Reflection On Interesting Times

What sort of narrative does Climate Change have?

In the time of the Renaissance, the great artists were often also the great scientists: like Leonardo Da Vinci, like Michelangelo. In the East, the great emperors in many cases were poets and artists. But in the last century, when capitalism came to dominance and swallowed other social forms, science and art began to separate from each other.

This phenomenon was more significant in Europe and the USA than it was in other parts of the world, and the competition in the industrialised system has now cornered our artists and scientists into narrow definitions of their profession. Thus writers and artists have become more and more self-indulgent, and scientists more and more dry and incomprehensible.

But now there seems to be a turning point. The subject of climate change is now beginning to bring science and art back together. ‘Weatherfronts’, the two-day conference organised by Tipping Point and held this June at London’s Free Word Centre brought together a hundred writers, poets, scientists and politicians in an intense discussion about culture and politics. A writer myself, I have never seen such a mingling of the literary and scientific worlds at any event.

Elsewhere in the UK, the Dark Mountain movement, based just outside of Oxford, has been making waves in intellectual communities. The group wrote a beautiful manifesto addressing the relationship between our inward-looking world of literature and the future of humanity in the context of our self-destructive consumer society. They quoted the words of 19th century American thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization’, which echoes strongly the problem in our age – the age of the Anthropocene*.

mangroves

According to a current study, the next generation of the UK’s population will live shorter lives than their parents, because of the combined effects of our food industry and the severe contamination of our food chains. The worst thing is that our current economic system presents itself as the solution to all our problems, and the politicians sell us the same idea, while the scientists have insisted that there is great uncertainty about our future – let alone the future beyond the human world. The echelons of power, wielding the ever-widening net of capitalism, aren’t interested in the scientific message. But our only future lies beyond the corporate world.

However, not everything is a reason for gloom. My recent trip to Australia, and especially to the Great Barrier Reef, is far more than a grey memory. When looking at the bleached and dying coral in the water in front of us, we writers all felt mournful, until a group of Sydney and Melbourne-based scientists told us that in ten years time the coral will have moved south. At some point, Sydney and Melbourne will have lots of coral growing along their shores. The scientists said: ‘Nature has a way of adjusting its eco systems in the course of history, and there are always many factors that can lead to utterly unpredictable outcomes.’ Well, I don’t take these words as a comfort, but rather, as a mysterious hint that forces us to open ourselves up: to think about the wide blue yonder beyond our trivial reality.

Here and now, I look around at our limited urban reality. Although surrounded by fast cars and traffic lights, there are still many tree lovers in these cities and towns, and I am one of them. I love the nature worshippers of the Amazon forests. I love the stories of Australian Aboriginals who sang their song lines and knew all the waterways of their lands. And I love a certain feminist who bought a patch of rainforest land in the South Hemisphere and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. If we can all love nature in a truthful way, or to use another phrase – love it intensely, I cannot see why our world will always be as messed up as it is now.

Go the Way of the Dinosaurs

Many long-lived animals have long since passed from the Earth. stonehenge drawing

The dinosaurs roamed the planet for 135 million years. They came in many species, from tiny, darting creatures, to huge hulking beings munching on Triassic grass. They were the pinnacle of creation, in this part of the universe, for such a long, long, long time. Their age dwarfs ours. The totality of human history is a pigmy in comparison. Only a blip, or squawk in time.

The Chinese love to talk of having a ‘long’ history: 5,000 years. The Human species itself, has only been for 300,000 years. We should be amazed, perhaps, that humans wrote nothing for 290,000 years. For aeons we only chatted, never leaving letters behind us recording thoughts and events. We only started painting caves 30,000 years ago. Still, this time of human muteness, which we might think of as a vast ocean of time, is only really a drop in some vaster ocean. It’s question of scale.

Still, those giant and wicked birds we call dinosaurs died out. There is no reincarnation for species or biological types. Even if you believe in sci-fi stories of cloning, the terrible lizards cannot come back, unless one clones a whole ecosystem. But can we clone the whole ecosystem? And where can we undertake this project if we still haven’t found another liveable planet? It is an impossible ambition.

