Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An article in today’s New York Times on a United Nations meeting on climate change makes apparent the incommensurability of weather and climate. The Times reports that relatively stable temperatures during the past ten years have, for many, tempered the urgency of the climate crisis. Those who question theories of human influenced climate change are citing stabilizing temperatures as proof that there’s no reason to panic (and no reason to alter human behavior). (The Times names this group “climate skeptics.” Perhaps this is their own, self-applied label, but it seems off-key to me. Does this group question the existence of climate? Are they “climate deniers”?) But as the article explains, citing climate and ocean scientist Mojib Latif, “normal variation in climate” and “the long-term threat of global warming” can, and do, occur at once. It may be a beautiful day in New Orleans, but the big picture is just as dire as it was when Hurricane Katrina made landfall just over four years ago. It’s not that weather and climate have nothing to do with one another. Rather their relationship is incommensurate; weather does not act like the symptom we assume it to be. In this respect weather makes a poor advocate for environmental action. Unlike ruined landscapes and dwindling species, the weather as often as not seems to be doing just fine—just when we need it to demonstrate that things aren’t going well. “[S]ocial scientists who study how people understand and respond to environmental problems say it is not surprising that the current temperature stability has created confusion and apathy,” the Times reports. “Getting people to care about a climate threat that is decades away is hard enough, they say, without adding in the vagaries of natural climate cycles. At best, said Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, global warming remains an abstraction for many people. ‘It does not have the direct visual or emotive impact of seeing seabirds covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill,’ he said.”
If “vagaries” make it hard to “care” about climate, then we are surely in trouble, for “vagaries” and “weather” are inextricable. (My computer’s dictionary, for one, illustrates the meaning of “vagary” with the phrase “the vagaries of the weather.”) As weather is weather, so it changes continually and unaccountably. Lisa Robertson, in her essay “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity” (linked in my previous post), quotes the nineteenth century cloud enthusiast Thomas Ignatius Forster, whose “rhythmically paratactic prolixity,” she observes, mirrors an “object of description itself in a state of constant transformation.” Of the Cirrus formation, Forster writes:
Comoid tufts, like bushes of hair, or sometimes like erected feathers; angular flexure; streaks; recticular intersections of them … which look like nets thrown over the firmament; forms of arrows; stars with long fibrous tails, cyphen shaped curves, and lines with pendulous or with erect fringes, ornament the sky; still different appearances of stars and waves again appear, as these clouds change to cirrocumulus or cirrostratus, which modifications also seem to form and subside spontaneously, in different planes, and with the varied and dissimilar appearances of flocks at rest, fleeces of wool, or myriads of small specks; of long tapering columns like the tail of the great manis, or of mackeral back skies, or of striae, like the grains of wood.
Forster’s description is caught up not only in his clouds’ suggestive resemblances but in their “process of transmutation,” expressed as “a series of phrasal modifications” (Robertson). Weather changes; but its changes are of a different sort from the “change” of climate change, at least as it is popularly understood (a change for the worse, an inexorable deterioration). As I have suggested in previous posts, weather is essentially disproportionate, or out of scale. This makes it a troubled synecdoche for climate, and especially for climate crisis, which suffers from its own problems of proportion. In “Towards a Deconstructive Environmental Criticism,” David Clark points out the scalar leap inherent to contemporary “environmental awareness,” whereby Bill McKibben can describe “the nation consigning itself to oblivion through the use of underarm deodorants” (47). Deodorant and other “minor” pollutants bear an uncertain relation to “oblivion,” an “optional” apocalypse whose character, extent, and date of arrival remain uncertain. Such an event does not unfold “in front of us”; it occurs to the side, as a “side effect” (rather than a symptom), the unintended consequence of one practice or another. One might even argue that it has already happened. (“[A] collapse into each other of imminence and immanence,” as Clark describes it [54].)
Clark cites David Wood’s description of a globalized “loss of externality,” and adds that “the future” is also no longer external to the present, the latter now “more and more a realm of inherited and accumulating accidents, after-effects and long term repercussions” (48). Appreciating the “rationally predictable but often extremely alarming” future immanent in the present requires “what Freud called nachtr├Ąglich” or “anticipating now that ‘delayed action’ whereby something unnoticed or ordinary at one time may later emerge, in retrospect … as traumatic—or as ‘having been “traumatic,”’ for the time of the traumatic event is not locatable on any linear series.” Such an outlook threatens to induce a kind of scalar collapse, for “[v]iewed in terms of the deceptive rationality and scale of day to day life, environmental activists remain condemned ‘to get everything out of perspective,’ seeming to veer between a general priggishness about trivialities and an empty apocalypticism” (57). In other words, to recognize the present as having (already) been an after- or side effect is a perspective “out of perspective.” Environmentalism’s “empty apocalypticism” frequently lands it in trouble; that no one can say when or how “it” will happen robs it of all urgency—hence the “confusion and apathy” mentioned in the Times article.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I like this passage from Jonathan Ames' "The Eleventh Commandment," published in Cabinet Magazine's 3rd issue, "The Weather," which came out in summer of 2001. I'm attracted to it in part because Ames' father and my own father share a predilection for dire weather reports; happily, my father's case is considerably milder than the elder Ames'. 
My father had a tremendous respect and terror for all things meteorological. He was a traveling salesman of textile chemicals and his livelihood depended on his ability to navigate, like a sailor but in a car, the roadways of the Eastern Corridor. Naturally, weather conditions were very important to him. So each night before retiring and then first thing in the morning upon awakening, he would listen to his special mustard-colored weather-radio. The thing was the size of a paperback novel and it possessed a twelve-inch antenna. It had no dials, you simply pressed a button and out came this staticky, nonsensical ticker-tape of weather conditions, read most likely by some rotating shift of prisoners at the white-collar federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

