We are in the habit of visualizing man’s political and social history as a wild zigzag which alternates between progress and disaster, but the history of science as a steady, cumulative process, represented by a continuously rising curve, where each epoch adds some new item of knowledge to the legacy of the past, making the temple of science grow brick by brick toever greater height. Or alternately, we think in terms of “organic” growth from the magic-ridden, myth-addicted infancy of civilization, through various stages of adolescence, to detached, rational maturity.
In fact, we have seen that this progress was neither “continuous” nor “organic”. The philosophy of nature evolved by occasional leaps and bounds alternating with delusional pursuits, culs-de-sac, regressions, periods of blindness, and amnesia. The great discoveries which determined its course were sometimes unexpected by-products of a chase after quite different hares. At other times, the process of discovery consisted merely in the cleaning away of the rubbish that blocked the path…
All we know is that mental evolution – from cave-dwellers to spacemen – cannot be understood either as a cumulative, linear process, or as a case of “organic growth” comparable to the maturing of the individual; and that it would perhaps be better to consider it in the light of biological evolution, of which it is a continuation.
Evolution is known to be a wasteful, fumbling process characterized by sudden mutations of unknown cause, by the slow grinding of selection, and by the dead-ends of over-specialization and rigid inadaptability. “Progress” can by definition never go wrong; evolution constantly does; and so does the evolution of ideas, including those of “exact sciences”.
New ideas are thrown up spontaneously like mutations; the vast majority of them are useless crank theories, the equivalent of biological freaks without survival-value. There is a constant struggle for survival between competing theories in every branch of the history of thought.
The process of natural selection, too, has its equivalent in mental evolution: among the multitude of new concepts which emerge only those survive which are well adapted to the period’s intellectual milieu. When we call ideas “fertile” or “sterile” we are unconsciously guided by biological analogy.
Most geniuses responsible for the major mutations in the history of thought seem to have certain features in common; on the one hand scepticism, often carried to the point of iconoclasm, in their attitude towards traditional ideas, axioms, and dogmas, towards everything that is taken for granted; on the other hand, an open-mindedness that verges on naive credulity towards new concepts which seem to hold out some promisse to their instinctive gropings. Out of this combination results that crucial capacity of perceiving a familiar object, situation, problem, or collection of data, in a sudden new light or new context…
This act of wrenching away an object or concept from its habitual associative context and seeing it in a new context is, as I have tried to show, an essential part of the creative process. It is an act both of destruction and creation, for it demands the breaking up of a mental habit, the melting down, with the blow-lamp of Cartesian doubt, of the frozen structure of accepted theory, to enable the new fusion to take place.
Every creative act – in science, art or religion – involves a regression to a more primitive level, a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted beliefs.
* * * * *
Roughly within the five generations from Canon Koppernigk to Isaac Newton, homo sapiens underwent the most decisive change in his history. The uomo universale of the Renaissance, who was artist and craftsman, philosopher and inventor, humanist and scientist, astronomer and monk, all in one, split up into his component parts. Art lost its mythical, science its mystical inspiration; man became again deaf to the harmony of the spheres. The Philosophy of Nature became ethically neutral, and ‘blind’ became the favourite adjective for the working of natural law…
As a result, man’s destiny was no longer determined from ‘above’ by a super-human wisdom and will, but from ‘below’ by the sub-human agencies of glands, genes, atoms, or waves of probability. This shift of the locus of destiny was decisive. So long as destiny had operated from a level of the hierarchy higher than man’s own, it had not only shaped his fate, but also guided his conscience and imbued his world with meaning and value. The new masters of destiny were placed lower in the scale than the being they controlled; they could determine his fate, but could provide him with no moral guidance, no values and meaning. A puppet of the Gods is a tragic figure, a puppet suspended on his chromosomes is merely grotesque.”
ARTHUR KOESTLER (1905-1983)
Penguin / Arkana.