The moving hand of the Universe, having written the history of life forms, can never be reversed. It’s a one way street. But for every species, the street they are on is always a cul-de-sac.  The only question is this: will humanity be one of those species that lives fast and dies young? A brilliant creature, but with a short burn-out time. A comet in the sky with a fiery tail disappearing into the sea.

The question of climate change is fundamentally the question of human values. It’s not a scientific question. Why? Because the evidence that the come-lately species (humans) are causing it is overwhelming. Humans are smart enough to know that. But the human soul has another agenda. Human-centric value systems are the core of our environmental problems, and the scope of human moral vision is myopic to say the least. We creatures are bumping around, arms stretched out, smashing our surroundings. We really need to get our moral eyesight tested. But where will we get the corrective lenses required for moral focus?

No. The question of climate change is not a scientific one. It is a political one. It’s a question of our political structures. The political structures reflect a moral vision, a self-centered one, but also they reproduce the moral myopia. We also discovered capitalism, the ultimate greed machine for material satisfaction, given a little scientific know-how.  The clever, live-fast die-young ape is so smart, it can outwit itself with its own social systems. We think we understand ourselves.  But we have no idea really about what our humanity is. Yet we know enough to know that something is going off the rails. But we are not really interested in the knowledge. The moral myopia won’t let us focus on it.

If a dinosaur was writing this short essay, would he/she/it express their own din
osaur value system? I suppose yes. Would they be myopic? I suppose yes. But then they were such a long lived family of species. Maybe like ancient trees they would have grasped deep time, knowing its rhythms like deep ocean waves. Or maybe dinosaurs were dumb, but lucky.  The cosmos doesn’t have a purpose of who should survive longer and who should not. It is a matter of pure chance

Maybe the cosmos does have a purpose. For the moment, it wants us to burn brightly, then turn to dust. And perhaps that’s enough. Who says we have to stick around?  Humans disappearing may make way for new forms to emerge on this planet.

All things go the way of the dinosaurs.

And so it will be with us, perhfilming the seaaps. Because we are one of the patterns of nature.

Just as individuals die, so do species.

No immortality.

Nature is unknowable.

And there is no escape from nature.

From Ego-story to Eco-story

lone stone in ocean

Regarding the relationship between Homo sapiens and Nature: Nature itself never needs its own autobiography, even though its history is written in rocks under the earth. Nature has no self-obsession. It is the human who is in love with its own history and measures the value of the world in terms of its own sense of importance. The self -‘I’ – cannot help placing itself at the centre of creation, just as each person seems to want to place themselves at the centre of life.

 

I should pay royalties to Julian Barnes, and I would happily do so since he is really the finest English writer still alive in Britain. In his Flaubert’s Parrot, he wrote: ‘I was reading Mauriac the other day: the Memoires Interieurs, written at the very end of his life. It’s the time when the final pellets of vanity accumulate into a cyst, when the self starts up its last pathetic murmur of ‘Remember me, remember me… ’; it’s the time when the autobiographies get written, the last boasts are made, and the memories which no one else’s brain still holds are written down with a false idea of value.’

 

Whenever I am asked this question by a journalist: ‘how would you like to be remembered?’

I would look at the journalist’s face, I am at loss, and totally wordless.

It’s not that I am dying or being toothlessly old, it is that I have never believed in this after-life in which we supposedly gain some immortality, where we live posthumously as the reward of this life and its struggles, and the great works we labored on. Only Jesus and Sartre believe in this sort of vanity. Even de Beauvoir didn’t believe in the posthumous reward, or the idea of the literary immortals. Well, if I have no answer to such a question, I would say I wish to be remembered as a nameless tree, a stone, a palm of sand, a drop of water. We never need or want to remember such things from the point of view of the human value system.

 

It’s our utter self-absorption and strange habit of belief, that reality revolves around us which makes us unable to see the longer term view.

