Finding a Language that Speaks to Ourselves

New Year 2007. Fires rage through mountain forests and delicate undergrowth; burning in Jamieson, Licola, Gaffney’s Creek, happy places of my youth. At Walhalla, brief home of my grandfather in the tragic bushfire of 1886. And there’s a strange white Christmas on the Baw Baw plateau.

A new dis-order grows at home and abroad. On the alpine slopes of southern Austria, wildflowers are blooming far ahead of nature’s springtime. There it is +5º, not the usual
-20º. And the plane tree on our inner Melbourne nature strip has a strange beauty: russet leaves already mingle with the green. Autumn in January.

Nature out of place, awry. Becoming wild? With us? Out-of-placeness fuels a new debate in Victoria. Are we in an extraordinary drought akin to the Federation Drought around 1900? Or are we experiencing signs of the global imprint of climate change? Various voices chime in on the debate. Environmental scientist-writer Tim Flannery believes a new climate is already taking hold here (Age, 2 January 2007); some others disagree. In an important sense, whatever this drought is doesn’t matter. Everyone knows now that climate change is real, dangerous and threatening; of a planet being poisoned under our hand.

Half a century ago, Rachel Carson inspired a generation against insecticides in Silent Spring. Yet today we’re imprinting the whole planet with the ill effects of the way we live. Through our largely untamed use of fossil fuels we are creating an Earth unfit for habitation. Flannery sees ‘our battle for climate’ as a battle for a habitable planet within our lifetimes. He is saying, too, that if the Arctic and Greenland ice melt continues at last year’s rate, then in one or two years we may be facing a fatal choice: whether to simply abandon some cities or to abandon old coal-fired power plants (‘Blowing in the Wind’, Bulletin, December–January 2006–07). Some people suggest that Tim is exaggerating, Al Gore, too; one hopes they are. Certainly British environmental activist George Monbiot doesn’t think so. In his 2006 book on how to stop the planet burning, Heat (Penguin, 2006), he warns against the utter, total and irreversible destruction towards which unchecked climate change is headed. A process through which ‘all that is solid melts into the air’. Monbiot’s take on Marx’s famous words is timely: a tragically apt metaphor for ice caps under global warming; a happenstance for human civilisation far more lethal than anything Marx or others of his time could have had in mind.

Monbiot begins with present indications based on the temperature rise so far of 0.6º. Most of these are well known: global sea levels rising at two milometres a year; permafrost in Alaska and Siberia, there since the last Ice Age, has begun to melt; Coral Reefs beginning to wilt; parts of the Amazon tropical rainforests turning to Savannah; 150,000 already dying each year via diseases associated with higher temperatures. Even in 2001, the IPCC (now about to issue its 2007 report) predicted 1.4–5.8º rise this century, a lowish figure compared with more recent forecasts.
Beneath these figures and facts lies his sense of their origin. In Monbiot’s view, our burning of fossil fuels is the root cause. And this brings him to, perhaps, the most important statement he has ever made: a penetrating, even famous, insight into the world of his time.

Ours are the most fortunate generations that have ever lived. Ours are the most fortunate generations that ever will. We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe.

And, might one add, ‘civilisational catastrophe’. For although he doesn’t see it in these terms, Monbiot is questioning the whole trajectory of social life in the West since the Enlightenment — a revolution in production made possible by continuing technological revolution. The voices of the Sorbonne students of 1968 resound in the strange winds of 2007: ‘We are questioning not just capitalism, we are questioning industrial society.’ And the consumption-driven market …

However, all that may be, George Monbiot is writing about things he knows people do not want to know. He is asking us to give up the things we like doing most. And those with most to lose are the ones who least want to hear. How to find a language that touches the deepest layers of our human-ness? How to touch people’s sense of urgency? Of responsibility?

Why did he, an environmental scientist and activist, not a poet, feel impelled to frame his secular argument within the reach of a great tragic poem? Has it transformed into parable in Monbiot’s hands? Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus, written in 1590, may be read today as allegory about a terrible, unrequitable disaster we may bring upon ourselves and the other species. Likewise, our wanton use of fossil fuels is, Monbiot says, a pact with the devil.