The late Oxford philosopher Jerry Cohen conceived a though experiment that helps us to understand how money works: imagine that we live in a world where we have little tickets distributed at random. On these tickets are rights – the right to go visit your sick mother, the right to cross a particular road, the right to live somewhere, the right to eat a steak, the right to treatment of disease and so on. (…) If you try to do something for which you have no ticket, the law intervenes. The tickets map out the degree to which you are free (or not free) to do something – they are a complete accounting of your liberties. The more tickets you have, the freer you are.
So here’s the twist: Money is just like these tickets. What, after all, does money offer in a market society if not the ability to buy liberty, to afford health care, decent food, housing, the security of not working in retirement, insurance against accident or unemployment? Those without money are as unfree as those whithout tickets. Without cash in a market society, you’re free to do nothing, to have very little and to die young. In other words, under capitalism, MONEY IS THE RIGHT TO HAVE RIGHTS.
The gap between what people earn and the cost of their freedoms means that, for more and more Americans, freedom is just another word for nothing they can afford. (…) In developing countries, of course, the situation has long been dire, and the global recession is pushing millions more into poverty, but in both cases, this poverty has deepened under a system that offered progress, prosperity and development for the poorest, and has delivered its opposite – a yawning inequality gap, less happiness and a dogged persistence of diseases and afflictions to which we have long known the cures.
In the land of the free, the market delivers few choices to those who cannot afford them. In the U.S. health care system, for example, the value of life is famously defined by the market. Michael Moore’s film Sicko shows the U.S. health care industry’s profit-driven approach at its nadir, with stories of patients asked by their insurance company to choose which of their fingers they’d like to save…”
PATEL, R. The Value of Nothing.
1st Canadian Edition.
Toronto: Harper Collins, 2009. Pgs. 112-113.
by Salman Rushdie
A lecture delivered at the University of Torino, March 1999
The Australian novelist and poet David Malouf tells us that “the real enemy of writing is talk.” He warns particularly of the dangers of speaking about work in progress. When writing, one is best advised to keep one’s mouth shut, so that the words flow out, instead, through one’s fingers. One builds a dam across the river of words in order to create the hydroelectricity of literature.
I propose, therefore, to speak not of my writing but rather of my reading, and in particular of the many ways in which my experience of Italian literature (and, I must add, Italian cinema) has shaped my thoughts about how and what to write. That is, I want to talk about influence.
“Influence.” The word itself suggests something fluid, something “flowing in.” This feels right, if only because I have always envisaged the world of the imagination not so much as a continent as an ocean. Afloat and terrifyingly free upon these boundless seas, the writer attempts, with his bare hands, the magical task of metamorphosis. Like the figure in the fairy tale who must spin straw into gold, the writer must find the trick of weaving the waters together until they become land: until, all of a sudden, there is solidity where once there was only flow, shape where there was formlessness; there is ground beneath his feet. (And if he fails, of course, he drowns. The fable is the most unforgiving of literary forms.)
The young writer, perhaps uncertain, perhaps ambitious, probably both at once, casts around for help; and sees, within the flow of the ocean, certain sinuous thicknesses, like ropes, the work of earlier weavers, of sorcerers who swam this way before him. Yes, he can use these “in-flowings,” he can grasp them and wind his own work around them. He knows, now, that he will survive. Eagerly, he begins.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of literary influence, of these useful streams of other people’s consciousness, is that they can flow toward the writer from almost anywhere. Often they travel long distances to reach the one who can use them. In South America, I was impressed by the familiarity of Latin American writers with the work of the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The editor Victoria Ocampo, who met and admired Tagore, had arranged for his work to be well translated and widely published throughout her own continent, and as a result the influence of Tagore is perhaps greater there than in his own homeland, where the translations from Bengali into the many other tongues of India are often of poor quality, and the great man’s genius must be taken on trust.
