Category Archives: Climate Change

Thinking about Gaia

Image of Earth from spaceIn this month of Earth Day and marching for science and climate, I’m thinking about Gaia.

A hashtag popped up on Twitter last week: #ifonlytheearthcouldspeak. Yes! That’s a good prompt to contemplate right now. The hashtag elicited a range of responses from funny and snarky to thoughtful and earnest. Some tweeters suggested that the earth is speaking, but we’re not listening. Would that be Gaia? The environmental scientist James Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, proposing that the Earth could be seen as one vast living and self-regulating system, and naming it for Gaia, the primordial Greek Earth goddess. The idea has been borne out since then, but its popularity may owe a lot to Lovelock’s naming it for the Greek Mother Earth, thus connecting it in our minds to the much earlier and long-lived human sense of the earth as a living force.

In the last week, the earth’s atmosphere reached an ominous new milestone: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels broke past 410 parts per million, after hitting 400 parts per million in 2013. The last time atmospheric carbon concentrations were this high was in the Middle Pliocene, 3.6 million years ago. Our continuing to pump carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, combined with the unknown effects of climate feedback, are cause for alarm. For those of us who don’t deny the facts, it’s a scary time. I’ll be at the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. in a few days, one of the hundreds of thousands of people needing to bear witness to the urgency of this moment.

But are facts enough to rally people to action? You can’t see carbon concentrations, and even though the earth is now experiencing changes that are much faster than the normal geological time scale, these changes are often too slow, too big, or too abstract for us to easily take in. As author Kim Stanley Robinson has said, “Fiction can tell us how new situations will feel, and also, what things mean.” Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, set in a partially submerged future New York, is one of several just-published works of climate fiction (cli-fi), the emerging genre that invites us to picture the human consequences of climate change. Robinson offers a vision of people muddling along and making their lives in the Venice-like canals of New York, both coping with the disasters that have occurred and aware there may be worse ahead.

But where is Gaia in this future? If Earth can be seen as a living thing, couldn’t we also benefit from trying to take its perspective—as different from ours as it may be? Science fiction has gone there already. Apparently inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, Isaac Asimov included a newly discovered, sentient planet named Gaia in his 1982 novel Foundation’s Edge. And Piers Anthony made “Gaea” a main character—an archetype of the Earth, embodied in a mortal—in Becoming a Green Mother (1988), part of his Incarnations of Immortality series.

The Book of Joan, an ambitious novel by Lidia Yuknavitch, just out this month, offers a character who is empathically connected with the Earth. Living only a few decades into the future, the visionary child-woman Joan of Dirt leads a rebellion among the survivors of an environmentally ravaged earth who are now living on an orbiting space-station sanctuary ruled by a billionaire dictator. This Joan of Arc for a nightmare future can manifest volcanic eruptions—her symbiosis with the planet allows it a form of expression that can’t be ignored. It’s a risky novel, also taking on issues of gender, sex and race, and it’s on my to-be-read list.

These and other cli-fi novels do a great service by bringing the human consequences of climate change into vivid focus, at a human scale we can reckon with. If they tend to be dystopian, that is the kind of future that seems to be staring us in the face, given the forces we have already set in motion.

The Earth is speaking to us now, in her own language, not just through beautiful sunsets, but through rising sea levels, droughts, and strange weather patterns. Of course we need to be able to imagine the human costs of climate change. That’s how we think, and it is the most promising way toward changes in policy. But I also feel the need to see things from Gaia’s point of view—even if it means facing eruptions of traumatic scale and strength. What may be dystopian for us, may just be a cloudy afternoon for our long-lived planet. We desperately need to de-objectify the earth, and to try to reengage in something more like an “I–Thou” relationship with Gaia—not of equals, but in respect, and awe and wonder. I hope more writers will take up the challenge of imagining what she is saying, and might be saying in the future.




Grieving for a whole planet From Princess Leia to Doris Lessing

Frozen PlanetWhen I saw the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, I couldn’t get past that moment when Princess Leia sees her home planet, Alderaan, blown up by the Empire. We didn’t even get to see her reaction shot—the first response to this planetary destruction is voiced by Obi Wan Kenobi, saying he feels a “great disturbance in the force.” How does Leia cope with this devastating loss? We never learn,  since after that she moves right into warrior mode.

Star Wars is great popular entertainment, of course. And it’s part of a long line of sci-fi stories featuring a planet that explodes or is otherwise destroyed by nuclear or environmental disaster, from the dying planet Krypton to an Earth frozen by ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. 

At another end of the spectrum, there’s a novel by Doris Lessing that has stuck with me since I read it, for its unrelenting deep dive into the feelings of a community as it experiences the death of its world. The Making of the Representative from Planet Eight (1982) is the fourth in Lessing’s five-novel series of science fiction novels, Canopus in Argos. It’s a quick but intense read, told in a voice that evokes folk tales or Scripture. (Lessing later adapted the novel as an opera with music by Philip Glass.)

We’re led through the story by Doeg, who lives on the peaceful, prosperous and temperate Planet Eight, part of the Canopus system. A mysterious cosmic realignment causes the global climate to shift, with blizzards causing a buildup of snow and ice—a swiftly cataclysmic, planet-wide Ice Age. Doeg, whose vocation is Memory Maker and Keeper of Records, reports on his own and others’ avalanche of emotional responses as everything about their previous life slips away.