Marlowe’s poem tells of a brilliant scholar at the far limits of human, terrestrial knowledge, who wilfully acquires demonic powers that will fetch him every good thing he wants, from the depths of the seas and from far-off climes. Faustus draws a circle on the ground, summons Mephistopheles, the Devil’s servant, and signs a deal with him: to live in all voluptuousness for 24 years. The price of his new magical powers: surrendering his soul to hell for eternity. Powers that, in our case, may be found in the surplus of available energy. So, as Monbiot says, we go on using fossil fuels — the very behaviour that will destroy us and other species in due course. The pact becomes an allegory of our complicity in ushering in unrestrained climate change. And Death. I believe, with him, that everyday prosaic language or even scholarly language, are ill-equipped to convey a sense of what is at stake, what we are blind to, and what we wish to stay blind to. Our petty selves go on speaking.

Through Marlowe’s great tragic poem, Monbiot hopes to open us up to reasoned argument, to find a response in us at the deepest level of ourselves, to persuade us ‘that climate change is worth fighting’. Neither to forget nor to give up. To achieve this he has written a closely argued book on how to stop the planet burning (think of southern Australia in January 2007). In many ways it’s a new kind of climate book. A prosaic one, a hard, thoughtful slog, the kind of reading I personally find taxing — but necessary. It’s a story of rationed carbon, of (very) low ceilings on air travel, of renewables taken very seriously, insulated homes, transport reconsidered — key ingredients of a 90 per cent cutback in emissions within 25 years. Rationing means everyone; 0.8 tonnes of carbon per person. An ‘across-the-board’ ration, as in war-time Britain. Of course, if everyone abandoned their cars and jumped on to public transport, the 90 per cent reduction would be achieved. But Monbiot is trying to do the thing as painlessly as possible. Not an easy task where, for instance, the British Government’s plans for air traffic are ‘the equivalent of another Heathrow every five years’. Even taking account of a 20 per cent fuel efficiency by 2030, the number of flights we make would need to be reduced by 87 per cent to meet the carbon reduction target he proposes. Here is the main language of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning.

Several years ago, film-maker Mike Moore sought to shock people into believing that global warming was happening. Melting glaciers and the IPCC’s reports from 1992 were there in the background. So was the Pentagon report, suppressed by the White House. In Australia the findings of CSIRO climatologists were blanked out (See ‘Climate of Fear, Fear of Climate’, Arena Magazine, no. 84). The first half hour of The Day after Tomorrow was a time of awakening for me.

Today we have many reports — the Stern Report being (perhaps) the latest — but pathetically trivial strategic action. That’s George Monbiot’s view. An image haunts him: it’s of a British PM standing up to his neck in water reporting on the latest paper on energy efficiency! Informative books by scientists are piling up. Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, now translated into 28 languages, is in its touchingly readable way a culmination of earlier work by others that found a more limited audience. (See especially Clive Hamilton, Running from the Storm (2001), A. Barrie Pittock (ed.) Climate Change: An Australian Guide to Science and Potential Impacts (2003), Ian Lowe, Living in the Hothouse (2005), A. Barrie Pittock, Climate Change: Turning up the Heat (2005).)

Monbiot’s Heat aims to find the most politically effective means of cutting our energy use and of reducing its carbon content. Ninety per cent, is just within the realm of possibility; but this means cuts in ALL sectors. Based quite explicitly upon a moral, not an economic, decision, it takes two facts into account: that people don’t want to act in significant ways —they don’t even want to hear about it — and that not to act in major ways will mean their descendants’ annihilation. That is why Monbiot gravitates towards a dual language — one lyrical, the other everyday: the language of tragedy, of apocalypse; and the nitty-gritty, angular prose of carbon reduction, barely beyond the dry language of statistics. A living example of the incompatibility of climate-holocaust language with the language of poetry. With Marlowe’s poem, Monbiot sets up a challenge. And then he draws upon every ounce of his own energy to find relatively painless ways to convince people to follow an austere path, so their children may just live.

The stern measures Monbiot proposes, chapter after chapter, range across the spectrum of life. These add up to a changed life, yet one that is recognisably familiar. The socio-political context for these measures Monbiot designates ‘the denial industry’; its scope comes as surprise even to me. The misnamed ‘sceptics’ — seekers after truth who still lack a definite conclusion — are implicated in an active campaign of persuasion begun by tobacco company Philip Morris. ‘Doubt is our product’, the maxim of one tobacco company, found often monstrous expression: even the fact that half glaciers were advancing since 1980. The site, funded by corporations, became the foundation of denial. Culpable, because they set back action on climate change by several years (even more in Australia?); successful, because their story is ‘the one that people want to hear’. Yet I believe that the denial industry feeds off a deeply buried belief.