I make this conjecture because no person of their own volition could possibly want to read a weather report non-stop for hours at a time. Clearly, it was a depressing job—one could hardly understand what the announcer was saying, the voice was always so deadpan and defeated, though my father was enraptured by these broadcasts and would sit on the edge of his bed in an attentive stupor. I can tell you it wasn’t healthy for the young me to see my father like that all the time—children of alcoholics will appreciate, I believe, this kind of early wounding.

So because of his brainwashing at the hands of this weather-radio, my father, with great foreboding in his voice, would make announcements to the family, like, “It’s going to rain on Thursday!” This kind of thing would usually be stated on a Monday, and I—a mere child of four or five—would be frightfully agitated until that rainfall occurred three days later, by which time I would have learned from my father that “Temperatures are going to drop on Sunday!” There was never a calm moment. I grew up in a constant state of atmospheric peril. The women were telling me to cover my head and my father was telling me that the sky was falling. It did make for a nice synergy, though. It’s called anxiety.

So mine was clearly a sheltered upbringing. I didn’t know until I was in college that people drove in the rain. And even in the snow! To me, this was a revelation, and I became rather rebellious. My freshman year at Princeton, I purposely would go motoring at night during snow flurries. “I am not my father’s son!” I would think triumphantly, as the snowflakes fell like white stars from the black sky.

One night, though, during some heavy flurries (I wasn’t so rebellious that I’d go out in an actual storm), I did skid and damaged a parked car. I tried to escape, but was spotted by a man walking his dog. In snow flurries! He was obviously a hardy gentile. Police were involved. It cost me a lot of money in fines and reparations. So it just goes to show you that the sins of the father are visited on the sons. If I hadn’t been trying so hard not to be fearful like my dad, I wouldn’t have scratched that poor innocent parked car.

And I am still in a state of rebellion against my father. Whenever I go home for a visit (traveling by train from New York to New Jersey), I’ll call a few days beforehand, and I will say to my dad, “I’ll be home on Friday and head back Sunday.”

“They’re calling for freezing rain on Saturday,” he’ll say, with the utmost gravity, even though my travel days—by train!—are Friday and Sunday. But in his mind, damaged by that radio of his, any bad weather within 24 hours of travel is to be feared.

“Well, let’s start worrying about it now,” I’ll say snidely, rebelliously, and things will be bad between us before I’m even home.

As in so many "sins of the father" narratives, the father's obsession visits horrors upon the son, horrors which the son perpetuates even after he has left his parents' house and is no longer subjected daily to his father's grim forecasts. That Ames compares his own subjection to the suffering endured by "children of alcoholics" suggests that weather obsession is the stuff of domestic tragedy. But the "atmospheric peril" that renews itself day by day echoes the parable with which Ames' piece begins, the story of Moses' lost "eleventh commandment." (To wit: "Wear a hat!") The threat of rain or falling temperatures, through the lens of young Ames' "anxiety," comes to resemble the ever-impending conflagration promised by a wrathful and temperamental Old Testament God. Which in a way it is, for the descendants of Adam and Eve, condemned to suffer the seasons and the weather. So maybe this is, quite simply, a "sins of the father" story. But I have to say that I find Ames' characterization rather unfair, even if his exaggerations are meant to amuse. The suggestion that "no person of their own volition would possibly want to read a weather report non-stop for hours at a time" belies the experience of, say, reading Kenneth Goldsmith's beguiling "poem" The Weather, or even the modest delight of discussing the weather at length with a pleasant stranger with whom, for one reason or another, one is stuck for a while (Lisa Robertson calls this "the rhetoric of sincerity"). What Ames describes as his father's "brainwashing" by weather radio might as easily be read as an involvement and delight in weather's vagaries. For all the dire certainty of statements like "Temperatures are going to drop on Sunday!" there is the very real possibility that it won't come true. I know that my weather conscious father, for one, finds some enjoyment in weather's departures from our expectations, and in simply paying attention to how it changes daily.