Another example is that of William Faulkner. This great American writer is little read in the United States these days; certainly there are few contemporary American writers who claim him as an influence or teacher. I once asked another fine writer of the American South, Eudora Welty, if Faulkner had been a help or a hindrance to her. “Neither one,” she replied. “It’s like knowing there’s a great mountain in the neighborhood. It’s good to know it’s there, but it doesn’t help you to do your work.” Outside the United States, however—in India, in Africa, and again in Latin America—Faulkner is the American writer most praised by local writers as an inspiration, an enabler, an opener of doors.
From this transcultural, translingual capacity of influence we can deduce something about the nature of literature: that (if I may briefly abandon my watery metaphor) books can grow as easily from spores borne on the air as from their makers’ particular and local roots. That there are international families of words as well as the more familiar clans of earth and blood. Sometimes—as in the case of the influence of James Joyce on the work of Samuel Beckett, and the subsequent and equal influence of Beckett on the work of Harold Pinter—the sense of dynasty, of a torch handed on down the generations, is very clear and very strong. In other cases the familial links are less obvious but no less powerful for that.
When I first read the novels of Jane Austen, books out of a country and a time far removed from my own upbringing in metropolitan, mid-twentieth-century Bombay, the thing that struck me about her heroines was how Indian, how contemporary, they seemed. Those bright, willful, sharp-tongued women, brimming with potential but doomed by the narrow convention to an interminable Huis-clos of ballroom dancing and husband hunting, were women whose counterparts could be found throughout the Indian bourgeoisie. The influence of Austen on Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is plain to see.
Charles Dickens, too, struck me from the first as a quintessentially Indian novelist. Dickensian London, that stenchy, rotting city full of sly, conniving shysters, that city in which goodness was under constant assault by duplicity, malice, and greed, seemed to me to hold up the mirror to the pullulating cities of India, with their preening elites living the high life in gleaming skyscrapers while the great majority of their compatriots battled to survive in the hurly-burly of the streets below. In my earlier novels I tried to draw on the genius of Dickens. I was particularly taken with what struck me as his real innovation: namely, his unique combination of naturalistic backgrounds and surreal foregrounds. In Dickens, the details of place and social mores are skewered by a pitiless realism, a naturalistic exactitude that has never been bettered. Upon this realistic canvas he places his outsize characters, in whom we have no choice but to believe because we cannot fail to believe in the world they live in. So I tried, in my novel Midnight’s Children, to set against a scrupulously observed social and historical background—against, that is, the canvas of a “real” India—my “unrealist” notion of children born at the midnight moment of India’s independence, and endowed with magical powers by the coincidence, children who were in some way the embodiment of both the hopes and the flaws of that revolution.
Within the authoritative framework of his realism, Dickens can also make us believe in the perfectly Surrealist notion of a government department, the Circumlocution Office, dedicated to making nothing happen; or in the perfectly Absurdist, Ionesco-like case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a case whose nature it is never to reach a conclusion; or in the “magical realist” image of the dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend—the physical symbols of a society living in the shadow of its own excrement, which must, incidentally, also have been an influence on a ecent American masterpiece, which takes the waste products of America as its central metaphor, Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
If influence is omnipresent in literature, it is also, one should emphasize, always secondary in any work of quality. When it is too crude, too obvious, the results can be risible. I was once sent, by an aspiring writer, a short story that began, “One morning Mrs. K. awoke to find herself metamorphosed into a front-loading washing machine.” One can only imagine how Kafka would have reacted to so inept—so detergent—an act of homage.
Perhaps because so much second-rate writing is derivative—and because so much writing is at best second-rate—the idea of influence has become a kind of accusation, a way of denigrating a writer’s work. The frontier between influence and imitation, even between influence and plagiarism, has commenced of late to be somewhat blurred. Two years ago, the distinguished British writer Graham Swift was accused by an obscure Australian academic of something odorously close to plagiarism in his Booker Prize–winning novel Last Orders: the “substantial borrowing” of the multi-voiced narrative structure of his novel from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The British press whipped this accusation up into a sort of scandal, and now Swift was accused of literary “plundering,” and those who defended him were sneered at for their “lofty indulgence” toward him. All this in spite of, or perhaps because of, Swift’s ready concession that he had been influenced by Faulkner, and in spite, too, of the awkward fact that the structures of the two books aren’t really so very alike, although some echoes are apparent. In the end such simple verities ensured that the scandal fizzled out, but not before Swift had been given a media roasting.
