N.Y. Times article today on scientific research into melting permafrost and escaping methane gas: “Preliminary computer analyses, made only recently, suggest that the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions could eventually become an annual source of carbon equal to 15 percent or so of today’s yearly emissions from human activities” (“As Permafrost Thaws, Scientists Study the Risks” by Justin Gillis, p. A16). The article goes on to say that the emissions may become an unstoppable source of warming over several centuries, and that an especially worrisome new development is the prevalence of wildfires in northern regions hitherto too moist and cold for them, a phenomenon that could promote more rapid thawing. I read all of this with something like impassivity, thinking: I have absolutely no idea how human life on earth is going to endure for the next couple of centuries.
I wonder, would my thinking be much different if I had direct biological descendants? I feel very sad for us–humans–but don’t I also entertain a sort of spiteful feeling towards the young–those who will really have to reckon with all of this disaster when I’m dead and gone? So many of them are relatively insouciant now in the pride of their strength (or so I imagine, but are they? I wasn’t)–and I can see what they can’t. Isn’t this a wicked sort of feeling to have? Possibly it’s just a world-historical version of what Age has always felt towards Youth, in light of the former’s awareness of physical frailty and generational evanescence.
I also read a Monthly Review article by John Bellamy Foster on the “conservation of catastrophe” under capitalism: “For [William] McNeill, who applied his ‘law’ to environmental crisis in particular, ‘catastrophe is the underside of the human condition–a price we pay for being able to alter natural balances and to transform the face of the earth through collective effort and the use of tools.’ The better we become at altering and supposedly controlling nature, he wrote, the more vulnerable human society becomes to catastrophes that ‘recur perpetually on an ever-increasing scale as our skills and knowledge grow.’ The potential for catastrophe is thus not only conserved, but it can be said to be cumulative, and reappears in an evermore colossal form in response to our growing transformation of the world around us” (Vol. 63 No. 7, p. 1).
Try to grasp, imaginatively, catastrophe as what occurs not “because” of our actions (the tragic fallacy, we might call this–would it were that simple), but because the interaction of the effects of our actions with other actions and processes cannot be controlled. Such a view does not rob the narrative terrain of character or a concept of agency, but it complicates them. A sense of complexity, grandeur of patterning, etc., might be transferred to the whole and away from the exemplary (artificially elevated) actions of a few characters.