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 cal­cu­lat­ed destruc­tion is voiced by Obi Wan Keno­bi, say­ing he feels a “great dis­tur­bance in the force.” It’s hard to know how Leia feels about this dev­as­tat­ing event, since she moves right into war­rior mode and doesn’t men­tion it again.

Star Wars is great pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment, of course, and it isn’t the only sci-fi sto­ry to fea­ture an explod­ing plan­et, or one that’s destroyed by nuclear or envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, from Superman’s home plan­et of Kryp­ton to the casu­al destruc­tion of Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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 con­sci­en­tious­ly on his own and oth­ers’ emo­tion­al avalanche 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 the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tions and ecolo­gies in her two “Mara and Dann” nov­els, set in a far-future Africa.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around such a mas­sive phe­nom­e­non, espe­cial­ly as 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 its real­i­ty. 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.