This whole question has become very pressing for me, especially in the context of contemporary climate change. I often find myself asking my friends — many of whom are writers and artists — how they respond to events that have a clear climate change fingerprint. We are. And yet if you ask yourself or your friends, has anyone responded to the actual drowning of New York City in with a novel or story or film or a painting? Absolutely zero. Hurricane Sandy hit the Chelsea part of New York, which has been a major arts neighborhood for the last 20 years.
Many artists live there. Many of them lost work. Many of the major galleries lost stuff. Yet if you ever ask an artist, have you produced any kind of work in relation to this, most of them will look at you in astonishment. Mumbai is a city with a huge film industry.
Many writers, artists, and painters live there. There was a terrible rain bomb event in Mumbai some years ago. Their house was flooded. They were separated from their daughter for several days and were traumatized by this event. I asked them if this trauma had ever shown up in their work and again, they just were completely astonished. And what does freedom mean in the Western tradition? Only people who are free of nature were thought to be capable of creating their own history, creating their own art.
People who had to respond to nature constantly were thought to be without consciousness, without history, without art. Culture is what is not nature. But just traditional since the late 18th century. Before that, these distinctions never applied. Within the Enlightenment you have this deification of humanity, the centrality of the human and the exclusion of the nonhuman from everything.
And if you think of the way our universities are set up now, what do we have? We have the sciences, which deal with nature, and we have the humanities, which deal with the human. So what about all those things that are not human? I would say climate change really dissolves this completely false distinction between the human and the natural.
What we see now is an environment, a nonhuman world, which is completely animated by human actions. We often think of climate change as a science problem. In my view science can only tell us about the symptoms. These are only symptoms that we see around us. They use these fossil fuels to make water.
They purify seawater and create, through very energy intensive processes, very expensive water to create lawns. And really, why? So where does this desire for the lawn come into being? You have to think about a whole history and culture of people reading, perhaps, Jane Austen and imagining English greensward all around them.
- Bringing God Down to Earth.
- Survivalist Magazine Issue #12 - Bushcraft & Wilderness Survival.
- Branded By Grace.
- Gentlemanly Horrors of Mine Alone.
That becomes the model of the good life. What we are all chasing is a model of the good life that comes to us from culture.
Fiction very powerfully shapes our desires and our imagination. But even more powerfully, when fiction is translated into film. If you just think of images of freedom, what does freedom mean to us today? So often the imagery of freedom has to do with an automobile or a motorcycle. Yet we never consider that this kind of freedom is dependent on the road, on the machine that some giant corporation produces for you, and on the gas that an even more enormous corporation produces for you.
Of course. We have to rethink the centrality that freedom has within our conceptions of modern culture and the good life, and we have to start thinking about alternative ways of imagining our lives. For example, California is perhaps the ultimate example of a place where people were always encouraged to think of absolute freedom, to buy and consume as they pleased. They managed to adjust their lives around it.
So we really have to think about these things. We need a leap of the imagination.
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We need to imagine our lives in a completely different way. Of course, technology can help. There was an economist named Samuel Jevons, one of the earliest energy economists. He was famous for finding the Jevons Paradox, which demonstrates that greater energy efficiencies actually lead to greater consumption of energy. Once the internet came into being, everybody thought people would use less paper.
But to the contrary, they actually use a great deal more. We have to look at the other end. We have to look at it through the prism of our desires and our modes of living. What do you think of those novels? But again, let me just come back to the example that I started with.
There are any number of novels and films about the possible drowning of New York. It really troubles me. Climate change is now. When we project these things so much into the future, we actually give people a way of not trying to cope with these issues as they unfold around us. The Day After Tomorrow , that famous Hollywood film that came out over 10 years ago, was actually a very good film. And yet do you think it had any impact at all in alerting people to climate change? It probably had none, because it projected all of these events into a future.
So people tend to lump climate change in the same box as extraterrestrials and visitations from vampires. Ian McEwan has written about climate change in his book Solar. Barbara Kingsolver has written a wonderful novel in which climate change plays a part. It has in oblique ways. I have written about climate change obliquely.
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But when I look around the world now and see the impacts that are actually unfolding around us in such profound and important ways, how is it possible that I have not paid enough attention to this? You know, people of my generation used to ask our parents, what did you do in World War II? And our children are going to say to us, how did you respond to this? I think the world of the arts and culture will not have a very convincing response. Very much so.
I can hear the raucous laughter, as America beats itself into economic hamburger.