BOOK REPLIES/REVIEW (2014): Squarzoni, Whittington-Evans, & Hahnenberger’s (2014) Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science

3 October 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

When we hear that systemic racism, mass incarceration, global climate change, and the like “are” enormous problems and will take massive, system-wide intervention to address, for the lone individual this may often make him or her feel, “There’s nothing I can do.” And yet, to deny the possibility of doing anything provides exactly the precondition to allow these unacceptable human injustices to continue. As such, we see that “There’s nothing I can do” first and foremost serves the goal of white privilege and global capitalization, because the claim disempowers even the will to believe that we might take action to change things. We should not let ourselves get manipulated by this discourse in this way.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Squarzoni, Whittington-Evans, & Hahnenberger’s (2014)[2] Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science

A rough summary (from elsewhere) just to orient you to the book.

What are the causes and consequences of climate change? When the scale is so big, can an individual make any difference? Documentary, diary, and masterwork graphic novel, this up-to-date look at our planet and how we live on it explains what global warming is all about. With the most complicated concepts made clear in a feat of investigative journalism by artist Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed weaves together scientific research, extensive interviews with experts, and a call for action. Weighing the potential of some solutions and the false promises of others, this ground-breaking work provides a realistic, balanced view of the magnitude of the crisis that An Inconvenient Truth only touched on. Climate Changed is printed on FSC-certified paper from responsibly-managed, environmentally-sound sources.

This book covers a lot and Squarzoni and crew have crammed it full of information, in particular (1) breaking down the different kinds of greenhouse gasses and their relative contributions to warming, (2) discussing in a lot of detail the possible extent of average temperature rise over the planet in the upcoming century, and (3) the projected consequences of those rises in temperature.

As far as the first goes, it needs repeating that 97% of climate scientists concur that global warming has a human source. You might also know that only 41% of people in the U.S. “believe” global warming. A point needs making here. First, I don’t think even ONE qualified scientist exists who denies the on-going increase of planetary temperatures, so when we hear that 97% of climate scientists concur, they concur on the anthropogenic (human-caused) source of the current warming trends. Certainly, a good portion of the 59% who “don’t believe in global warming,” many (no doubt) think that scientists question the global rise of temperatures. No qualified scientist could possibly assert that.

To jump ahead briefly—or, rather, simply to skip any summary of the projected ranges of average temperature rise over the next century for now—one of the most significant climate justice points raised in the book centres on the 250 million people liable to displacement (from coastal cities) if this human-caused global warming continues. (Sixteen of the world’s twenty largest metropolises stand within the zone affected by the sea level rise associated with global warming.)

But who will give a shit (outside of those people who have their lives destroyed by industrial-world overconsumption)? In a recent article, Kilgore draws this point when stressing the links between climate justice and anti-mass incarceration work:

The vagaries of global climate change have hit the poor, especially from the global South. Spokespeople from African countries such as the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of over a thousand civil society organizations, are stepping up. Post-Haiyan, nurses unions from the Philippines are joining the fray. Women have also raised the gender dimensions of global climate justice. In its call on members to join the September 21 climate march in Manhattan, the International Alliance of Women stressed, “there can be no climate justice without gender justice.” They pointed out the importance of “acknowledging that women, particularly in the global South, have contributed the least to global warming and degradation of the planet and yet they suffer the most from environmental destruction and unsustainable consumption and production” (¶11, emphasis added).

One cannot seriously dispute this—not, at least, in terms of what climate science has established so far—but Squarzoni and crew also point out (offering a sort of climate version of “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”) how the temperate zone of the world (which includes the U.S. for now) may actually benefit from global warming, even as things gets even more unbearable elsewhere (i.e., particularly in Africa). I should probably repeat that: climate change may actually benefit (many parts of) the global North, while fucking over even harder (many places in) the global South. Taking this into account, that 59% don’t see global warming (much less see it as a problem) becomes that much more ominous for any sense of global justice.

The narrative woven through the book tracks Squarzoni’s personal struggle with the issue. At one point, he denies himself a trip to Laos (for a conference) that he really wanted to attend. But two years later, he makes excuses to himself and tries to mitigate the effects of his flying about. He gives voice to the notion that, unless everyone else in society also goes along with an individual who tries to make a personal change, then the gestures of personal change have no effect.

I have a further point to make about this, but I need to insert a point here. The notion that personal change has no effect doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. One cannot deny, if I personally make some anti-racist gesture over the course of my day, then systemic racism remains unchallenged at its structural levels. But modelling a change of behaviour to others does (or can) have an effect. It becomes very hard to believe that “it doesn’t make a difference” serves only as a polite fiction for quietism in the face of 250 million people being displaced from their homes around the world. To say “there’s nothing I can do” doesn’t serve any end of social justice, and it rests on a childishly adolescent notion (so it has a certain ring of nobility) that change ever happens “magically”. Just as buying a lottery ticket will make me rich, so I can fantasize that if I just throw this aluminium can in the recycle bin, then no one will drown in India. This foolish, almost petulant, notion of change throws out the baby with the bathwater; no one will believe change can happen if no one models belief in that change. So the observation that we must work for top-down structural change (while certainly true) does not mean, in the meantime, that personal action “makes no difference”. Why will anyone in the industrial world act toward such top-down change if “nothing I do matters”? Behind which lurks the fact that the global North believes (i.e., tells itself, as Squarzoni repeats and climate scientists assert) it will benefit (possibly!) from global warming. I want to repeat that: climate scientists assert, at least as part of their analysis of the situation, that the global North may benefit (possibly!) from global warming.