Interesting, then, that when Faulkner published As I Lay Dying, he himself had been accused of borrowing its structure from an earlier novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. His retort is the best possible answer that could be given: that when he was in the throes of composing what he modestly called his tour de force, he took whatever he needed from wherever he could find it, and knew of no writer who would not find such borrowing to be completely justified.
In my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a young boy actually travels to the ocean of imagination, which is described to him by his guide:
“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that . . . the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”
By using what is old, and adding to it some new thing of our own, we make what is new. In The Satanic Verses I tried to answer the question, how does newness enter the world? Influence, the flowing of the old into the new, is one part of the answer.
In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes the fabulous city of Octavia, suspended between two mountains in something like a spider’s web. If influence is the spider’s web in which we hang our work, then the work is like Octavia itself, that glittering jewel of a dream city, hanging in the filaments of the web, for as long as they are able to bear its weight.
I first met Calvino when I was asked to introduce a reading he gave at the Riverside Studios in London in the early 1980s. This was the time of the British publication of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I had just published a long essay about his work in the London Review of Books—disgracefully, this was one of the earliest serious pieces about Calvino to be published in the British press. I knew Calvino had liked the piece, but nevertheless I was nervous about having to speak about his work in his presence. My nervousness increased when he demanded to see my text before we went out to face the audience. What would I do if he disapproved? He read it in silence, frowning a little, then handed it back and nodded. I had evidently passed the examination, and what had particularly pleased him was my comparison of his work with that of the classical writer Lucius Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass.
“Give me a penny and I’ll tell you a golden story,” the old Milesian oral storytellers used to say, and Apuleius’s tale of transformation had used the fabulist manner of these ancient tellers of tall stories to great effect. He possessed, too, those virtues that Calvino also embodied and of which he wrote so well in one of his last works, Six Memos for the Next Millennium: the virtues of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. These qualities were much in my mind when I came to write Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Although the form of this novel is that of a child’s fantastic adventure, I wanted the work somehow to erase the division between children’s literature and adult books. It was in the end a question of finding precisely the right tone of voice, and Apuleius and Calvino were the ones who helped me to find it. I re-read Calvino’s great trilogy, The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight, and they gave me the clues I needed. The secret was to use the language of the fable while eschewing the easy moral purpose of, for example, Aesop.
Recently, I have again been thinking about Calvino. The sixth of his “memos for the next millennium” was to have been on the subject of consistency. Consistency is the special genius of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Calvino was planning to suggest—that heroic, inexplicable Bartleby who simply and unshakably “preferred not to.” One might add the names of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, so inexorable in his search for small but necessary justice, or of Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus, who insisted that he must live until he died, or of chivalry-maddened Quixote, or of Kafka’s Land Surveyor, eternally yearning toward the unattainable Castle.
We are speaking of an epic consistency, a monomania that strives toward the condition of tragedy or myth. But consistency also may be understood in a darker sense, the consistency of Ahab in pursuit of his whale, of Savonarola who burned the books, of Khomeini’s definition of his revolution as a revolt against history itself.
More and more I feel drawn toward Calvino’s unexplored sixth value. The new millennium that is upon us already shows signs of being dominated by alarming examples of consistency of all types: the great refusers, the wild quixotics, the narrow-minded, the bigoted, and those who are valiant for truth. But now I am coming close to doing what David Malouf warns against—that is, discussing the nature of my own embryonic, and fragile (because as yet uncreated), work. So I must leave it there, and say only that Calvino, whose early support and encouragement I will always remember, continues to murmur in my ear.