In one poignant moment, the leaders stage a ceremony to help people accept part of their new reality: they now have to fish in their sacred lake for sustenance, a practice that has always been taboo. Standing on the shore, the community watches as a few people row out to demonstrate how it’s done. The sight of this is too much: “A groan or cry came out from the crowds, and this sound, which had been pressed out of us, frightened us all.”

In the end, there’s no escape—all life on the planet is extinguished. Doeg and a few others only survive in disembodied form, as a collective “representative” to the Canopic system. Their transformation reflects Lessing’s study of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Through that lens, the story can be seen as an allegory of the soul leaving behind the physical body (the “world” in which the individual lives). Lessing also pointed to another source for the story, in her lifelong fascination with the doomed British Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott from 1910-1913.

Now, several decades after it first appeared, and as we move further into our global climate crisis, it’s hard not to read the novel as a stark and cogent allegory of climate change—an early entrant in the growing genre of climate fiction, or Cli-Fi, as it’s been called by journalist Dan Bloom and others. Lessing didn’t talk about this aspect of the work, although she later revisited themes of ecological and cultural collapse in her two “Mara and Dann” novels, set in a far-future Africa.

Wrapping your mind around such a massive phenomenon is hard, especially when it looms over your own life, let alone the lives of your descendants. It is much easier to deny something like climate change while evidence of it builds around you, than to attempt to engage with the scope of what’s happening. But in the moment we find ourselves in now, we also need to learn to stretch our capacity to feel, and express, the worst that could happen, like the people beside the lake on Planet Eight.


Talking with Diane Burko on art and climate change

Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015
Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015

My conversation with climate artist Diane Burko has just been posted on Creative Disturbance, a podcasting platform for dialogue among artists and scientists on sustainability and environmental issues. We’re happy to join others on their Art & Earth Sciences channel, shining different lights on urgent issues relating to climate change—especially this week, as the international community gathers in Paris with the goal of reaching a universal agreement to slow global warming.

Here’s the link:

In the podcast, we talk about how Diane made the transition from painter of large-scale landscapes to an artist/advocate who has traveled to the Arctic and Antarctic, witnessing and documenting the loss of glaciers; and how she tries to convey the scale of climate change through her paintings and photographs, making her work a kind of bridge between scientists and the rest of us. In this painting, for instance, she has overlaid a sky-view image of the Eagle Glacier in Alaska with recession lines, brightly marking the retreat of the ice over 30-some years.

For more about Diane and her work:



Got Climate Change?

CM Diane my sign
Diane Burko holding my sign

I was one of the 300,000-plus people in the People’s Climate March in New York on September 21 – and like many others there, it had been a long time since I joined a march. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of a big crowd, all sharing a growing feeling of alarm over patterns of climate change, and deep dismay over patterns of denial among those who could and/or should know better.

The low clouds held back except for a brief spatter of rain, and the mood held too: a lovely parade buoyancy, and a palpable excitement at being part of a visible expression of something we all cared about. I went on one of dozens of buses from Philadelphia organized by, carrying my handmade sign, saying WAKE UP. My partner for the day was Diane Burko, an artist who has been making powerful paintings and photographs documenting the melting of glaciers and other effects of climate change. Diane has traveled to the Arctic Circle, Greenland, and Antarctica, and to scientific conferences to speak about her work.

CM give bees a chance
This group’s slogan was Give Bees a Chance

The parade had seven thematic groupings, starting with FRONTLINES OF CRISIS, FOREFRONT OF CHANGE and ending with the inclusive TO CHANGE EVERYTHING, WE NEED EVERYONE. Diane and I joined the group behind the banner THE DEBATE IS OVER, whose float was a giant rolling blackboard with drawings charting rising CO2 and ocean temperatures. We were surrounded by scientists—old and young, men and women, of many backgrounds, and many with their children—representing fields from geology to psychoanalysis.

Because the turnout was so much higher then expected – estimates had been around 100,000 beforehand – the street backed up with participants, and those of us in the back stood for several hours before actually marching. Pizzas were delivered, snacks and water were shared. Finally, we set off down Central Park West, walking with people who had lost homes to Katrina and Sandy, young activists, old activists, dignitaries, working people, stilt walkers, musicians, people representing Pacific island nations whose very land is in danger of disappearing under rising seas.

Giant puppet of Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty in rising waters, wearing a life jacket

The parade ended at 11th Avenue, near the Hudson River. It’s not far from here, I realized, that a scene takes place toward the end of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. In Egan’s brilliant vision of the ways we are changed by technology and other forces, climate change has become part of the background of city life: a few decades from now, on a warm day in February, a young family gathers with others on the ramparts of the giant sea wall that’s been built to keep the rising waters out of New York. Climbing up to watch the sunset from there has become a new tradition, since the view has been blocked out by the wall.

What will we have to face as a result of the climate change that has already been set in motion? People whose cities have the resources to build sea walls will be the lucky ones. We need to acknowledge what scientists are telling us, and we need help from artists and others to visualize what’s happening now, and to imagine what’s in store. We need to wake up.