Thus, over the course of Squarzoni’s narrative, he depicts his struggle at trying to act like a good citizen of the world. But he still shows himself going back on his earlier commitment (not to fly in planes). And he specifically arrives at a point where his mate asks if he plans to end the book on a bummer-point he arrives at. He says he doesn’t, but the last frames show us his wife and him sitting in silence at their computers. He doesn’t refute the point; he doesn’t suggest either of them do anything vis-à-vis climate change, &c. And why should they? They live in a place liable to benefit from global climate change—even though something like 19,000 French people died in record-breaking summer temperatures.

In Kilgore’s article, he notes of both anti-mass incarceration and climate justice work: “The problems we face are systemic. They are not about changing a few laws or regulating a few bad apple corporations, be they oil companies or private corrections firms. The system has to change from top to bottom” (¶8). Michelle Alexander makes a similar point in her (2010)[3] The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; we must affect a total overhaul of the “system” from the top down. Klein (2011)[4] stresses this as well with respect to climate justice. However accurate, these calls for massive change will serve only as pious declarations if people not only fail to recognize their stake in the matter and generate the necessary political resistance to force such top-down change but also give up (or see in a new way) their self-interest that wants to let the present circumstance continue.

Simon (2014)[5] documents the legal vicissitudes that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court declaring the overcrowding in California’s prisons an Eighth Amendment violation, and particularly as against human dignity. By this stroke, California did, in fact, finally start to address mass incarceration, which Simon calls the worst domestic human rights violation in the United States since slavery. This represents a moment of “top-down” change; it represents leadership “from above”. IT demonstrates that, albeit slowly and with a lot of work, it remains possible to have the voice of the voiceless (human beings in prison) get heard by the highest court in the land, and prevail.

Certainly, these calls for massive top-down change, whatever they accomplish, will ultimately confront the 250 million (and more) being drowned around the world. Let Africa plummet into a fatal drought, and we may see mass migrations into Europe, just as those fucked over in the South Western hemisphere may have to head for higher ground. Along with a beady-eyed faith in technology to save us (by “us” I mean those in the global North; those in the global South will not generally have the financial resources to extricate themselves technologically) from our own anthropogenic global warming, the changes in climate will have unpredictable effects in our region. The current Ebola crisis in the US may come home to roost. Mosquito-borne illness may become far more prevalent as the swampier environment gives them and other disease vectors more energy to spread.

Kilgore, Klein, and Alexander (not to pick on them, but simply to keep citing them) all acknowledge that piece-meal attempts to address the justice issues they focus on only defer the problem, but we should never call such “Band-Aid” solutions pointless when they address real, human suffering right now. I don’t suggest—and they don’t propose—that this amounts to either/or, but we cannot proceed to carefully by making sure no one takes a call for systemic intervention as a call to sit down and “debate” the solution. Particularly for climate change, each moment of delay actively and further sets the stage for the unnecessary murder of people (through negligence).

Just as those privileged in the United States seem often unwilling or unable to acknowledge how they benefit from that (patriarchal) privilege, such that its banes go on fucking up their lives, similarly those in the global North seem often unwilling or unable to acknowledge how they benefit from climate injustice, such that the degradation of the ecology of their own lives goes on unchecked. People in the United States rank 105th in the world for happiness, and yet we go on imagining that things as they stand should not change in any significant way. Inasmuch as we participate daily in the humiliation of non-white people domestically, inasmuch as we realize (however dimly) that the human rights violations inflicted on others may come home to roost in our own lives at any moment, inasmuch as we recognize (however dimly) our complicity in the further destruction of Africa and the threatened annihilation of 250 million lives (or more) around the world, how can we possibly feel “happy” in that context. And facing these facts, however dimly, how can we feel happy when we get told (or realise, however dimly) “nothing I can do will make a difference.”

Squarzoni’s depiction of this hopelessness, while narratively “realistic” gets undermined by the fact of his book. I would read it as his attempt to embody a particular, familiar sentiment expressed by many people in the Occidental world, but a more cogent narrative would have given more than just his point of view. I don’t think he intends this, but both the support of his wife and how he frames the discourse (about climate change) presented by the climate scientists and economists all serve to support his quietism and the hopelessness embodied in the last frames that show his wife and him sitting uselessly at their (electricity-consuming) computers.

By contrast, I have faith that the rest of the world, suffering under the heel of sand-faced ostriches in the Occidental world, will organise (if only because they have no choice) in the face of this irresponsibly and inhuman applied suffering, and do something about it. Already, vast portions of the world reject the developmentalist framework that the Occidental world keeps pushing, even as the ethical and consequential effects of it get more and more amply documented.

I think of that moment in Schumacher’s (1993)[6] reactionary Falling Down, when the main character finally asks, “Am I the bad guy? When did I become the bad guy?”[7]

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Squarzoni, P., Whittington-Evans, N., & Hahnenberger, I. (2014). Climate changed: a personal journey through the science. New York: Abrams ComicArts, pp. i–vii, 1–480.

[3] Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

[4] Klein, N. (2011). Capitalism vs. the Climate. The Nation, 28, 11-21

[5] Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press

[6] Schumacher, J., Kopelson, A., Weingrod, H., Harris, T., Smith, E. R., Douglas, M., . . . Forrest, F. (1999). Falling down: Warner Home Video

[7] See also Davies, J. (1995). ’I’m the bad guy?’Falling down and white masculinity in 1990s Hollywood. Journal of Gender Studies, 4(2), 145–152.

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