I should add that many other artists both of classical Rome and of modern Italy have been, so to speak, present at my shoulder. When I was writing Shame, I re-read Suetonius’s great study of the twelve Caesars. Here they were in their palaces, these foul dynasts, power-mad, libidinous, deranged, locked in a series of murderous embraces, doing one another terrible harm. Here was a tale of coup and counter-coup; and yet, as far as their subjects beyond the palace gates were concerned, nothing really changed. Power remained within the family. The Palace was still the Palace.
From Suetonius, I learned much about the paradoxical nature of power elites, and so was able to construct an elite of my own in the version of Pakistan that is the setting for Shame: an elite riven by hatreds and fights to the death but joined by bonds of blood and marriage and, crucially, in control of all the power in the land. For the masses, deprived of all power, the brutal wars inside the elite change little or nothing. The Palace still rules, and the people still groan under its heel.
If Suetonius influenced Shame, then The Satanic Verses, a novel whose central theme is that of metamorphosis, evidently learned much from Ovid; and for The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which is informed by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Virgil’s Georgics were essential reading. And, if I may make one more tentative step toward the unwritten future, I have for a long time been engaged and fascinated by the Florence of the High Renaissance in general, and by the character of Niccolò Machiavelli in particular.
The demonization of Machiavelli strikes me as one of the most successful acts of slander in European history. In the English literature of the Elizabethan golden age, there are around four hundred Machiavellian references, none of them favorable. At that time no work of Machiavelli’s was available in the English language; the playwrights of England were basing their satanic portraits on a translated French text, the Anti-Machiavel. The sinister, amoral persona created for Machiavelli then still cloaks his reputation. As a fellow writer who has also learned a thing or two about demonization, I feel it may soon be time to re-evaluate the maligned Florentine.
I have sought to portray a little of the cultural cross-pollination without which literature becomes parochial and marginal. Before concluding, I must pay tribute to the genius of Federico Fellini, from whose films, as a young man, I learned how one might transmute the highly charged material of childhood and private life into the stuff of showmanship and myth; and to those other Italian masters, Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni, De Sica, and so on, and so on—for of influence and creative stimulation there can really be no end.
Step Across This Line – Collected Nonfiction 1992 – 2002.
“Climate change has become an existential crisis for the human species. The only historical precedent for a crisis of this depth and scale was the Cold War fear that we were heading toward nuclear holocaust, which would have made much of the planet uninhabitable. But that was (and remains) a threat; a slim possibility, should geopolitics spiral out of control. The vast majority of nuclear scientists never told us that we were almost certainly going to put our civilization in peril if we kept going about our daily lives as usual, doing exactly what we were already doing, which is what the climate scientists have been telling us for years.
Power from renewable sources like wind and water predates the use of fossil fuels and is becoming cheaper, more efficient, and easier to store every year. The past two decades have seen an explosion of ingenious zero-waste design, as well as green urban planning. Not only do we have the technical tools to get off fossil fuels, we also have no end of small pockets where these low carbon lifestyles have been tested with tremendous success. And yet the kind of large-scale transition that would give us a collective chance of averting catastrophe eludes us.
My mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.
We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets. That problem might not have been insurmountable had it presented itself at another point in our history. But it is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.
Indeed, governments and scientists began talking seriously about radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in 1988 — the exact year that marked the dawning of what came to be called “globalization,” with the signing of the agreement representing the world’s largest bilateral trade relationship between Canada and the United States, later to be expanded into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the inclusion of Mexico.
When historians look back on the past quarter century of international negotiations, two defining processes will stand out. There will be the climate process: struggling, sputtering, failing utterly to achieve its goals. And there will be the corporate globalization process, zooming from victory to victory: from that first free trade deal to the creation of the World Trade Organization to the mass privatization of the former Soviet economies to the transformation of large parts of Asia into sprawling free-trade zones to the “structural adjusting” of Africa.
