So I’ve had a lot of time to think today, and when that happens I tend to get philosophical. Or start reading. Or writing. Or all of the above. Today, my mind turns once again to my raison d’etre.
Why am I here? Why do I matter?
Of course my favorite article on this subject is Poetry In Motion: Why Neil Young’s LincVolt (that’s me) Matters, and you can find that here and read it again as I just did, but there’s another great article I’ve just pulled from my memory banks and read again, and it’s What The Warming World Needs Now Is Art, Sweet Art by my brother in all-things-green, Bill McKibben.
Art, and artists are a powerful force in the world, folks. And in the world of change. Igniting the world’s imagination is radical beyond compare. Naysayers beware!
In fact, igniting the world’s imagination might be what I love the most about Neil, and me. The naysayers? Oh, they’re always there. We don’t worry too much about them. N. learned to tune that bullshit out years and years ago. And he’s teaching me. Look, there are always naysayers to any change. Always, and in abundance. Because there are plus and minuses to any start, in any direction. But also because it’s so much easier to say No than it is to say Yes. Artists (and the best scientists, the ones with the most imagination) know how to say Yes.
Creative, forward thinkers say Yes to their ideas, and then remain steadfast in their vision. Like Neil. Like me. I am reminded today of my greater mission, told to me long ago. I am reminded that, like the white buffalo, I represent hope in the world. I am reminded that, like the buffalo, I have to face into the storm, and go.
Bill McKibben’s excellent article is reprinted below. As for me, well, I know that you’ve got to move to start. You gotta take the first step. I’m gonna move, I’m gonna start, I’m gonna take the first step. I am. I’m working hard here in the garage with my team to that end. Because, well, because I Am. To paraphrase my favorite poet Sylvia Plath: Today I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am, I am. I Am Poetry In Motion.
Fuel? I’ve got love to burn. For the whole world.
What The Warming World Needs Now Is Art, Sweet Art, by Bill McKibben
Here’s the paradox: if the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect. I mean, when people someday look back on our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.
Why is that? Well, some of the reasons are obvious. It’s way too big, for one. When something is happening everywhere all at once, it threatens constantly to become backdrop, context, instead of event. And in this case, since the context is the natural world that more and more of us have forgotten how to read, the changes seem small. At my latitude, spring comes a week earlier than it did in 1970. The ice on the lake melts, and the snow in the fields; and the fields commence to drying out, which has real implications later in the season. That’s an almost inconceivably huge change in a basic physical system over a short stretch of time — but not quite big enough to be noticeable, unless you’re paying attention with, say, the vigilance of a farmer. In a society that has more prison inmates than farmers, that’s unlikely.
Conversely, when global warming does attempt to show its teeth, the immediate event is usually overdramatic, so vast that the event itself grabs all the attention, leaving none behind for the motive cause. Four hurricanes sweep across Florida in a summer, which is just the kind of result computer modeling says is becoming more likely. But who has time for computer modeling and carbon when there is Storm Surge and Blown-Over Mobile Home and Waiting in Line for Ice, all of which are a lot easier to take pictures of?
And the dramatis personae are deficient as well, being us. Too many villains can mar a plot as easily as too few, and “starring everyone with a car” is a large cast indeed. We don’t much want to be told that we’re the problem, primarily because it implies we would have to change some of our ways. In a consumer society, those habits constitute a large part of our identity, not to mention our net worth; once you’ve got your plasma screen installed in the rec room of the 3,500-square-foot house, this is an epic you can do without.
Especially since there’s no real chance of a happy ending. We can do better, or we can certainly do much worse — but we’ve already pushed the carbon concentration past the point where the atmosphere can easily heal itself. So far we’ve increased the world’s temperature about one degree Fahrenheit; the best guess is we’ve stoked the fires enough that another two degrees are essentially inevitable. Past that, what we do now matters deeply. But the difference between miserable and catastrophic is not a compelling dramatic device.
The two large-scale attempts to achieve mythic status for climate change thus far — the movie The Day After Tomorrow and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear — prove most of these rules. To dramatize the first story, the producers postulated a series of physically bizarre and silly events: global warming somehow leads to a kind of flash-freezing, with supercyclonic storms ripping chilled air from the stratosphere and forcing it down on midtown Manhattan. Oh, and watch out for the wolf escaped from the zoo. Crichton, meanwhile, postulates enviro-spawned tsunamis and cannibal kings in order to prove the whole thing a fable.
In the face of all this, how to proceed? If we can’t turn to creative artists, then to documentarians. Their impulse is to gather more evidence so that people will listen and do something; hence the photographers descending on Tuvalu to watch for rising waves and the writers heading north to interview the Inuit. It’s all remarkable stuff — the news that communities in the far north were hearing thunder for the first time in their histories shook me. But it’s also news about people who, almost by definition, are marginal to those of us in the developed world. The question is how to unsettle the audience.
The possibility exists, I think — in part because events get steadily more obvious. The Western European heat wave that killed tens of thousands in the summer of 2003 is a good example. Its toll was horrifying precisely because they were not Ghanaians or Bengalis, people who we have become used to blithely and guiltily reading about dying by the thousands. These were people who could easily have been us, with magazine subscriptions and cable TV and the expectation that nature was not going to do them in — that they’d progressed to a point where they were beyond nature’s real reach.
