees. And that’s coming if sea level rises quickly or slowly, because we are changing the climate very quickly now.”

Robinson continued, “If you say ‘a disaster’s coming down,’ then people tend to think apocalyptically. But human history has been coping with a series of disasters, including climate disasters. There were people having perfectly wonderful lives, and it turns out that where they lived was where the Black Sea is now.”

Robinson explained that in his latest novel, New York 2140, “There are hopes and fears both. But there is also a shared political project, where people want to make their lives better by getting involved in local politics, like running the building, running the local neighborhood and district, and even going down to Washington D.C. and hammering away at the federal government. These are all parts of my story. The seizing of global finance is a project that everybody on earth needs to be involved in, to make sure that money is working for people and against the destruction of the environment rather than the reverse, which is kind of the way things are now. The thing that’s interesting is that finance right now is not evil or villainous, and good people pursuing legal means can make themselves rich while the environment suffers. So we have mispriced things. And this is a legal problem more than anything else. What’s sad in a way is that the fate of our future is almost entirely a political/legal question. We’ve got to jump into the weird and muddy world of politics. And it isn’t down to individual virtue; it’s down to the laws that we get passed. That’s a little bit scary, but a lot of people have jumped in and are making the effort.”

Our institutions are paralyzed

Jeff VanderMeer explained, “There is paralysis at the institutional level. … The normal way of dealing with issues can’t be brought to bear on this issue. … One thing fiction can do is make visible what is often invisible to us.”

VanderMeer continued, “We live on this alien planet, which is to say we don’t understand how everything works on this planet that we are destroying. We don’t even understand the biology of a lot of the creatures that live on this earth, even as they are disappearing. … We still don’t get it.”

VanderMeer understands the limits of art. “I don’t think I can convince a climate change denier,” he said. “What I can do is — I can possibly change the mind of the person who thinks this isn’t going to happen until 70 years down the road, when a lot of scientists think it’s going to really get bad in the next 30 years. That person who does say that they believe in climate change, but they think it’s this far distant thing that won’t affect them or their children — that’s the person that I feel that I’m writing for right now. ... I sometimes walk down the street and I think, everything here seems so permanent, but it’s not. Buildings, landscapes. All of this could be wiped away. ... That’s one thing that needs to reside in the heart.”

We can’t get our heads around it

Claire Vaye Watkins asked herself, “Could I write about climate change in a deeply evocative, affecting way? While I was writing the book, I did an event with the novelist Ruth Ozeki, who I love, and she said at the bar afterwards something like, ‘Maybe our brains — maybe this is a limitation of our species. This is something we truly can’t actually get our heads around — climate change, or geologic time. It’s too big for us. We’re kind of just these dumb reptiles who just barely got upright, and we’re ugly bags of mostly water, as they say in Star Trek.’”

Watkins continued, “But if we could do it, it would be with novels, it would be with art and storytelling. That’s what makes us understand the understandable. … Can I make something that’s really abstract deeply felt? … Climate change is definitely going to happen, and the future is here. The time that we’ve all been worried about is actually here. We don’t have the luxury of the future tense anymore.”

Art matters

The artists that Gladstone interviewed aren’t paralyzed. Artists create, for the most part, because they feel compelled to create.

Robert Macfarlane reminds us that words and language matter, because words shape our reality.

Kim Stanley Robinson reminds us that political action is a necessary response to our global crisis.

Jeff VanderMeer tries to convey his understanding of the impermanence of our landscape, a sense of impermanence that needs to reside in our hearts.

Claire Vaye Watkins understands the limitations of our understanding, but nevertheless strives to make abstract concepts deeply felt.

Our job, as readers and listeners, is to open ourselves to the messages of artists we love, and then to act.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Martin’s 2017 Christmas Poem.”

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Image Credits:

  1. Image courtesy of NASA

Dec 30, 2017 7:34 PM ET

by Clara Kim

Thank you for writing about this and trying to put it into words. Many of us will see the dangerous times ahead. Life and humans will survive in some form, but it will be a drastically different near-future.

Dec 31, 2017 11:21 PM ET

Happy New Year
by Dan Kolbert

Reading this as I get ready to retire for the last time for 2017. Well said, Martin. Live as if our lives depend on it.

Jan 2, 2018 3:43 PM ET

Thank you
by Brian Bailey

I appreciate this, Martin. I listened to the podcast of the On The Media show you referenced, while enjoying some time in the cold woods bucking dead trees for firewood.

Those dead trees are mostly Ash, which have now been gone for years due to the Ash Borer infestation that has already swept through my area. The infestation itself seems plausibly linked to climate change. The particularly cold day was a part of a funky weather pattern (which you also experienced, I believe) that blanketed the Eastern US in cold and snow. The wintry weather felt like an undeserved gift given that most of the rest of the world remains hotter than ever.

The harvest of those dead Ash trees and their use for heating our home is a small step I can take to alleviate the carbon load I leave behind as a modern human. But, it is small step indeed compared to the immensity of the problem. I'd like to be able to tell my young sons, the true inheritors of the mess, that I did what I could even though my government turned a willfully blind eye.

Jan 3, 2018 2:43 PM ET

Existential Angst?
by bill g

Great post.
A lot of people only think about stuff as far as they can physically reach, so will not pay attention until they hit their head on the low beam.
WRT current political climate "This too will pass", hopefully before it is truly irreversible.

VanderMeer : "... I sometimes walk down the street and I think, everything here seems so permanent, but it’s not. Buildings, landscapes. All of this could be wiped away. ...".
See the movie "A Ghost Story".

After channeling Prufrock (or perhaps sheetrock?), and now Kierkegaard, I think you must have a side job reading in bookstores and coffee shops.

bill g

Jan 4, 2018 7:02 AM ET

Response to Bill G
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for your comments (and your apparent concern about my angst level). Angstwise, I'm doing as well as can be expected, I think. My Prufrock excursion was an example of fun rather than angst -- as I pointed out in the comment section on that page, the narrator is not the poet.

When it comes to climate change, I strive for clear vision and a rational analysis. I still seek and find joy in all the usual daily pleasures, so I am not yet anhedonic. That said, like most Americans, I'd certainly like to see more action on the climate change issue.

Jan 15, 2018 12:46 PM ET

Essential to identify the system first
by Paul Fleckenstein

Martin, Thank you for the post on this topic. I think we have to think more critically though about conclusions like "we have already injected so much carbon dioxide.....". There is actually no "we". All the significant decisions about fossil fuel infrastructure and technology are (1) made completely undemocratically and (2) driven by imperatives of profit, competition, and endless growth. This is a system called capitalism, and it necessarily drives climate destruction. Here is another book I think is worth reading that gives more basis for hope that things can be changed, because, for one, it gives a convincing explanation of why things are only getting worse despite wide recognition that there is a problem:

Jan 15, 2018 1:06 PM ET

Edited Jan 15, 2018 1:06 PM ET.

Response to Paul Fleckenstein
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for the link. You'll get no argument from me on the fact that capitalism is driving climate change. As Kim Stanley Robinson noted on the "On the Media" show I discussed, "Good people pursuing legal means can make themselves rich while the environment suffers."

In our last presidential election, most Vermont voters supported the candidate from our state, a democratic socialist. But if I recall correctly, that candidate lost the election.

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