We are unable to look reality in the face as it is, and see what we are doing. Inside, we already believe in our own story, in which human life is a meaningful, indispensable corner of the cosmos. This is our vanity: The very reason for creation at all is us: we are God’s companions. In that story,

Our real place is beyond this world. Isn’t heaven beyond the sky, and God is waiting up there for us? How strange that we still think like this! Science tells us this is false. But it seems that the essence of our mind has programmed us not to believe it. The self-aggrandizing autobiographical impulse tells us it is false. How strange that a creature born from nature should come to think it is so disconnected from nature.

 

From where does this alienation come? Maybe it is just a trick of evolution. If creatures have a self-deluding program in their minds about what they are, they are more likely to successfully reproduce and look after their young. But this success comes at a price: ecological destruction.

 

So, here is my poem, summing up:

 

The ego is the reason for ecocide.

Ego-death may give us eco-life.

Seeing ourselves as nature means

no longer clinging to the auto-biographical

and its implicit idea that we are immortal.

We are just nature.

Nature is built without purpose or meaning.

When your hand can feel the drops of water,

And see the drops as beautifully meaningless.

Then we shall see things as they are,

rock as rock, tree as tree, water as water.

 

Field trip in the City 3

london bridge shard

Views in front of the Shard.

Our field trip with children from the Islington Art and Media School starts in front of the London Bridge Shard. How strange, the Shard Glass building is owned by the state of Qatar. They should have bought the London Bridge too, at least to make a new usage. I thought I am living in the European Union. But in the end, all the monarchy countries are united.

Field Trip in the City 2

cctv

Five minutes away from the truly shinny Canary Wharf new financial center, the old council houses appeared. The ghost memory of old Lime House area. Brutal square brown buildings, one after another, with fences and CCTV cameras. The teacher asked the students to use ten adjectives to describe this area again. ‘Not too offensive, ’ he gently suggested, while the neighborhood grandma watching them from a fenced balcony. The children screamed: ‘shabby, slum, old, poor, dirty…’ Well, perhaps the kids were a little mean, from an adult point of view. It was not that bad, those council houses, if you know what I mean in England. But our working class kids certainly have their own value system. ‘The Dockland redevelopment fund should be put half here, shouldn’t they?’ The teacher suggested, and the kids agreed, impatiently.

Field Trip in the City 1

new wharfWalking through the city with a group of 14 years old students. Once the run down docklands and wharfs with old industry warehouses, now only bankers and white collars rush around with their blackberries and leather bags. Cold, metallic landscape. The geography teacher Ian asked the kids to use ten adjectives to describe the brand new Canary Wharf redevelopment. The kids were screaming: ‘new, fancy, clean, rich, expensive, modern…’. Then the teacher questioned to them: ‘anyone use the word ‘corporate’? ’ Silence. Two kids are eating very expensive ice creams in the back.

Daintree Rainforest

daintree rainforestWalking on a track of this rainforest in Queensland, north Australia; touched by crowded ancient trees and vines and roots and birds. Struggle for sunlight, struggle for space. Hot wind on the face. Henri Rousseau’s sexy painting ‘Tiger in A Tropical Storm’. One of the most beautiful paintings in the world. All the same, but no more
tigers.  I felt home here – a question being asked each time when I do a talk in literature festivals.

The Solitude of Men

solitudeA man, running. Alone on a beach near Port Douglas, in north Australia. He plays with the waves and the wind. There are no more megafauna around him. Perhaps there are sharks, still. But he won’t go near to the deep water. Men have killed all their enemies. Bears, tigers, lions, wolves, and Neanderthals.

A Romantic Island No Longer Exists

North Sentinel island, AndamanReally, as Keats claimed, romantic islands no longer exist? And they become the phantom islands, dead and empty with once lived souls drifting on the sand. Easter Island. Those enormous but emotionless faces. Even worse, some islands have never existed. Last winter, Geologists from the University of Sydney went for an expedition, looking for ‘Sandy Island’ in the Coral Sea according to the google map. But they discovered the pacific island that never was. There is nothing there, it’s only a blue dot printed on the supposed map. If an island can disappear, what about the human ego?