Liz Conor: Comment and Critique

opinion, essays, cultural and political analysis

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

You had me at .8 Degrees Celcius

I hope I can be forgiven if I’ve come to envisage climate scientists in the guise of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird – resolute, visionary, dutiful to children and devastatingly handsome. For, as I’m sure climate scientists know all too well, their work is more important than any commission in human history. They have been pilloried, indicted and ignored. Yet their meticulously tested, peer-reviewed findings form the basis for our very survival. They are demonstrably nothing short of heroic which, in this surface-fixated world, necessarily casts them as someone like Atticus/Peck. For it is down to Hollywood to enshrine the climate scientist as heroic. Through its familiar telling he will toil away in isolation for decades, his evidence-based data elided from government reports, his figures recanted and his credibility attacked. A more visionary director will cast this savior-scientist as a woman, and she will also rail to protect her children and, as her story unfolds, their children. Their foe will be coal barons, energy corporation CEOs and corrupt, criminally negligent governments failing to act in the face of their evidence of dire global warming. They will hammer out the best records modern instrumentation can produce, but they will reach a point, the script pivot, when they realize they have to act, and the obstruction to their work will mean they know exactly how to go about it, more effectively than any of the eco-warriors incidentally making appearances. The fight they then wage should be cast in epic, biblical terms. They will storm ineffective UN climate conventions like Christ in The Temple Mount. Fanciful right? Actually the development of this script by the world’s preeminent creative minds is more important that the handing down of the next alarming IPCC projections. What is needed with urgency is a dramatic shift in public sentiment about climate change and the catalyst will be story. People need to be convinced about the science and it is in the nature of our present public realm that this best comes from Hollywood – or at least an infrastructure of cultural production with similar resources, creative brilliance and luminous star vehicles. Habermas was right when he historised the decline of rational-critical debate in our public sphere. He described the crumbling of government response to public demand against the sinister infiltration of lobbyists and vested interests increasingly commanding the ear of our elected representatives. He might have added to his analysis the corruption of the democratic electoral process through corporate campaign funding. Nor did he foresee the additional, pernicious influence of the deceitful shock Jock, paid off by these same interests and wielding unfettered, oracle-like power over the tenor and character of public debate. From here we watch these machinations from the NRA in the present US gun debate with jaw-dropped disbelief. Yet our fossil-fuel moguls are taking their cue from such operatives. The increasingly frightening findings of climate scientists – a rise of 4-6 degrees by the end of the century - can have little purchase within the collapsed public sphere of neo-liberalism. We have succumbed to a carefully choreographed public realm in which galvanized political sensibility depends entirely on the visibility granted to an issue as embodied by the stories of individuals. Violence against women in India thus assumed global significance through media capture and galvanizing of public sentiment over a vicious attack on a young medical student. The chronic rate of third-world infant mortality death due to malnutrition, the tragic acceleration in civilian deaths under modern warfare, the shocking cruelty of industrialized animal production, these and many other issues in need of urgent intervention and concentrated reform, swim in and out of collective consciousness. It all depends, too too much, on media interest and its own reliance on human-interest stories and its entrapment in the 24-hours news cycle. And so it is with climate change. Surely the destruction wrought in lives and property ranks it in human history as of befitting of public attention as the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, resistance to national-socialism or the boycotting of apartheid. But it will take the large-scale machinery of storied dream-scapes to finally shift public sentiment on climate change, for it has come down to emotion and affect, not fact and data – those things need to be repackaged within the most persuasive cultural form available to us and that is presently narrative film. The task before us is an imaginative engagement with environmental and social collapse. The obstacle is that we’ve learnt since the cold war to coexist with imminent apocalypse. We’re also adept at witnessing children starving over our TV dinners comprised of tortured animals. We’re highly skilled in denial and indifference. The best storytellers need to explain climate change to us in terms we are not already habitually inured to. Another end-of-the-world blockbuster isn’t going to sink in past the adolescent audience demographic. Every one of us on the surface of this besieged planet understands what J.D. Salinger meant when we wrote, ‘It’s a perfect day for Banana Fish': or what Lou Reed felt when he rasped, ‘Oh such a perfect day, it just keeps me hanging on’. Set as context must be the resource wars triggered by energy crisis, the loss of viable food production, the contracting cycle of extreme weather disasters, the entrenching grief and trauma from hurricane, fire, flood and famine. But we also stand to lose something so precious, so written through our shared psyches we haven’t considered the impact of its theft. We will lose the sustaining nostalgia of benign summer days. Can we really ‘adapt’ to the loss of campsites under river gums, the delight of toddlers running under sprinklers, lying through lunchtimes with our lovers on soft park lawns or drifting off to sleep on warm sands. When these sustaining individual experiences provided by nature are gone we will not think of it as ‘adaptation’: the feeling will conduit into public sentiment as profound, unbearable loss. And so just following the worst heatwave on Australian records I charge our most visionary story-tellers to set out all the embodied dimensions of climate change for us. Only then will the business-as-usual membrane burst and the public insist on government action on climate change.

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