The Climate in Emergency

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

The Longest Day of the Year

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Today is the summer solstice. Right around the time I post this, actually (12:24 PM, Eastern Daylight Time), the Earth will reach the point in its orbit when the North Pole points most directly at the sun. If you were standing at the North Pole, you would see the sun make a complete circuit of the sky, without dipping noticeably towards the horizon at any point (though in fact it must dip because the Pole never points directly at the sun). At lower latitudes like mine, we get the longest day of the year*.

Fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes at my latitude, not counting twilight.

The winter solstice, in December, gets more attention. I have written about it here, myself. There are songs and lights and stories and a big fuss generally made, but there is an absence of fuss today. It’s a curious thing, and it’s not because there are just more holidays in December. The winter solstice gets Yule (on the solstice itself), Christmas, Hanukkah, and several others. The summer solstice gets Litha (on the solstice), St. John’s Day (on the 24th), Juneteenth, Father’s Day–this year, Laylat al-Qadr also falls around now, although the Muslim calendar moves with respect to the Gregorian calendar of the secular world. And yet who can quickly articulate the transcultural themes of this solstice?

The problem, I suspect, is that while the winter solstice lends itself to celebrations of hope and renewal (the return of the light), at the summer solstice, the light is about to start going way. This day reminds us that all good things are temporary, all triumphs limited, all joy shadowed by the eventuality of loss. It’s just not an appealing source of metaphor.

And yet.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, one of my favorite books of all time. It is generally marketed to children, but I think that is because reading it first in childhood gives you the best opportunity to have the time to read it the 257 times (at least) necessary to fully understand everything in its slim and deceptively simple pages. I am hardly the only one to see depths in this book, and I’ve talked about her work at length in this blog.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of a series of six books (five novels and a collection of short stories). Structurally, these look to be two interlocking trilogies, rather than a sextet, since the first three differ radically in theme and mood from the latter three. The third book, the culmination of the first trilogy, most fully explores the idea introduced by the epigraph I’ve quoted–that life and death are reciprocal and inextricable. As I wrote in a previous post:

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?

Ms. LeGuin may not have intended to write about climate change–but given the depth of her subject matter, it’s fair to say her topic included environmental issues, and she clearly knew about climate change at the time she wrote it, because she described the concept in a novel published three years earlier.

To avoid environmental disaster, we must accept and respect limits. Not that sustainability involves everybody “freezing to death in the dark,” the straw-man attacked by some, nor does it really involve accepting any greater limits than any other lifestyle does–the limits are real, and we run up against them no matter how we live. But the pro-industrial, fossil-fuel dependent way of life to which many of us have become accustomed is predicated on the assumption that all limits can be transcended, so that if going after what we want creates problems, we assume that if we pursue our desires harder, those problems, too, will be solved. And that isn’t how the world works.

Acknowledging limitation allows us to make intelligent choices about how we will use the resources we actually have. Since we must bear some cost, let’s live our lives in such a way that it is a cost we can bear with a clear conscience, not something we must pretend does not exist, or something we’d rather shunt off to be borne by the people of some other country, ethnic group, generation, or species. Since the long days of summer are few, this solstice tells us, let us choose to spend them outside playing in sprinklers, or sitting in the shade with a cool drink.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

 

*Of course, I live in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, and the summer solstice occurs in December.

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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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