The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

On the Paris Climate Talks: A Literary Interlude

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First, my apologies for not posting yesterday; I sometimes have anxious or depressed episodes and they make it difficult to focus enough to work. This has not been a good week. Of course, if one is going to be anxious, this would be the week, given that the world’s leaders are discussing whether to avert the end of the world and at the same time the presumptive Republican front-runner for the US Presidential election is doing a really good imitation of Hitler. I don’t know whether the fact that I’m not crazy to feel like this makes me feel better or worse….

Anyway, we’re kind of waiting to see what comes out of Paris, although there is a petition to sign (please!) asking certain recalcitrant national leaders to quit dragging their feet on what really looks like a viable deal.

While we’re waiting, I’m thinking about a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore. Her writing is excellent, not just because it is extraordinary in terms of craft, but also because much of her fiction going back to the late 1960’s seem to imply an understanding of climate change. Her sci-fi books, set in the distant future, often have an overtly environmentalist message and refer to Earth having warmed significantly since our time. One, published in 1969, clearly describes the natural greenhouse effect (yes, there is one; what we’re causing is in addition to that) and repeatedly links environmental catastrophe specifically to industrial revolution. Her fantasy novels frequently address spiritual and magical themes that could be read as ecological principles. I don’t know if Ms. LeGuin actually knew about anthropogenic climate change in the late 1960’s, but it is possible; some scientists were beginning to investigate the matter, and of course the idea was first discussed in the nineteenth century.

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

All of this is simply to put the quote I’m thinking of in context–the quote that gives me some meaning and comfort as I wait to hear back from Paris. As the protagonists sail towards their meeting with the wizard, which either will save the world or won’t, one of them sleeps while the other keeps watch and thinks about the future.

…..They will praise me more for that in afterdays than anything I did of magery….If there are afterdays. For first we two must stand upon the balance-point, the very fulcrum of the world. And if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…. For a while, for a while. No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars….Oh, but I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, and the sunlight shining on the Tower of the Sword and on the Ring we brought for thee from Atuan, from the dark tombs, Tenar and I, before ever thou wast born!”

He’s right; no darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. The biosphere can recover from a major extinction–it takes ten million years, but it can do it, and has done it before. But there are things I should like to see, and so I hope for good news from Paris.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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