The three policy pillars of this new era are familiar to us all: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Much has been written about the real-world costs of these policies—the instability of financial markets, the excesses of the super-rich, and the desperation of the increasingly disposable poor, as well as the failing state of public infrastructure and services.
Very little, however, has been written about how market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.
The core problem was that the stranglehold that market logic secured over public life in this period made the most direct and obvious climate responses seem politically heretical. How, for instance, could societies invest massively in zero-carbon public services and infrastructure at a time when the public sphere was being systematically dismantled and auctioned off? How could governments heavily regulate, tax, and penalize fossil fuel companies when all such measures were being dismissed as relics of “command and control” communism? And how could the renewable energy sector receive the supports and protections it needed to replace fossil fuels when “protectionism” had been made a dirty word?
A different kind of climate movement would have tried to challenge the extreme ideology that was blocking so much sensible action, joining with other sectors to show how unfettered corporate power posed a grave threat to the habitability of the planet. Instead, large parts of the climate movement wasted precious decades attempting to make the square peg of the climate crisis fit into the round hole of deregulated capitalism, forever touting ways for the problem to be solved by the market itself.
But blocking strong climate action wasn’t the only way that the triumph of market fundamentalism acted to deepen the crisis in this period. Even more directly, the policies that so successfully freed multinational corporations from virtually all constraints also contributed significantly to the underlying cause of global warming—rising greenhouse gas emissions. The numbers are striking: in the 1990s, as the market integration project ramped up, global emissions were going up an average of 1 percent a year; by the 2000s, with “emerging markets” like China now fully integrated into the world economy, emissions growth had sped up disastrously, with the annual rate of increase reaching 3.4 percent a year for much of the decade. That rapid growth rate continues to this day, interrupted only briefly in 2009 by the world financial crisis.
With hindsight, it’s hard to see how it could have turned out otherwise. The twin signatures of this era have been the mass export of products across vast distances (relentlessly burning carbon all the way), and the import of a uniquely wasteful model of production, consumption, and agriculture to every corner of the world (also based on the profligate burning of fossil fuels). Put differently, the liberation of world markets, a process powered by the liberation of unprecedented amounts of fossil fuels from the earth, has dramatically sped up the same process that is liberating Arctic ice from existence.
As a result, we now find ourselves in a very difficult and slighty ironic position. Because of those decades of hardcore emitting exactly when we were supposed to be cutting back, the things we must do to avoid catastrophic warming are no longer just in conflict with the particular strain of deregulated capitalism that triumphed in the 1980s. They are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die. Once carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere, it sticks around for hundreds of years, some of it even longer, trapping heat. The effects are cumulative, growing more severe with time.
Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion.
By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know. The battle is already under way, but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used as the excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made. It wins when Greeks are told that their only path out of economic crisis is to open up their beautiful seas to high-risk oil and gas drilling. It wins when Canadians are told our only hope of not ending up like Greece is to allow our boreal forests to be flayed so we can access the semisolid bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. It wins when a park in Istanbul is slotted for demolition to make way for yet another shopping mall. It wins when parents in Beijing are told that sending their wheezing kids to school in pollution masks decorated to look like cute cartoon characters is an acceptable price for economic progress. It wins every time we accept that we have only bad choices available to us: austerity or extraction, poisoning or poverty.
The challenge, then, is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it’s that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change.
Climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.
It’s too late to stop climate change from coming; it is already here, and increasingly brutal disasters are headed our way no matter what we do. But it’s not too late to avert the worst, and there is still time to change ourselves so that we are far less brutal to one another when those disasters strike. And that, it seems to me, is worth a great deal. Because the thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything.”
This Changes Everything
Cheers, fellow earthlings! Take a look below at this “excellent historical documentary that highlights the trials and tribulations of Salman Rushdie as he struggled to lead a normal life under the constant threat of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa…”
Recommended further reading:
- The Guardian’s “Looking back at Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses“
- The New Yorker’s “The Disappeared – How the fatwa changed a writer’s life” (by Salman himself)
* * * * *
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.” – FRANZ KAFKA, Letter to Pollak, January 1904. Via Brain Pickings.
