Mainstream ignores novel approach to climate action
Story-telling goes back at least as far as the 200 000-year-old species itself.
Yet humanity’s biggest story ever, how Homo sapiens sapiens learned how to exploit fossil fuels, and thus placed itself on the one guaranteed path to extinction, is neither a major news story nor the subject of popular storytelling.
Unsurprisingly, the subject of the oldest surviving Western story, at 4100 years, is of kingly adventures, and that story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, continues to be recycled today. The now urgently existential question is whether stories of kings and other things can be muscled aside by stories of how humanity swerved from its doggedly suicidal determination to overheat the atmosphere, and cook and acidify the oceans. Without heroic such stories, whether in literature, film and television, or in the mainstream media, it will remain all-but impossible for politicians to proscribe the use of fossil fuels.
The recent furore over the Man Booker prize-winner’s condemnation of New Zealand’s neoliberal leaders, and the attendant backlash, demonstrates on so many levels, the extent of the wilderness in which any serious discourse on climate action languishes. Meantime, neither the pro-small-business ‘…jobs. Good jobs. Skilled jobs. Well-paid jobs’ state-of-the-nation theme of opposition leader Andrew Little, nor the more-time-with-the-family resignation of opposition co-leader Dr Russel Norman, went within a mile of anthropogenic global warming, unless the latter’s excitement about big business (anywhere than in Aotearoa) embracing sustainability, can be counted as serious climate action.
Jobs and more jobs, meantime, all heavily dependent upon fossil fuel exploitation, is what has put humanity on its collision course with a survivable climate. The only recent, appreciable dip in greenhouse gas emissions was a direct result of the global economic downturn. Andrew Little’s cautiously crafted bid for the hearts and minds of middle Aotearoa, his Future of Work Commission, misses the bleedin’ obvious. There is an enormous amount of work that must be commissioned immediately, if emissions are to be slashed sufficiently quickly to avoid a scenario in which the future of work is academic. Little talks of five streams, the fifth being ‘economic development and sustainability’, when climate action, for the foreseeable future, that is, several centuries, must be the prime priority. Without that objective, Little’s initiative is on the wrong side of history, and ultimately will fall well short of what is required to make the Labour relevant to the young people who must be heavily recruited, if party politics is to be anything but a race to the bottom.
The failure of anthropogenic global warming to grasp the public imagination has been much studied and dissected. Recently it has become fashionable to blame the messengers for all manner of miscalculations and transgressions including the use of the occasional long word, particularly of the use of anthropogenic. The preferable term, many urge, is human-made. The plain-English word was once manmade, which everyone readily understood to mean made by human endeavour, rather than by the non-human natural world. Sadly, the gender-neutral police have stomped on man, despite the word originally meaning human, rather than male adult of the species. Given that the current geological epoch is increasingly being referred to as the Anthropocene, shying away from anthropogenic is misguided and counterproductive. Besides, the fact that the one-syllable-and-three-letters-longer centrepiece of neoliberal jargon, entrepreneurial, is a long word is never seriously cited as the reason the whole bankrupt free-market edifice is now crumbling.
The reasons the unfolding drama of global warming is failing to ignite the imaginations of the world’s most influential mainstream media and movie storytellers are many and varied, and often nefarious. However, the singular reason must be that, instinctively, the notion that a colourless, odourless substance, currently at a concentration of a mere 0.04% in the atmosphere, could render the world’s climate unliveable is preposterous. The possibility that an asteroid could smote the planet within current lifetimes is far easier to take seriously, despite the odds being infinitesimal—the odds of the nearest large ‘near-Earth asteroid’, 1950 DA, impacting, in about 11 lifetimes’ time, is about 1 in 4000. But, in its appeal to hearts and minds, the almost non-existent chances of a person experiencing an asteroid strike, versus the equally slim chance that the global warming locked in by the carbon dioxide already accumulated in the atmosphere won’t prove to be catastrophic, asteroids put bums on seats, carbon dioxide don’t, at least not yet.
In the Luminaries, astrology is conspicuously employed as a scaffold on which the novel is organised. If astrology, which is taken seriously by only about one in four, can be used as a device to win the world’s most coveted fiction award, then anthropogenic global warming, which is accepted by, for example, 84% of Britons polled in 2014, must be able to be at least as effectively deployed. Possibly all that is required is for the writer to be even younger and photogenic, and at least as eloquent, as Catton. But then global warming is also the perfect problem for a litany of reasons additional to it being intuitively preposterous. Foremost perhaps is that, at least in the developed and developing world, virtually all are complicit in fossil fuel use. This, presumably is why activists can drive to a beach to protest the possibility an oil spill result from exploratory drilling, but why there are not weekly marches down Queen Street demanding the immediate cessation of all non-essential fossil fuel use.
It is a publisher’s prerogative to provide the headline of an article, and the venerable Guardian generally does a better job of it than most of its columnists could. However, last week’s self-titled by George Monbiot, The Lamps Are Coming On All Over Europe, was not improved upon by the subeditor or editor responsible, whereby it became Follow Your Convictions – This Could Be the End of the Politics of Fear. Aside from the fact that few Monbiot Guardian headlines resemble those George has given his pieces when first published on his own website, the phrase ‘lamps are coming on’, as the inverse of Sir Edward Grey’s prescient ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe’ was going to struggle to survive the Guardian’s subeditorial gauntlet. But while it is to be hoped that Monbiot is correct that voters all over Europe are waking up to the reality that neoliberalism is a self-serving dogma masquerading as pragmatism, there is a stronger parallel to Grey’s observation, made on the eve of the First World War. The lamps are going out all over the world, as unabated greenhouse gas emissions and unchecked population growth force an uncomfortable end to civilisation’s two centuries of fossil-fueled prosperity.
