Not much of an uplifting ramble I’m afraid, but it was a relief to offload some of this into an eclectic assemblage of thoughts:
This past week I’ve reading The Ministry of the Future on my daily commute. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel about environmental collapse is unsettling because of just how tangible and familiar the escalating disasters he depicts feel to our own precarious moment in time. More than once I’ve had to put the book down on my lap to stare despondently out of the window and regather my composure. It’s that kind of book. According to the blurb it’s also one of Obama’s “favourite” reads, although as well written as it is I’m not sure “favourite” is the word I would go with. Prophetic maybe, powerfully unsettling for sure, but favourite?
At any rate, the grim realism of the novel assumes an even more troubling significance when the opening gambit reflects backwards through time to the manifest failures of a world summit eerily similar to COP27, currently underway in Egypt. In Robinson’s fictionalised world, nations gathered, many fine words were exchanged or rather projected into the void since it’s always unclear which audience they imagine themselves to be addressing. Agreements were made and then promptly ignored. On and on it goes, all of it carefully mapped against the same cycles of disappointment we have witnessed this past half-century. There’s a line somewhere in an early chapter that reads “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” which is a sentiment I’ve heard many times before but seldom with the same weight of grim certitude, the narrator adding: “The old saying had grown teeth and was taking on a literal, vicious accuracy.” It’s hard to disagree, hence another lengthy bout of rueful window gazing.
For that’s what we’re talking about isn’t it? And if not a stark binary choice between the end of the world and the end of capitalism, then a radical change in how we live, perhaps how we perceive ourselves as a species. As updates from COP27 roll in I feel inured by past experiences, or more accurately past betrayals, that tell me that nothing will come of this, nothing of a scale that comes even close to what is required, even as the summit’s host proclaims we are facing “Climate Hell on Earth.” How rarely such rhetoric is matched by action. And yet this is the guaranteed outcome, an endless succession of exhausted climate scientist lining up behind each speaker to remind them, implore them, again and again to deliver the immediate sweeping measures needed to curb emissions and support impoverished nations who see no other way to remain competitive other than burning more fossil fuels.
Another chapter defines ideology as “An imaginary relationship to a real situation,” which on first glance I thought rather satisfying for being so succinct, but actually works much better as a definition of denial, which is surely the overriding condition currently afflicting the COP27 membership. It is an event that seems to specialise in diluted platitudes and impotent performative outrage. The major economies have already failed to meet their previously agreed targets, just as they do in Robinson’s novel, while developing nations see little reason to curtail their own outputs when the developed world refuses to subsidise the same kind of industrial revolutions upon which their own empires were built. The latest reports spell out how trillions are needed to achieve this level of economic parity if the commitments are to mean anything at all. Meanwhile dignitaries from amongst the most impoverished parts of the world speak with desperation and indignation, since their nations are already suffering the consequences of climate change, whereas your Bidens, Macrons and Sunaks pose for photoshoots and harangue an imaginary Big Other as though the only thing to do with unpleasant truths is make pretty for the cameras and outsource responsibility to the global south.
Later in the novel we’re told how the big energy companies, far from looking for renewable alternatives, have already identified many multiples of the amount of fossil fuels which if burned would push global temperatures well beyond the point that life can be sustained. This isn’t fiction necessarily, this is something closer to reportage in novel form. But imagine seeing that report and accompanying spreadsheets. Imagine being a senior exec seeing that data and knowing that extracting that amount of carbon would in every conceivable scenario spell death and destruction for all, and then signing it off anyway, the company’s future somehow considered separate from the rest of world. I see the same attitude at COP27, the same disregard and reverberating levels of stereoscopic denial. Make the speech, pass the buck, pose for the camera and home. Somebody else will sort this out. Trust in the marketplace to find a solution.
The explicit judgement couldn’t be clearer: powerful private industries serve shareholders first, planet second, and have successfully lobbied governments all over the world so that they can continue to behave with immunity because we have failed to imagine or even tolerate the mere prospect of an alternative. Expecting governments to reject this business-as-usual doctrine is almost unthinkable because at this point they appear to be one and the same. The resulting cynicism is unbearable. Such is the extent of this denial that readers of Robinson’s novel are invited to consider the perverse necrophiliac nature of this relationship, with government and corporate interests fruitlessly trying to (re)produce life from planetary death. I wonder, does this constitute ecological necrophiliac pornography? Maybe COP27 should be livestreamed on Pornhub.
When feeling overwhelmed by this stuff I try to laugh at the absurdity and practice a little stoicism which unsurprisingly is also seeing something of an end-of-the-world renaissance. In such lighter moments I might cast a weary eye over a cartoon strip I have pinned above my desk. This one is a single image depicting a man in tattered clothes speaking to a group of small children, all of them sat in the embers of the old world. The script reads: “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” I think about that a lot, worried that this is somehow, appallingly, the seemingly inevitable course that we are on, and that unable to imagine an alternative we will simply keep doing what we’re doing expecting a different outcome. It’s for this reason that I’m struggling to finish Robinson’s novel, unsure whether I can handle either a happy ending or the much more likely debilitating one. Maybe this explains our current mania for putting our faith, or rather having our faith steered towards fictional individualistic saviours and superheroes in a world in desperate need of collective action. Maybe it’s just easier to imagine a Lycra-clad alien übermensch with superpowers saving the planet than Biden and co.
