Climate Change and the Culture of Surrealism
The political debate over Waxman Markey and the US response to climate change is on brief hiatus, but the cultural process of adjustment crunches onward obliviously. This hit me while reading Lorrie Moore's new novel A Gate at the Stairs, where the following scene occurs on a Midwestern farm: "We pushed past the gate at the far end of our property and walked down one of the old half-frozen cow paths terraced slightly with old roots and stones to form steps. A small fly buzzed past my ear, then vanished. I had never seen a fly before at Christmas, and I swatted at it, feeling, as we had been taught to feel in Art 102, the surrealism of two familiar things placed unexpectedly side by side. That would be the future."
There's so much tasty stuff in this paragraph, it's hard to know where to begin, but the kicker, from the standpoint of the 20-year-old narrator, is that everyday surrealism "would be the future." In contrast to the relentless graphs and dog paddling polar bear of an "An Inconvenient Truth," Moore's observation feels emotionally real to me. I hear my friends folding the new surrealism, the new reality, the freakish uncertainty, into their lives and conversations in exactly this unscientific way. And it also made me feel sad for the days when Christmas flies may seem normal.
But what are the politics of this adaptation strategy? We use surreal now to describe objects that are unexpectedly juxtaposed. But when it was started by European artists struggling to come to terms with the horrors of World War One, Surrealism was a movement for social change. I guess nearly a hundred years of modernityn have turned surrealism into a passive spectacle--a way of viewing reality as art arranged by a dotty curator. Odd juxtapositions no longer provoke an organized political response, but the confusion of cognitive dissonance.
I've been experiencing that all week as I get on the 880/980 onramp in downtown Oakland and note that someone lost an entire truckload of mattresses on the side of the freeway. I've been amusing myself by trying to figure out the right metaphor for the scene. So it didn't even occur to me until this morning that both the city of Oakland and the state of California are too far gone to pick up a bunch of mattresses littering the roadway. Surrealism has become a gateway drug for passivity and acceptance, failure of government... and more surrealism.
Take for example, this recent report by National Geographic on technological fixes for climate change, which include:
Real and Unreal Trees
Artificial Rock Weathering--Deliberate acid rain applied to mountains and rocks to dissolve them and bind CO2 into the new compounds formed from dissolved rock. One scientist described this as "the endgame."
(It reminds me of that end times spiritual that goes "Oh Sinner! You will weep for the rocks and mountains, when the stars begin to fall." (See the Seekers version; or a wonderful bunch of high school kids singing in a well-tuned, bunker-like stairwell.))
Sin, Surrealism, Faith in Juels-Verne-style Technology--these are the cultural tools we have to understand this change, and our options, and they fall short. It's ridiculous to think of carbon emissions, energy use, and SUV's in terms of sin and equally misguided to count the Christmas flies. We don't just need a climate bill, I think we need a new way to conceptualize what we're going through. A "new" surrealism.
Foad Mardukhi operates an idiosyncratic list serve and he recently forwarded an old Op-Ed about climate change as an existential crisis for Western civilization written by Anatol Lieven that seems more relevant now.
"The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.
If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests."