Friday, July 28, 2006

And As Things Fell Apart Nobody Paid Much Attention

Headline and blurb from the Independent, five days ago (via via):
Dying Forest: One year to save the Amazon
Time is running out for the Amazon rainforest. And the fate of the 'lungs of the world' will take your breath away
And the headline and blurb on their other story on the topic:
Amazon rainforest 'could become a desert
And that could speed up global warming with 'incalculable consequences', says alarming new research

The Independent keeps its material behind a firewall, alas; but Common Dreams republished the entirety of the first essay. An excerpt:
It is a sign that severe drought is returning to the Amazon for a second successive year. And that would be ominous indeed. For new research suggests that just one further dry year beyond that could tip the whole vast forest into a cycle of destruction....

The consequences would be truly awesome. The wet Amazon, the planet's greatest celebration of life, would turn to dry savannah at best, desert at worst. This would cause much of the world - including Europe - to become hotter and drier, making this sweltering summer a mild foretaste of what is to come. In the longer term, it could make global warming spiral out of control, eventually making the world uninhabitable....

So far about a fifth of the Amazonian rainforest has been razed completely. Another 22 per cent has been harmed by logging, allowing the sun to penetrate to the forest floor drying it out. And if you add these two figures together, the total is growing perilously close to 50 per cent, which computer models predict as the "tipping point" that marks the death of the Amazon.
Now, we're not certain. The researchers add qualifiers like "might" to their warnings.

But shouldn't we deal with a threat to all of humanity with something like the urgency that we respond to all of terrorism? No one thinks it is certain that terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon if we do nothing; but I think it is right, and wise, to be very concerned about the possibility.

And of course it's not the Amazon in isolation. It's all of global warming. Even if this research on this particular issue isn't right -- and dear Lord I hope it isn't -- then that just knocks us back to the ten year figure cited in An Inconvenient Truth.

I wish I could offer some hope that we -- humanity as a whole -- will come together at the last minute and deal with this. I really, really do. I don't, as an intellectual matter, believe in despair. In one of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels, a character says that "optimism is a moral position" -- not blind optimism, but the notion that there is still hope. So I want, I really want, to believe this. I feel I ought to believe it.

But I don't. Not really. The U.S. is ruled by systematic liars who do not care about this issue -- driven by short term profits. Even if they did care -- if for countries where people do care -- it all seems like the caring is too weak, too partial. The machinery of global business and global capital is against us on this (although I think we could solve the issue with only minor inconveniences to either), and anything else is spitting into a storm.

Not to mention that other, more immediate and more visible (if ultimately smaller) disasters clamor for the attention of even those who do believe, do worry, do care.

So then what?

I don't know. I really don't.

Perhaps, though, this. J. R. R. Tolkien outlined what he called a "Theory of Courage", which he believed was embodied in Old Norse literature (I am borrowing the term from Tom Shippey, who highlights this aspect of Tolkien, but I think this means not literature in old Norse but literature dealing with Old Norse myths; Beowulf is therefore an example), but which is, I think, an eternal possibility of the human spirit in any culture. One finds it expressed explicitly in various parts of The Lord of the Rings. Elrond gives the following advice to Gloin during "The Council of Elrond":
There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it.
And after Gandalf falls in Moria, Aragorn says this:
"Farewell, Gandalf!" [Aragorn] cried... "What hope have we without you?"
He turned to the Company. "We must do without hope," he said.
The notion is simply this: when you are in the right, and have no hope, you fight anyway. In the pre-Christian version, one fought despite certainty of doom because one was simply right; Tolkien, in a Christian twist on this, held one should fight because even if you see no hope, there may be hope to be had -- hope that one may not even know, but which may operate through methods beyond your ken even as you fight to your own (personal) doom.

Either way, it is a hard belief: maybe impossible, at least for most of us, at least in the long run. But what else to do? If one cannot make oneself believe in hope, then -- since there is literally no point to succumbing to despair -- what can one do but fight on anyway?

I don't really believe -- in the slightest -- that my writing these words will make the slightest difference. But, without hope, I decided to try anyway.

Now I pass it to you.

(Post title liberated from the Talking Heads, "(Nothing But) Flowers")

1 comment:

Leila Abu-Saba said...

Stephen - you and I are on the same page.

As I said more vulgarly in a private letter to Rabbi Michael Lerner some years ago "global warming is going to fry all of our Semitic asses while we fight each other over this other stuff."

I'm thinking of how my two small sons fight with each other at the end of the day, when everybody is stressed out, hungry, tired, trying to make dinner. Usually if I try to address the apparent cause of the fight (the toy, who gets to sit in the favorite chair, etc.) I just make the fighting and screaming worse. If I want to make real peace, I have to pay attention to both children. Separate them, find out what's bugging them, and get them food, quiet, attention, calm.

If I'm home alone with them this is next to impossible, but the point is, they aren't fighting about what they seem to be fighting about.

The only way to defuse such a situation is to turn our attention -"redirect" the child experts say - to something else, especially if it's a pressing, underlying problem.

I want to see humanity, or okay let's say America, turn our attention to climate change and re-engineering our lives to bring us in harmony with the whole life system of the planet. If we don't do it by choice, it will be done for us by forces no human can control. Katrina will look like nothing.