COP27 is of course overshadowed (if that’s the right term) by the War in Ukraine and the growing economic crises. One of our most recent Prime Ministers, disastrous untermensch Liz “blunderbuss” Truss, campaigned and won on a proudly anti-nature manifesto of a kind not seen since the time when Nature was an enemy to be tamed, beaten down, and asset stripped, along with any indigenous people who happened to be living there at the time. More drilling, more oil, more fracking, a literal tyre fire of the few remaining environmental protections we still have on the books before Rees-Mogg gets his way, along with an equally suicidal opposition to renewables. Even Conservative MPs were alarmed by this high grade insanity, noting that weaning oneself off Russian supply shouldn’t mean getting high on your own. How many of those attending COP27 will make their speeches knowing full well that their political careers depend on doing the opposite or nothing at all. Our current PM didn’t even think it necessary to go until Boris Johnson threatened to embarrass him by travelling to Egypt and reinvented himself as, and this is a direct Johnson quote, the “spirit of COP26.”
Elsewhere Robinson reminds us that many if not all of these of these same unnamed executives have young families of their own, all with hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow and a damn good reason to do better for them, and yet the machine rumbles on as though consequence is a purely abstract notion.
Perhaps most tellingly, the book begins with a murderous heatwave incinerating India. It makes for difficult reading because as I said at the outset it feels so close at hand, so frighteningly within reach. I can’t actually recall the last time I read a novel, a fictional account of an imagined future disaster, and felt as though I was reading my obituary. As I read Robinson’s description of a city being cooked alive, the taste of blasted air, the suffocating absence of relief, I flashed back to the record breaking 40 degree heatwave we experienced here in the UK last summer. I remember how the papers were either hysterical on the subject or otherwise downplaying the forecasts as yet more environmental alarmism from so called wokeists. It was much the same kind of discussions at work and with strangers on the tram, with people equally convinced on both sides. Again, It felt like palpable, wilful denial, characterised by the overconfident unwavering conviction of those who refuse to accept a truly frightening reality.
For three days we weltered without relief and no access to aircon, and this after weeks of drought and water shortages, and all of it just a fraction of what Robinson describes in haunting prose. Viewed from the air the country, usually a patchwork of greens and aquamarine blues was a lifeless khaki of burnt umbers. The wildfires spreading across Europe were visible from space, the long exclamation points of ash drifting across horticultural heartlands with unrelenting indifference. To those orbiting high above us in the ISS it must have looked like the disaster movies we have all queued up to watch as kids, the shock never lasting much beyond the foyer because we knew it was all make-believe, that is until it’s everywhere and all at once.
Back in July there were charts comparing the situation in the UK with similar ones south of the equator, all of which ranked London on a par with Mexico City and Dubai, one difference being that those cities are at least somewhat accustomed to high temperatures whereas we are not. Up and down the country rail track was buckling, roads softening. By Wednesday it was oven-like constant heat. Debbie was away in South America with work, where colleagues could quench their scorched limbs with a refreshing dip a local lake. Looking at the pictures of her trip on my phone I remember thinking that if things got really bad I could maybe take myself off to Groby Pool, a popular bird watching and, more bizarrely, dogging site, for a cooling spell in the shallows. I can’t have been alone in finding the experience frightening.
I slept downstairs for the duration, erecting a kind of shelter in the living room and making constant trips to the bathroom to splash my face and re-wet the towel I was using to cool myself while in pursuit of sleep. My PC kept shutting down with the heat. The cats became permanent residents on the parquet floor, looking up at me as though all of this was my fault, which of course it was, is, at a species level at least. Reports came in of people dying, mostly the young and very old and the usual coterie of tragic youngsters who swam out of their depth in unpredictable rivers. These reports were followed by maddening interviews with ordinary folks designed to offer a false sense of parity, as if the opinion of some yahoo on the street carries the same weight as every serious climate scientist on the planet. Those who were stopped all seemed to think this was an overreaction.
I remember the camera cutting away to an older man sat on a beach somewhere down south, his skin already a painful red, moaning that the English are always complaining that it’s either too wet or too cold, and rather than complaining they should hurry up and make the most the heat. This reckless stubbornness also felt familiar to me and equally cretinous. I hear those same ignorant voices all the time; I know I'm not alone. As he said this his wife was busy applying a thick emulsion of sun cream to their two grandchildren. It felt like that scene in Jaws where the mayor is trying to get families back in the water after the first attack, everyone complicit in an act of shared collective denial. For her part the grandmother didn’t seem quite as convinced, and right there in that moment we probably did have a snapshot of the national psyche.