Lamps, as a metaphor, worked powerfully in a world in which street lighting was still very much a work in progress. In Warkworth, for example, William Thompson Raupara Cook, who became owner-editor the Rodney and Ōtamatea Times in 1917, campaigned for street lighting in the pages of his publication—the town then only having the one gas lamp, on the wharf where steamboats such as the Kapanui, for which Kapanui Street is named, provided the only year-round service to the outside world, in the decades before all-weather roads. The equivalent technology today is arguably the internet, but it is unlikely to be the first casualty of global warming, and besides, the spectre of smartphones failing to find service lacks the requisite piquancy. This underlines the perfection of the global warming problem. Global warming’s spluttering lamps are droughts and forest fires, rising sea level, ruinous storms, and starvation, but these, humans by their hardwiring are encouraged to think, will happen to somebody else. The exception, of course, are those unfortunates who are poor and live at sea level or are part of a population already subject to food insecurity.
It is the urgent responsibility of the novelist to tell convincing stories about this perfect problem. The scope is infinite, from science fiction all the way back to counterfactuals constructed from, for example, the sweltering summer of 1988 when Dr James Hansen first warned Congress, and of the civilised and benign world that could by now be being enjoyed, by several billion fewer. Monbiot’s marvellously rich writing, not least of all his non-fiction work on rewilding, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life, a print edition of which has just been published by the University of Chicago Press, might yet shame some New Zealand novelist into writing a Man Booker prize-winning epic—one whose subsequent movie could have ecotourists cycling and walking Aotearoa, and participating in forging its low-carbon future, in their millions. If Tolkien tourism can account for 6% of New Zealand’s 2.7 million visitors per year, then a vibrant indigenous film industry telling the story of one country’s bid to save its uniquely vulnerable landscape—part pristine and part already savagely modified, in the world’s youngest significant habitable, most recently peopled, and most recently colonised, landmass—and saving humanity in the process, could be much, much bigger.
The geographic isolation that is an inherent part of its appeal to tourists, poorly positions Aotearoa as a low-carbon tourism destination. But given that half of all its tourists are Australians, a pair of high-speed nuclear-powered trans-Tasman ferries, operating between Whangārei and Sydney, could slash the emissions of the average overseas tourist. This is not to deny that there is also a niche for wind-, as opposed to nuclear-powered, shipping, but only the wealthy are likely to be able to afford its charms—being time-wealthy would also obviously help. Once shipping is required to go forgo its egregious use of bunker oil for propulsion—a fuel that is so hideously polluting that it is only used at sea—nuclear is the only practicable alternative. A plus is that while nuclear ships are in port, their surplus power production will go into the grid, thus reducing the emissions footprint of the country in question, and more than power the public transport needs of each influx of visitors.
As of Sunday, Sydney’s 119-year-old coal powered urban rail system, mostly via electricity by the 1930s, is now on course to become nuclear powered. At least that is the probable outcome of a long-awaited breach in the anti-nuclear-power position maintained by Australia’s major political parties. Unexpectedly, Labor state premier Jay Weatherill announced a wide-ranging royal commission that signals South Australia is likely to lead the way for the continent to emerge from its deeply contradictory position of selling uranium to the world while professing to be anti-nuclear. Given that the future of humanity itself depends the rapid de-carbonisation of everything from agriculture to cement and steel manufacture, win or lose, Weatherill will go down in history a hero. That notwithstanding, South Australian Greens, and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, have instantly condemned the inquiry, thus proving that anti-nuclear dogma trumps any quest for energy objectivity.
The particular expertise the novelist brings, to the challenge of communicating global warming, is imagination. If it was easy to imagine, then the challenge of global warming wouldn’t be the almost impossible-to-resolve problem it is. The majority clearly need the assistance of those who are highly skilled in their use of imagination, to visualise some of the many scenarios that could play out. Ironically, one scenario that has achieved early success, pictures photovoltaic panels magicking away the need for fossil fuels, with the solar-evangelists defiantly and successfully seeing off nuclear power in the process. But there are two problems with this particular imagining. Firstly, while intrinsically attractive and highly saleable to a section of the community, the scenario doesn’t end well. Not only does it fall well short of the greenhouse gas emissions reduction needed, already, poorer Germans, for example, are being submerged ever-deeper into energy poverty. If, after a century of cheap and dirty fossil-fuel powered electricity generation, 1.2 billion are still living without any, the prospects for the growing percentage of poor, of a near-doubling population, are forlorn in the extreme. Secondly, a less sanguine proportion of the population remain entirely unconvinced that sorts of measures typically discussed, such as nudging the free market towards a low-carbon future, are remotely capable of bringing about the stupendous task of rebuilding the world’s energy and transport infrastructure, almost from scratch. To be convincing to most readers, the plot will need to contain measures of truly heroic proportions.
Because global warming is underway with a vengeance, as the dramatic warming of the Arctic, and loss of its sea ice, attests, and will rewrite the history of humanity in the coming decades, it will become the prevailing theme of literature and cinematography. Rebecca Priestley, in her thesis-based Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, talks of the profound influence of one novel, written six decades ago:
The possibility of nuclear war was now becoming part of popular culture, and books like Neville Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, and subsequent film of it in 1959, had a powerful effect on the public imagination.
Tragically, the award-winning film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, so enraged the author, it is claimed, that it killed him.
Yet to be known, is whether any novelist can now match Nevil Shute Norway in impact, and mobilise mankind sufficiently energetically to limit the degree of destruction it, and the natural world, sustains from that which is far more dangerous than nuclear warfare: anthropogenic global warming.