A FAUSTIAN PACT
In Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, written in 1590 (and that would later inspire Goethe’s Faust), he tells the story of a brilliant scholar, “glutted with learning’s golden gifts”, who reaches the limits of human knowledge. Bored by terrestrial scholarship, he plots, by means of necromancy, to break into
…a world of profit and delight
Of power, honor, of omnipotence.
When, he believes, he has acquired his demonic powers, spirits will fetch him everything he wants:
I’ll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates.
So Faustus draws a circle and summons the Devil’s servant, Mephistopheles. He offers him a deal: if the Devil will grant him 24 years in which to “live in all voluptuousness”, Faustus will, at the end of that period , surrender his soul to hell. Mephistopheles explains the consequences, but the doctor refuses to believe him.
Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine
That, after this life, there is any pain?
Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales.
So the bargain is struck and signed in blood, and Faustus acquires his magical powers, With the help of a flying “chariot burning bright”, he takes a sightseeing tour around Europe. He performs miracles. He summons fresh grapes from the southern hemisphere in the dead of winter. After 24 years, the devils come for him. He begs for mercy, but it is too late. They drag him down to hell.
If you did not know any better, you could mistake this story for a metaphor of climate change.
Faust is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles, who appears in the original English text as a “fiery man”, is fossil fuel. Faust’s miraculous abilities are the activities fossil fuel permits. 24 years is the period – about half the true span – in which they have enabled us to live in all voluptuousness. And the flames of hell – well, I think you’ve probably worked that out for yourself… Our use of fossil fuels is a Faustian pact.
To doubt, today, that manmade climate change is happening, you must abandon science and revert to some other means of understanding the world: alchemy perhaps, or magic.
Ice cores extracted from the Antarctic show that the levels in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and methane (these are the two principal greenhouse gases) are now higher than they have been for 650.000 years.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have been rising over the 20th century faster than at any time over the past 20.000 years. The only means by which greenhouse gases could have accumulated so swiftly is human action: carbon dioxide is produced by burning oil, coal and gas and by clearing forests, while methane is released from farms and coal mines and landfill sites.
As CO2 and methane levels in the atmosphere increase, the temperature rises. The concentration of carbon dioxide, the more important of the two, has risen from 280 parts per million parts of air (ppm) in Marlowe’s time to 380 ppm today. Most of the growth has taken place in the last 50 years. The average global temperature over the past century has climbed, as a result, by 0.6º Centigrade. According to the World Metereological Organization, “the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest in any century during the past 1.000 years.
Already sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to the smallest area ever recorded. In the Antarctic, scientists watched stupefied in 2002 as the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed into the sea (see The Guardian’s Antarctica Sends 500 Million Tonne Warning of the Effects of Global Warming, 20 March 2006, by John Vidal). A paper published in Science magazine concluded that is disintegration was the result of melting caused by a warming ocean.
Almost all the world’s glaciers are now retreating. Permafrost in Alaska and Siberia, which has remained frozen since the last Ice Age, has started to melt. Parts of the Amazon rainforest are turning to savannah as the temperatures there exceed the point at which trees can survive… The World Health Organization estimates that 150.000 people a year are now dying as a result of climate change… All this is happening with just 0.6 ºC of warming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a committee of climate specialists which assesses and summarizes the science, estimated in 2001 that global temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8º C this century. (…) Professor Martin Parry of the UK’s Metereological Office estimates that a rise of just 2.1º C will expose between 2.3 and 3 billion people to the risk of water shortages. The disappearance of glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas will imperil the people who depend on their meltwater, particularly in Pakistan, western China, Central Asia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that “in some 40 poor, developing countries, with a combined population of 2 billion, crop production losses due to climate change may drastically increase the number of undernourished people, severely hindering progress in combating poverty and food insecurity.”