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Speaking of Climate Change: Is It Time to Agree on a Language of Defeat?

• April 15, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: guentermanaus/Shutterstock)

We should continue to fight for new building codes and oppose the construction of new oil pipelines—and more ambitious projects still—but only because they offer hope and aspiration in the midst of despair, not because they will actually help at this point.

The recent doomsday report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provoked a familiar response among environmental advocates. It was a canned blend of pessimism and activism insisting that it’s too late to act but we’d sure as hell better act. Like, now.

Such panicked ambivalence is understandable but, on the ground, it propagates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Elizabeth Kolbert, an ace journalist who’s covered climate change as informatively as anyone, captured the essence of this dissonance when, in response to the IPCC document, she wrote, “As we merrily roll along, radically altering the planet, we are … increasingly in danger of committing ourselves to outcomes that will simply overwhelm societies’ ability to adapt.” Two weeks later she added, “Building codes, too, need to be rewritten.”

Building codes! If this “the-Earth-is dying-but-my-oversized-house-needs-new-insulation” narrative leaves you muddled, I’m with you. It’s difficult to balance personal responsibility and an honest appreciation for the severity of climate change. As a result, we lash out at the wrong enemies. Progressives lambaste global warming skeptics as ignorant deniers who underwrite global devastation and foster inaction. Sure thing. But the problem with climate change discourse isn’t the skeptic. It’s the true believer—and the fact that, for him, the slow burn of global warming obviates radical action despite knowing that nothing else will do. This paradox leaves many of us who take climate change seriously more or less speechless—or merely talking about building codes—while the planet cooks due to our hyper-charged consumerism.

In “Some Reflections of Kafka,” Walter Benjamin encapsulates the gist of Kafka by highlighting the helplessness “the modern citizen” experiences in the face of meta-forces hazy and insurmountable.

The intractability of climate change—in addition to the fact that I personally contribute immensely to the cause I claim to care about—has me considering a darker sort of prospect: Perhaps it’s time to consider how we might speak of defeat.

Nobody likes the idea of preemptively formulating a language of failure. But we should at least have access to such an option. There are too many well-informed people ready to opt out of climate reality, too many folks who are tired of investing in Priuses and LEED certification. They should be able to retire from the issue with a respectable lexicon of failure. The art of losing can certainly be done with pith and elegance. I’m reminded of Arizona Congressman Morris K. Udall, who served in Congress from the 1960s to the 1990s. After losing a bid for the presidential primary, he said: “The people have spoken. The bastards.” Well, the environment, too, has spoken. Shouldn’t we have a response?

Policymakers, politicians, and journalists—all of whom we count on for a shred of hope amid the shame and scolding—are usually reluctant to deliver such bitter eloquence. It’s not necessarily their job to speak of defeat. And with leading activists insisting that we do strange things such as fly to Washington, D.C., protest a transnational pipeline project, get arrested, and make the papers—all so more oil and gas can by moved by the more dangerous means of rail—well, I’m simply not inspired by the earnest cries of revolution among these action-oriented operatives. I’m more interesting in knowing how we might do something even more un-American than opposing “progress”—that is to say, I want to know how to accept failure with dignity.

Seeking guidance into this gloomy territory, I initially turned to skeptical thinkers whose work I know best: environmental historians. These scholars are deeply insightful about the historical interaction between nature and culture, but their allegiance to the dustbin makes them reluctant prognosticators. William Cronon, in an essay called “The Uses of Environmental History,” is a case in point. The most he offers by way of articulating a response to contemporary ecological collapse is to urge us to “tell parables about nature and the human past.” It’s a start. The historian Donald Worster provides a sense of what sort of parables we might tell. “History,” he writes, “tells plenty of stories of human folly. We have more knowledge of the past than ever before, but folly is still our old familiar companion.” In other words: Rome is burning so we may as well spin a good yarn.

The historians’ pessimism certainly nudges us in the right direction. But its tentative nature also suggests that the deeper darkness of defeat shouldn’t be sought in the journalistic or academic literature—but rather in literature itself. And when it comes to darkness, not to mention conceding to ephemeral powers, I choose Kafka. Or, better yet, Walter Benjamin on Kafka. In “Some Reflections of Kafka,” Benjamin encapsulates the gist of Kafka by highlighting the helplessness “the modern citizen” experiences in the face of meta-forces hazy and insurmountable. “He is,” Benjamin writes, “at the mercy of a vast machinery of officialdom whose function is directed by authorities that remain nebulous to the executive organs, let alone to the people they deal with.”

Negotiating that machinery—as Kafka shows—is effectively accomplished without undue thought or anxiety about how it operates. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much how most people relate to global warming. To make his point about the pragmatic wisdom of not thinking too much about the “nebulous” circumstances of our oppression, Benjamin quotes a passage from Sir Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World. In it, Eddington compares walking through a doorway with and without thinking about what’s actually required to walk through a doorway. The thoughtless walker enters and moves on, blissfully unaware of what he’s doing. The thinker, by contrast, stops to ponder the hidden immensity of such an act and, in so doing, becomes paralyzed:

I must move against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank traveling at 20 miles per second round the sun…. I must do this while hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body….

To appreciate what we’d actually have to accomplish in order to truly deal with climate change, it’s worth lingering over this brilliant comparison. Essentially, we’d have to slow reality to a crawl, educate ourselves beyond polarized generalities, and analyze our collective behavior in terms that illuminate grave danger about actions long considered benign. And then we’d have to stop walking through familiar doorways. The trouble, of course, is that there’s no immediate pressure to do any of this—no pressing incentive keeping us from blithely crossing the threshold into existential discomfort. Appropriately, Eddington concludes his comparison:

Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be a barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.

And, in a nutshell, that’s why we’re screwed—and left that much more in need of a language of defeat. Benjamin, analyzing this situation—knowing that we’ll never wait “till all the difficulties … are resolved”—draws on Kafka to suggest how we might articulate our predicament, how we might yield to climate change with grace and wisdom. He writes, “This much Kafka was absolutely sure of: first, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second, that only a fool’s help is real help.”

There it is. Real help might indeed be foolish, at least in terms of achieving anything beneficial for the planet as we know it. But we should pursue it nonetheless—we should fight for those building codes and oppose those pipelines—because at least it offers aspiration in the midst of despair. And even if, as Kafka put it, “there is an infinite amount of hope, but not for us” we can take solace in leaving behind a planet for the superrich—they always come out ahead—to intermingle with the beetles and roaches equipped to capitalize on our downfall. In this scenario we might find, as Benjamin put it, “the purity and beauty of a failure.” And perhaps even a gorgeous start to a fine narrative of complete and utter ruin.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

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