I recently read two novels where the protagonists happened to be gay men living through the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s, who didn’t dare to take the test (they were Fenno McLead, of Julia Glass’ National Book Award winning Three Junes, and Nick Guest, of Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker prize winning the Line of Beauty).
Nick and Fenno’s reluctance reminded me of my own sentiment with regards to global warming. Deep down I know it’s threatening to put an end to human civilisation. Still on some level I refuse to get properly informed. I skim past news stories, I switch channels on the radio when the topic turn up, and out of the fifty plus books I usually read every year, not one touches on climate change. I simply don’t have the stomach for learning just how bad things are.
That is until I came across the 500 page tome Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by French graphic novelist Philippe Squarzoni this summer.
Squarzoni is not your average cartoonist, more like he’s inventing a genre all of his own. His work ranges from reportage like depictions of the Mexican Zapatista-uprising, to covering the war in former Yugoslavia (where incididentally like myself, he worked as a volunteer during the conflicts) to adapting David Simons the Wire into a graphic novel. Then after publishing a string of fourteen different titles, he turns his attention to global warming. And for some reason he slips under my radar. I guess I was seduced by the imagery and got pulled into the story before I could help myself.
So I have my first true encounter with the nitty gritty facts of climate change. In Squarzoni’s hands, the story is so beautifully rendered that the hair-raisingly horrid truth it tells almost doesn’t hurt. (The experience reminds me of watching The Shining. I detest horror movies, but simply couldn’t resist Jack Nicholson in his prime, directed by Stanley Kubrick at his best. It was worth the price of getting scared witless.)
Climate Changed doesn’t just serve up the hard unpleasant facts, it’s also the story of how the protagonists – Squarzoni and his spouse Camille, accompanied by their loyal dog Mirabelle – are struggling to come to terms with a reality which seem ever bleaker the more they learn about the state of affairs.
Squarzoni’s album is also a meditation on how story telling in and of itself is sometimes limiting our ability to understand the world. By definition, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and somehow that’s exactly why it’s so hard to tell (or digest) stories about global warming. Or rather: perhaps that explains why the stories that are told often play out in an imagined future where, however dystopian, we can look back at global warming as something which is over and done with. It’s very difficult to form a narrative about an ongoing train wreck.
Which is why Climate Changed has a number of abandoned beginnings (each of them brilliantly riffing of a favourite film of book of the author) and a very open ending.
Squarzoni’s story left me in a dark mood, but at the same time with the feeling that no amount of despair will overstate the urgency of this ongoing global disaster that we’re living through. Pessimism seem to be warranted.
And that mindset contrasts starkly with what I’m used to, since in my day job I mostly interact with inventors and entrepreneurs. Those are people who almost by definition share an optimistic view of the future in general and the formidable power of technological progress in particular.
I think fundamentally that’s a wonderful thing. It’s inspiring and it creates a great vibe. It’s also probably the only reasonable mental strategy given the resilience and resourcefulness you need in order to go through with bringing innovations into the world.
But I’m starting to think this special brand of optimism come at a cost. Like work horses that stay calm thanks to blinkers that’s blocking out their peripheral vision, technologists are generally happy people because they’re operating within a narrowly defined scope. Within that walled garden they (we) can shape the world to our liking, creating shiny new products that will “change everything”. It’s rather wonderful, but unfortunately not very solidly anchored in reality
All in all I’m not sure where this train of thought leaves me. While writing this post a song keeps popping up in my mind. Too much of nothing is written by Peter, Paul and Mary, but I’m a sucker for the Dylan cover. To me that song was always about how if we expose ourselves to the true dimensions of human misery, we’ll simply be torn apart.
Which makes me think of another pop culture reference. In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Total Perspective Vortex is the most effective torture method ever conceived of. It is described as so:
The Total Perspective Vortex is the most savage psychic torture a sentient being can undergo.
When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here“
The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses. Since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation – every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.
The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.
Trin Tragula – for that was his name – was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. She would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.
And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex, just to show her.
Into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.
To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot have is a sense of proportion