In earlier times, people combined a general belief that climate was just ‘there’, a backdrop to everyday life, not humanly designed or influenced with another belief: that climate was gradually changing. Yet the work of climate scientists and meteorologists of the early 1900s has had a major re-educational impact: climates have remained fairly stationary within given latitudes. Luke Howard’s path-breaking book, The Climate of London, published in the early years of the nineteenth century, was most influential in re-educating populations to the view that climate has its own rhythms and layers of existence. Today a new fact has entered the picture: we have and do imprint the climate — not in the manner of the rain-making wise ones of tribal cultures (the Ariels of wind and clime), but as unwitting criminals, or rapscallions of the Earth. Yet the climate denial industry has taken advantage of the meteorological discoveries of the nineteenth century on the layered complexities and the changeability of atmospheric phenomena.

George Monbiot is to be congratulated for facing up to a momentous task. Suddenly, at the very end of all the figures and percentages that read like gravel, after travelling with him amid the maze of statistics he’s had to endure, there he is with his newly born child on his hip as he taps out the last words. A new awareness takes hold of him and he says so.

What would the world look like were the measures he proposes enacted? Monbiot says he doesn’t know. Like a very poor third-world country, a thoughtful colleague answers this question for him. In its exposition of the enormity of accepting such a challenge, this book is marvellous in its impression of the stakes we face. Yet it does not give a picture of what we might be in for, just as it lacks a sense of a world with a carbon-reduced environment.

Nor does he give a picture of the type of people we’ve become and what makes us the poisoning people we are, our technologically mediated affluence, our shallowness. Rationing carbon and all the other measures he proposes, valuable though they are, do not touch the issue of our two-sidedness. Both of these he takes for granted, including the side of himself that springs his plea to us to fight climate change. This remains just part of himself, the parts of themselves that students I have taught over the years are encouraged to address in the first weeks of study of the world of everyday life. Something they do quickly, successfully and, ultimately, with enthusiastic self-insight.

Yet it’s George Monbiot’s type of humanity that’s under threat. And that’s the humanity that inheres still in most of us, in varying degrees. Monbiot gives an important clue to the self that felt compelled to write Heat. The Ethiopean villagers he lived amongst, whom he loved, a humanity that stirred him profoundly, fed into his decision to write this book. They were a people he couldn’t bring into focus while he wrote — because those lively, humorous, intelligent and resourceful people were totally unlike a ‘column of figures on a page’.

Dissonance, yes — for he is speaking of the poetry of villagers’ lives, their embodiment in place and in one another. In a world where our imprint on the climate makes the climate more like us, our worst selves, the footprint will step harder on those least responsible — his friends, the villagers, his child. How insane we’ve become. I think of the recent public plea of Eddie Mabo’s people, the Meriam, as the sea levels rise perceptibly around their three islands. And I ask with Michael Leunig, cartoonist and conscience of a failing generation: Is the climate becoming more like us, our worst, our harmful selves? Can our better selves prevail? Or have our best selves wilted — like the coral reefs?

I can’t leave off without a word of answer about our better selves. In one of his inspirational commentaries, literary critic Peter Craven writes of the winds of the spirit that blow from behind us. Some would locate these within the human inheritance of reciprocity, from long, long ago; or within the Judaeo-Christian tradition; or in other mythico-religious inheritances; or in secular humanism. Whatever its well-springs, like art, like poetry, it may come from a level of the self of which that person may be unaware…Nonie Sharp is an Arena publications editor.

Nonie Sharp is an Arena Publications Editor.

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Very succinctly put, Mr Dan.But as to your final eoustiqn, I won’t be holding my breath while I’m waiting, and I suspect you won’t be either.Not, at least, until some journalists can grasp the enormous gap between enabled the allegations and at most, indicated grounds for a clarification inquiry’.And not until people like Monbiot (who did at least backtrack a little) and Revkin can understand the enormous gap between enabled the allegations and took the allegations to be truth without further ado’.

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