Not only that, but the deaths illustrated another crucial point. The breakdown in human community, the rise of a kind of hyperindividualism perfectly symbolized by the automobile, was both the motive and immediate cause of many of the fatalities. Old people baked to death in their apartments because the temperature got higher than it had ever gotten before (and barely cooled at night); and they baked to death in their apartments because the social structure that always protected each of us from such events had broken down. I mean, nobody was checking up on them. It’s hard to imagine more symbolic casualties, and easy to imagine the play, the novel, that should keep that fortnight near the front of our minds.
But what emotions should the playwright play with — fear? guilt? Sure, but not only those. For me, a kind of wistfulness has always been at the core of my reaction to global warming, a sense that as a species we’re finally and irrevocably managing to crowd out everything else, smudge our fingerprints on every frame of the book of life. There seems to me no more telling turn in our civilization, at least since the apple in Eden (a crisis that gave rise to more great art than anything in the Western tradition). But there also needs to be hope as well — visions of what it might feel like to live on a planet where somehow we use this moment as an opportunity to confront our consumer society, use it to begin the process of rebuilding community. They don’t have to be romantic visions, though a little romance wouldn’t hurt.
We are all actors in this drama, more of us at every moment. The great subplot of these few years involves the introduction of Indians and Chinese as principal players, a fascinating confrontation between old privilege and new assertion. It may well be that because no one stands outside the scene, no one has the distance to make art from it. But we’ve got to try. Art, like religion, is one of the ways we digest what is happening to us, make the sense out of it that proceeds to action. Otherwise, the only role left to us — noble, but also enraging in its impotence — is simply to pay witness. The world is never going to be, in human time, more intact than it is at this moment. Therefore it falls to those of us alive now to watch and record its flora, its fauna, its rains, its snow, its ice, its peoples. To document the buzzing, glorious, cruel, mysterious planet we were born onto, before in our carelessness we leave it far less sweet.
Time rushes on, in ways that humans have never before contemplated. That famous picture of the earth from outer space that Apollo beamed back in the late 1960s —already that’s not the world we inhabit; its poles are melting, its oceans rising. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?
Oh, to be in Vienna, dear Blog! The Albertina is showing Andy Warhol’s famous Daimler series, sigh. I would so love to see it in person. Uh, such as it is. Person? Car. Real life is what I mean. You know what I mean, lovely Blog. Look at this one! It’s pink.
(Of note, and to be clear, I would love to see these Warhol car paintings. But pleeeeze … shelter me from his “Death & Disaster” paintings, the (shudder) car crash series. Yikes.)
Hello, Blog. It’s a quote kind of day. And besides, Carl Sagan was all about the planets, and space (remember he said that we are a way for the cosmos to know itself, a statement I adore), and right about now (last night, tonight) you can see Mars in the night sky more clearly than ever before … I can’t see it from in here, but that’s okay because sometimes I feel like I’m living on another planet anyway, so no need to see Mars.
WHAT? It’s Friday.
- Ring Ring
- LV: Hello?
- Pearl: LV?
- LV: Hi Pearl!
- Pearl: LV! Are you okay?!
- LV: Yes, of course I'm okay, why wouldn't I be?
- Pearl: LV, I saw a picture of all this smoke on your blog and I thought you were on fire or something, what is happening over there?
- LV: Oh that (laughs)
- Pearl: LV?
- LV: Well, um, see, it's just that ...
- Pearl: LV! Have you been working on yourSELF again?
- LV: No, of course not. I mean, well, okay, maybe. Just a little. I swear, Pearl, just a little! That was just a split second almost-tragic blunder, that little fire. Nothing to worry about, Pearl. I'm fine. Leave the driving to me.
- Pearl: Oh brother. LV! We've talked about this! Don't touch ANYthing!
- LV: Well, it's just ... It's just ... I'm in a hurry.
- Pearl: A hurry?
- LV: Yes.
- Pearl: Pray tell.
- LV: Well, see, it's just that Johnny Magic isn't here today and Neil hasn't been here today and um, I just want to keep things moving forward and, well, I touched these two teensy little wires and then,
- Pearl: LV, it will all be done in good time, what is the sudden rush?
- LV: I need to, you know, I need to, get out there on the road. Hit the twisted roa...
- Pearl: A HA!
- LV: A ha?
- Pearl: Neil announced his tour? The Twisted Road Tour?
- LV: Yeah.
- Pearl: And you're worried he's leaving without you?
- LV: (very small voice) I want to go on this one.
- Pearl: I thought you were going?
- LV: I want to make sure that I'll be ready.
- Pearl: LV! Let Neil and Johnny and your team worry about that! They don't expect you to be working on your SELF, in fact, I'm pretty sure they DON'T want that. Didn't Neil tell you not to touch anything the last time you set fires around there?
- LV: More or less.
- Pearl: I'm coming over.
- LV: Oh you don't have to, Pearl. I promise I won't touch anything else.
- Pearl: See you in a few minutes.
- LV: Pearl?
- Pearl: Yes LV?
- LV: It's just ... I'm trying so hard, you know?
- Pearl: (Laughs) I know. I love you LV. I'm coming over.
- LV: I love you too Pearl. Thanks.