The planet is circulating a new memo: intervene abusively in natural systems—and pay the price.
SOMEONE RECENTLY INFORMED ME that this column—not the installment you’re now reading, but the entire oeuvre—is “operatic.” The news was delivered in language that could only be construed as judgment: no ambiguity, righteous voice, with the wordless hint that harsh sentencing might follow a guilty verdict.
Me? Operatic? Please! Not that I don’t appreciate opera, but I’m always the levelest head in the room.
Smarting, I went straight to dictionary.com seeking redemption. Synonyms and analogues to “operatic” include “hysterical,” “hyperbolic,” “florid,” “overly emotional and dramatic” and “wildly exceeding limits of conventional emotional expression.”
There, dodged all of that by a mile!
Liberated by such third-party validation, I went for a kind of online victory lap: a wandering trot from “operatic” to “opera” to “operetta” to “musical” to “Broadway musical” and on…you know how it goes (and yes, all roads lead eventually to online porn—not me, of course, but other people). A few zigs later, I landed on a YouTube video of long-ago matinee idol Georges Guétary singing the Gershwin movie tune from An American in Paris:
I’ll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day.
I’m gonna get there at any price;
Stand aside, I’m on my way.
I’ve got the blues, and up above it’s so fair.
Shoes, go on and carry me there!
I’ll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day.
Brave and hopeful Georges Guétary and friends, singing through the Great Depression
So brave and hopeful in the face of the economic tribulations of the late 1920s and history’s ominous and steadily amplifying 1930s drumbeats. (Funny, I write “1920s” and “1930s” trippingly, like it was just over our shoulders, and it’s almost a century ago. Shit, I’m almost a century ago!)
Our cultural memory suggests that life’s troubles back then were met with a lovely optimism, a better-times-coming, future’s-assured courage, and not today’s cracks-of-doom futility or sense of handicap, immiseration and paralysis. (I believe I have already reported to you that current public mood-testing everywhere indicates rising levels of social unhappiness and, specifically, climate pessimism.)
Life back then still held an innocent gosh’n’golly feel, at least south of the border. Canada, whose welcome signs then, as now, stated: “You Must Declare All Fun and Happiness” was, with a bureaucrat’s bloodless passion, busy re-casting the Ten Commandments as the Ten Thousand Bylaws.
By the way, in our edgeless age of shopping and self-improvement, the Ten Commandments will likely fall victim to marketing (if they haven’t already) and be re-packaged as “Ten Fabulous Chances for a Better You!” or “Open All Ten Doors Of Your Happiness House!”
The social optimism of the Fred Astaire age is long spent everywhere, our own times simply that era’s lost and weeping grandchild. So I’ve put my hand to producing lyrics appropriate to today’s worries:
I’m on the highway to climate change,
Run my engine all day long.
[Whisper chorus: “High test, high test”]
You think my actions are very strange
Setting planet death to song.
Just one lane? What’s the matter with ten?
Drain your brain,‘cause you never know when.
I’m on the highway to climate change
Flooring it can’t be wrong.
Don’t you remember the good old days,
When garbage just was junk?
[“Toss here, toss there”]
Now we’re trapped in an eco-maze—
“No, you may not drop that hunk!”
Re-use, recycle, and the rest of that crap,
Nothing left to like without consulting a map.
Sure, you remember the good old days
When garbage just was junk.
Now, global warming is scaring some,
But most don’t have a clue.
[“Dumb ‘n’ deaf, deaf ‘n’ dumb”]
Should we use a bike getting to and from?
Please, tell us what to do.
I have to say I still want to use and toss
Hands clasped, I pray for a world filled with dross
I say delay climate worry—I’m the boss…
Run my engine all day long.
A recent newspaper headline reports: “People talk about deep sadness: scientists study climate change grief.” Such melancholy even has a name: solastalgia.
And if I haven’t already thrashed the last smidge of can-do out of you, here’s an excerpt from the widely circulated summary of an academic paper by Jem Bendell, professor of sustainability at the University of Cumbria, England: “The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. [Anticipate] inevitable near-term collapse in society.”
Hmmm. “…inevitable near-term collapse in society.” For God’s sake, don’t we have bylaws here prohibiting that sort of thing? Okay, maybe not in outlaw Langford, where “mega” and “ultra” stalk the subdivisions, but at least in Oak Bay, still the home of Canada’s largest in-ground reserve of good manners.
I have been suggesting to all I know that the Victoria region, if it has any instincts for survival, needs to direct its intelligence and planning skills toward critical assessments—what-ifs—of looming climate impacts and to prepare, much in the same way any of us and our jurisdictions would prepare, for cataclysmic meteorological prospects like hurricanes and blizzards, or for pending social turmoil.
The likely impacts and social consequences of global warming are not that hard to fathom: ever-intensifying degradation of the physical environment resulting in ever-diminishing habitability, triggering productivity, supply, distribution and social service breakdowns which will, with amplifying speed and great force, precipitate general social chaos accompanied by panicked behaviour and survival-driven population movement, most familiar to us from end-of-the-world movies…as the world itself turns into an end-of-the-world movie. Not here in Victoria, of course—we’ll just meet such a future with professionally facilitated multi-stakeholder workshops.
Almost all of us alive now have lived our entire lives inside the frame of social stability, free of major crisis or threat, and sufficiently elastic to deal with minor social frictions and perturbations. Social upheaval—the turning upside-down of entire populations, catastrophic loss of life, complete social collapse and the ruin of homes and cities—has to-date shown the decency to take place elsewhere, to be news from afar, near-fictions in the media that happen to other people “over there.”
Understandably, most of the challenge around preparation rests with the psychological and cultural groundwork, sensibility-shifting, the learning and believing, the normalcy-abandoning: “You mean this wonderful life of pleasure, plenty, peace and well-being that has made us utterly soft and rendered us children incapable of anticipating and responding to ever-mounting risk and adversity, is not going to continue forever? You mean something bad could happen, soon, for which we are utterly unprepared culturally, psychologically or functionally? You mean, the grounds for relaxedness can be withdrawn?”
In movies, when the going gets tough, when social or physical catastrophe threatens or arrives, the previously un-self-aware hero discovers his/her purpose, puts on a grim, determined face (which signals an instantaneous transformation to emotional maturity and responsibility-taking), neutralizes or defeats the threat, and leads the community to safety. This is one of our cornerstone cultural myths, limitedly installed in our real-world behaviour. It explains Trump and much else. We are children and the skies are darkening. There are too many of us, we’ve developed some bad habits, and we’re destroying the environment, the one (the only) cushion we might otherwise fall back on.
“Serious” is fun-free and requires emotional gravity and a grim sense of purpose. “Grim” is almost impossible when an entire culture has been smoking weed for 60 years. Makes it hard to strap on. Now the planet is circulating a new memo: intervene massively and abusively in natural systems—and pay the price.
Jem Bendell, cited earlier in this column, writes in the preface to his 2018 Initiative For Leadership and Sustainability paper, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, that he believes his is “one of the first papers in the sustainability management field to conclude that climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term.” He goes on to ask and then answer this terrifying question: “Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research—myself included—continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilization? This was the question I could no longer ignore, and therefore took a couple of months to analyze the latest climate science. I concluded that we can no longer work with that assumption or hope.”
This past October-November, McDonald’s was doing its “Coast-to-Coast Monopoly” thing. There, on beverage containers, in big, bright letters, was the message: “1 In 5 Chances To Win!”
What, I wonder, held it back from announcing “4 In 5 Chances To Lose?”
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.