Probably a few more people, in the course of any day, any work or pastime, wonder a little at the priority they still put on whatever they do--artistic endeavor, marketing, haute cuisine, just as examples--since we're listening to the warning that by thirty or so more years living on earth will be all about mere survival. An instant's thought may admit some futility in whatever we are developing in our careers, because who will set much store by that stuff in the desperate next generations?
But since life demands we carry on with the things that bring us power or delight, we figure that in the best case we'll modernize them in accord with trends that surface. The tallest and bleakest trend in more and more people's perspective is the emerging volcanic mountain range of symptoms that indicate our own over-extension, through too many human users promoting massive, ever-growing industry to support our material lives. Climate change is the syndrome, or the plague, which is nothing so much as this living earth like a human body overwhelmed by metastasis in one of its own organs. We are those organs.
A few years ago it sounded a little more than it does any more as if I was stating a religious belief whenever I said I believe we're already experiencing global warming, as climate change then was more often called. I knew--and who didn't know?--individuals who were dismissive, saying things like 'the earth is very old and has coped with many, many changes in climate through the millennia' or 'it's all a liberal hoax.' And those people are still scoffing and turning inward or out to their own comforts. In whatever ways the corporate media by now are treating climate change when they address it at all, more and more people on their own are figuring out that despite the best funded presences on TV, their hipness and flash notwithstanding, the news documentaries scattered through the years introducing a changing global weather regime were correct and bode frighteningly ill for future generations.
Speaking as I am like some movement's disciple, I duly and respectfully cite as this outlook's prophet Bill McKibben, the author and organizer who has publicly done the most in the United States to describe the climate crisis and to muster people to events crying out the need for, as nearly as possible, abolishing our mass reliance on fossil fuels. It was Bill McKibben, interviewed recently on Democracy Now, who said that before the end of the 21st century, with average global temperatures risen to seven or eight degrees F per the computer models, all of civilized life on earth will consist of emergency response measures. In the same interview he alluded, most meaningfully to me, to an earth where winter will be gone, winter as so many of us cherish it with all its majestic gliding sports and immaculate frozen scenery.
In this exhilarating winter of 2013-2014 I can't help feeling a rush of sentiment to create memorials to the landscape in all its variety around me.
Or I reach around me for literary parallels that help explain the behaviors of all of us who've pushed the problem to the stage we are in now. The most classic parable I can recall about the climate crisis can be read in Grimms' Fairy Tales, in the tale 'The Fisherman and his Wife.'
The apparently lonely fisherman and his wife start out the story living on the sea coast in 'a miserable little hovel.' A magical fish, the flounder which the man luckily reels in one day, grants wishes which the wife puts to her husband in a series, each time sending him to call the flounder ashore to approve the latest. First she wants a pretty cottage with several rooms, a larder and well-appointed kitchen. In another week or so, tired of the small cottage, the wife calls for a big stone castle in its place. Promptly the next day she finds the castle a disappointment without kingship to signify it, so she sends the husband back to call the flounder to declare her the king. Then it's emperor, pope and lord of the universe that the wife must become with the flounder's ordination. Each time the husband, ever more humiliated, goes back to the edge of the sea he finds both sea and sky uglier with turbulence and foul coloration.
By the time the woman announces she can never be satisfied unless she's made lord of the universe the man can only go back to the flounder out of fear of his wife's rage. Quoting the last paragraph of the story:
"Then he pulled on his trousers and tore away like a madman. Such a storm was raging that he could hardly keep his feet. Houses and trees quivered and swayed, and mountains trembled, and the rocks rolled into the sea. The sky was pitchy black. It thundered and lightened, and the sea ran in black waves mountains high, crested with white foam. He shrieked out, but could hardly make himself heard:
"Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Prythee hearken unto me:
My wife, Ilsebil, must have her own will,
And sends me to beg a boon of thee."
"Now what does she want?" asked the flounder.
"Alas," he said, "she wants to be Lord of the Universe."
"Now she must go back to her old hovel," said the flounder, "and there she is!"
In the event of overreach, we might say in a religious spirit of justification, there will be punishment, even death. I see that this old parable is touching not just on narcissism to the extreme of wanting to be God but also hinting at a hunger to be bigger and bigger in our consequences on the face of the earth. The waves, the houses and trees react the way they do in the mega-storms filling our news reports today. Very possibly there will be cycles in human evolution, or even human devolution, from which the dream in recent centuries of super-cities, climate-regulated and self-serving and mutually supportive, will be cast away just as the super-cities are flung into outposts of human survival, each making do with strategies that fit the place where they find themselves. Things of course may or may not come undone so completely or severely as in this reckoning.
'Hell on earth' is a phrase coming to mind, as in the last days of the Biblical Revelation, or in the notion that people are so stupidly evil and greedy that all but a few souls maybe will be wiped from off the earth. Hell has to be considered as the consequence not just of greed and evil but of mysterious causes too, causes for which questioners of all different disciplines will be seeking as long as there are thinking minds yet living. Theological interpretations of suffering suggest that it's necessarily based upon evil carried out by a predecessor or visited upon someone's neighbor in the form of a curse, or that it's temporary, attending the person's passage to all-transforming glory.
Charles Williams, the British theological novelist, poet and critic of the mid-twentieth century, ended his novel Descent into Hell with a man's spiritual and probably physical death into a pit, dropping ever lower beneath the moon which the character, Wentworth, confuses with a clock-face in a tower and at the same time his own watch, over-wound and left broken at home. A silver, million-miles-long rope has just shot from his hand upward into the moon, disconnecting him with time in which he remains able to act for the better or the worse.
Charles Williams' talent allowed him to narrate from within a dimension that included the metaphysical and physical in their connectedness. He relates the most subtle gradations of difference between one moving force and other, "percipient and impercipient," conscious and unaware. The fictional Wentworth had allowed obsession with a woman he only knew casually to turn her into a phantasm who went with him, agreeing to all his own lustful wants, wishes and notions, till her image dwindled into something that disgusted him and collapsed altogether. But he is also full of hate for everyone else, rivals to his own self-importance. In the concluding few lines:
"He had now no consciousness of himself as such, for the magical mirrors of Gomorrah had been broken, and the city itself had been blasted, and he was out beyond it in the blankness of a living oblivion, tormented by oblivion. The shapes stretched out beyond him, all half turned away, all rigid and silent. He was sitting at the end, looking up an avenue of nothingness, and the little flames licked his soul, but they did not now come from without, for they were the power, and the only power, his dead past had on him; the life, and the only life, of his soul. There was, at the end of the grand avenue, a bobbing shape of black and white that hovered there and closed it. As he saw it there came on him a suspense; he waited for something to happen. The silence lasted; nothing happened. In that pause expectancy faded. Presently then the shape went out and he was drawn, steadily, everlastingly, inward and down through the bottomless circles of the void."
What is personal among each of our motives will remain, I think, till it is burned or corroded out of each of us. Fabulous landscapes ever veering into winter will for a long time I think be mine. But in sorrowful recognition that Bill McKibben is likely right about a future earth with the phenomena of winter cooked away from its sub-polar regions, I titled the above painting Repercussions. Interpret it how you will, the gull is dashed to smithereens that are one with the snow flakes as it crashes against the strange edifice of combined origins.