Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth report. It’s a grim read. In addition to a rigorously documented description of the present climate system, the report draws on existing data and models to project five different versions of the next eighty years. These “possible climate futures” are based on how quickly we—no, let’s be specific: how quickly the industries and nations most invested in the fossil economy—roll back emissions. Not one of them, however, sees the planet escaping unscathed. No matter what, temperatures will continue to climb, oceans to acidify and rise. Even the most optimistic scenario, net-zero emissions by 2050, means a marked increase in the frequency and intensity of statistically unlikely weather events.

And that latter assessment is, in particular, less an act of speculation than a statement of plain fact. It’s not difficult to find examples of major heat waves, droughts, and flooding happening right now. Nor would one have to look hard to spot evidence of the climate’s effects on human life. Water conflicts, refugee crises, militarized borders, and ultranationalist fervor may fall outside the IPCC’s climatological ambit, but these too belong to the strange, strained temporality in which Earth now finds itself: the already-but-not-yet of climate catastrophe.

And yet.

And yet here in Champaign, Illinois, the summer has been quiet. It’s been hot, yes, but not unbearably so, and anyway Jes and I have A/C. The academic term is approaching. Undergrads are returning to campus. Before I dug up the link to the policymaker’s summary of the IPCC report, I had been working on a lesson plan for a high school student I’m tutoring—a close-reading exercise based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It was shaping up to be a pretty good lesson; after I finished reading the summary, I went back to writing it. The next day I loaded it onto a thumb drive and took it to campus to print.

And on I went.

And so it goes.

I’m not sure whether to be troubled by what I just wrote. Disturbed by its banality. Appalled at my failure to muster a sufficiently volcanic response to this latest confirmation of the planet’s degradation and the suffering of the global poor. I think I should be. I definitely should be. Maybe. In any case, my waffling—the fact that my impulse is to point to established demands on my time (I have a job! I have a family!)—only goes to show that inertia remains for me a hard addiction to kick. I suspect the same is true of many whose circumstances resemble mine. For inertia doesn’t require much, after all. It never does. All it needs, really, is the unthinking expectation, tempered by time and factors like class, geography, and race, that the world will go on as it ever has.

For some, going on as it ever has means the blithe anticipation of a world like the one they think their parents knew—a world punctuated by comfortably mortgaged houses, two point five kids, steady raises, and, at the end of it all, fully matured 401(k)s. Meanwhile, for others—for me, on most days—inertia means the expectation of a world still bleaker than the one we know. This world has at least the pyrrhic comfort of being realistically dystopian; here our billionaires still ride space cocks into orbit and launch satellites for the express purpose of beaming advertisements back to Earth. But it’s still a world mediated by spectacle—a world to be watched, only, or if not merely watched, then watched and commented on by ivory-tower humanists and expert Twitterers armed with their acerbic wit.

Either way, it’s the same result. A person at rest tends to stay at rest. A climate in motion stays in motion.

So it’s not without reason that Debra Rienstra, in her blog post on the IPCC’s report, “worr[ies] about our capacity to care enough, about each other and this earth, to manage the changes we need.” Nor is it without reason that Frederic Jameson’s diagnosis of contemporary culture—“it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”—has been enjoying a resurgence among some leftists. In the belly of the US capitalist beast, where even after the IPCC report Democrats are still voting in favor of fracking, we’re getting a practical demonstration not just of a failure of political imagination. We’re seeing, in real time, a refusal of political imagination.

I don’t want to end on a hopeless note. I shouldn’t end on a hopeless note. So for readers interested in practical next steps, I’ll link you again to Rienstra’s post. But for the rest, I want to return to the Le Guin story I mentioned, the one I lesson-planned for my high-school tutee. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a classic of the utopian/dystopian genre. In just a few pages, it offers a sketch of a perfect society—perfect, that is, except that the vast wealth and happiness of the city of Omelas depends on the suffering of one poor, neglected child.

It’s a story that, in the eyes of lefties like me, would appear to offer a perfect metaphor for life under capitalism and imperialism: for some to prosper under the extractive, profit-driven motives of a capitalist and imperialist state, those deemed expendable must be made to suffer. Thus, the only ethical response is, it seems, absolute refusal, which here means walking away. But easily (if not as easily), conservatives might retort: well, actually, Le Guin’s story is a case study in the dangers of utopian desire. The impulse to make the world a better place—this world, the world where the planet is warming, where people are dying—is always and inevitably a failed enterprise. Better just, as most of Le Guin’s characters do, “to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.”

One of these readings, I think, is more responsible than the other. But both, I’d argue, ultimately miss the point. Self-conscious and self-reflexive to the extreme, Le Guin’s story is less about one child “snivelling in the dark” than it is, finally, about the contingent limits on our own capacity to imagine a better future for ourselves. “Do you accept the festival,” Le Guin writes, “the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

We stand, all of us, on a precipice—a precipice, that is, but also not. The already–not yet of climate catastrophe is here. It has been here. So it’s on us now—collectively, not individually—to imagine, to desire, and to decide how we’ll respond.

1 Comment

  1. Alex Johnson

    If you haven’t already read it, I think you’d resonate with Sigal Samuel’s article in Vox: “It’s Hard To Be A Moral Person. Technology Is Making It Harder.”

    I’m unsure what to say to your last point. I think you’re right that those dreams are essential to the survival of the human race. I’m not sure how to teach people to dream when they seem to amount to nothing. I’ll keep pondering.


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