In the 14th century, the Italian poet Petrarch wrote a letter to a friend in Avignon, describing his feeling of “foreboding” after an earthquake shook the foundations of churches in Rome. “What should I do first, complain or be afraid?” He asked. “Everywhere there are reasons for fear, everywhere reasons for sorrow.”
The earthquake was just one of many calamities endured during the poet’s lifetime until then: floods, storms, fires, wars and finally, “the celestial plague unequaled through the ages”, the dreaded black plague, which will end up killing more than a third of the European population.
In his letter, Petrarch was distressed by the suffering of the present, but he was also worried about what it meant for the future. His fears were “not just about the earthquake, but about its effect on spirits.”
Six hundred years after Petrarch grappled with the apocalyptic tremors of his time, the effect of the catastrophe on people’s minds is the subject of several new articles published in recent weeks by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New York Magazine, all of them concerned with the end of the world as we know it. They tackle a question at the heart of our collective (in)capacity to face an existential threat: how to think – and through – the global catastrophe that is climate change?
After years of rising sea levels, warming temperatures and mass extinction, why has this question surfaced in American culture now? For a perspective, I asked Elizabeth Weil, whose essay “How to Live in a Catastrophe” appeared in New York Magazine last week. She thinks the flurry of writing on the subject is linked to the increasingly devastating extreme weather of the 2020s. she declared. “You couldn’t deny it anymore.”
Since 2020, the doomsday clock has been getting closer and closer to midnight. We are in a moment that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calls “both perilous and unsustainable”, listing among its grounds for alarm the fallout from the climate crisis, fears of nuclear war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19. On climate change, the scientists’ verdict on humanity’s response is “many words, relatively little action”, an assessment that the negotiations at COP27 did little to prove otherwise.
Ranking climate change second on his list of ‘top 10 existential worries’, Joel Achenbach confesses in the Washington Post that he’s ‘cautiously optimistic’, saying how you think about existential threats comes down to your faith. in humanity – or your lack of it. “Do you fundamentally believe in the human race? he asks.
Writing “Beyond Catastrophe” in The Times, David Wallace-Wells also finds reason to be optimistic in 2022. With the help of newly cheap renewable energy and “truly global political mobilization”, Wallace- Wells envisions “a new climate reality” for humanity. and the planet that will fulfill neither “the most terrifying predictions” nor “the most hopeful”.
In her essay, Weil consults with activists and scholars, seeking strategies that others have deployed in the face of past cataclysms. “It’s not the first time in human history that the world is completely overwhelming,” she said of why she wrote the article. (Petrarch would agree: he describes the late 1340s as a time of such misery that “new forms of evil are inconceivable.”)
Weil’s article considers the “smart sabotage” advocated by thinkers like Swedish eco-Marxist Andreas Malm, author of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” as well as the “tools of religion” advanced by ecophilosopher Timothy Morton, and the “comfort ritual” of performances like a glacier burial staged by anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer in Iceland in 2019. They installed a plaque, titled “A Letter to the Future,” with this message:
This monument is to be recognized
that we know what’s going on
and what to do.
Only you know if we made it.
Knowing what needs to be done is one thing; having the will to do so is another. We are not experiencing this disaster in the same way or at the same pace. Some of us are still in the angry and negotiating phases of climate grief, while others are far past acceptance.
During a trip to Iceland last August, I found myself at the edge of an aquamarine lagoon fed by the melting glacier Breiðamerkurjökull. Icebergs – shimmering fragments detached from the dying glacier – floated, shrouded in volcanic ash, a record of Iceland’s ancient eruptions. I asked a few of the Icelanders who worked there as tour guides what they thought of this place. For me, the scene was both heartbreaking and tragic; the lagoon exists this way because of climate change, and for all its dazzling beauty, it’s also an ominous omen. But Icelanders didn’t see it the way I did, perhaps because in their country it’s long been impossible to ignore how quickly we’re shredding the fabric of the natural world. They don’t have the luxury of shocking. Watching the throngs of tourists snap photos of seals frolicking in the water, their response was stoic. “That’s how it is,” said one of them.
The truth about catastrophe is that even in its tumultuous midst, we mostly move forward, shedding our terror. We adapt, we rebuild and we convince ourselves that the fate of our neighbors will not befall us. When all that is familiar to us crumbles around us, our first instinct is often to cling to the bits of normalcy that remain. You could clearly see this instinct in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic; Around the world, panic quickly gave way to grim routine.
On the other hand, as Weil points out in his article, there is nothing irrational about catastrophizing when you are experiencing a real catastrophe. “Yes, it’s a disaster,” she wrote. “And no, you wouldn’t be better off if you kept telling yourself otherwise.” In order to avoid the pitfalls of denial and despair, we will have to chart a practical path through the ambiguous abyss that lies between optimism and unhappiness. “We’re going to have to live with hope,” Weil said. “And we’re going to have to live with a lot of fear.” To safely evacuate a burning building and extinguish the fire, you must communicate the urgency of the emergency; you must also project confidence and encourage calm.
This is another way of thinking about catastrophe: seeking solace in the clarity of action. Weil recounts Günther Anders’ reimagining of the Great Flood, where Noah appears before the people in mourning, telling them that they are already dead because total catastrophe will soon be upon them. That night, a carpenter comes to his workshop and offers to build an ark so that Noah’s terrible vision “goes wrong”. A future that seemed predestined is changed by work.
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Anders’ story is like the common proverb that warns against the folly of relying only on faith when you’re in danger. “Call on God, but stay away from the rocks”, is an English version, although similar warnings exist in other languages and cultures. Faith in the human spirit might be a necessary balm to the spirit in times of disaster, but balm alone cannot save us from ourselves. Hope without action is just a wish.
In another of Petrarch’s letters, he comforts his correspondent with a quote from Virgil. “Hold on,” he wrote, “and find salvation in the hope of better things.” Our hopes for the future must not rest on preserving a tattered and unequal status quo. “Change is scary, and big change is really scary, but our world isn’t perfect. It’s very, very, very far from it,” Weil said in our interview. Really a better place Even if we’re terrified?
Populations of sand dollars, sea biscuits and heart urchins, which are vital inhabitants of Florida Keys coastal ecosystems, have remained “relatively stable” since the 1960s, according to a new study. This was true even though fish, coral, seagrass and manatees declined in the area. The researchers aren’t sure why the sea urchins survived in greater numbers, but theorized it may be because they are of “neither commercial nor recreational interest” to people.
Climate scientist and activist Peter Kalmus was arrested at a private jet airport facility in North Carolina, trying to raise awareness about climate change and fossil fuel emissions. This is the second time this year that he has been arrested for protesting. “It’s just very weird that I have to do this, that it’s come to this point,” Kalmus said. “I feel hopeless.”
In Israel, scientists are building a seed bank of wild crops in the hope that this forage genetic material may contain solutions to growing problems related to climate change and agriculture. Experts are particularly keen to collect seeds from this region as it was once part of the Fertile Crescent, with an agricultural history that dates back 10,000 years. The once domesticated plants that now grow wild there have had many generations to adapt to changing conditions.
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Believer and elsewhere.
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