Friday, 8 January 2010

Snow Laughing Matter

The photograph on the left is currently doing the rounds as an email forward, under the subject line "Hundreds gather to protest global warming." There's a laugh there, no doubt about it, and it comes from the disparity between the anticipation established by the subject line, and the presence of snowmen protesters in the image. For the visually attuned, the photo also echoes the sight of Antony Gormley's "Amazonian Field" of 1992. However, as the inclusion of the latter in the Royal Academy's "Earth: Art of a Changing World" exhibition suggests, Gormley's work focuses on human responsibility for the world (and, it is implied, its climate) and therefore makes the opposite point to the snowmen who, while positioned as protesters, in fact ask us not to care about global warming.

The snowmen image is a climate change joke that does, and should, have activists, thinkers, scientists and citizens weeping over their keyboards. As a recent Guardian article points out, the conflation of our present, limited snowbound situation with a cooling of the global climate is a surprisingly widespread misunderstanding, and one of which several of our MPs are guilty. So why do we find this (in some cases perhaps wilful) misunderstanding of basic scientific principles, including the disciplinary distinction between meteorology and climatology, amusing? Because it taps in to several factors that lie at the heart of many a crass joke: a sense of the contravention of a wide consensus, a complicity between the laughers predicated on the notion that they are the common sense thinkers, the emboldening thought that we have an "emperor's new clothes" situation and the laughers are the little boy who spoke up, and a belief that those who will be negatively affected by the widespread acceptance of the joke as amusing are distant from those who laugh.

There's a danger of being too po-faced about this of course, and it is far from the case that climate change can't have its lighter moments. Robert Butler has been on a long-term hunt for climate change jokes, highlighting those that play on the willed ignorance of climate change denial, and those that achieve a gallows humour in the face of frightening and unprecedented rates of climate change. Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel Solar has been revealed in preliminary public readings to contain comic passages, a feature of which much is made by his publishers. Perhaps the author and his promoters find common ground here. McEwan will use humour to foreground the story of human folly that is the intended focus of his book, as a recent article in Corriere della Sera reports (also giving a mention to this blog). Climate change will in fact offer a "background hum" to the novel, as McEwan famously put it. His publishers may be anxious that the public is beginning to become inured to the very phrase "climate change," and be keen to assure readers that laughs - a connection with the human - will be available, as opposed to stern moral lectures.

So we anticipate that Solar will be amusing, while I claim that the pictured snowmen are not. Why? Certainly because McEwan's reputation is as an author peculiarly interested in and very well informed about matters of science (most in evidence in the psychiatry of Enduring Love and the neurology of Saturday), while the senders of the snowmen are making the rudimentary weather / climate mistake. But there is more to it than that. Early signs are that Solar will mobilise a gallows humour, making us laugh at human folly against a backdrop of global crisis. Placed alongside the cynical, "can't-pull-the-wool-over-my-eyes" humour of the snowmen gag, Solar creates a good joke / bad joke template that is instructive as we come to cultural terms with our current environmental predicament.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Taking the Long View (in a Short Time)

Today's BBC Radio 4 "Thought for the Day" was COP15-focused, as these fascinating negotiations draw to a close. Abdal Hakim Murad's topic was, states the BBC's website, the claim that "Humility is needed to heal the environment." The scope of his short piece was of course considerably wider than that summary suggests, despite its compression into a strict 3 minute slot. Acknowledging climate change as "the defining topic of our times," Murad notes that politicians at the summit have been forced to extend their historical range, despite the fact that they are "not always famous for taking the long-term view." Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has pointed out that COP15's historical significance must be borne in mind, since this cohort of negotiators will be "blessed or blamed for generations to come." On the way to a point about humility, Murad has struck upon one of the defining features of cultural commentary on climate change - a fascination with various, often competing, temporal models. When he claims that the world is now divided not so much into "haves" and "have nots" but into "those that take the long view" and those that put off change, he suggests that it is attitudes to time that really make the difference in these negotiations, and in shifting (or failing to shift) attitudes to human responsibility in the face of our changing climate. If only Murad himself had had longer to expand on this interesting point.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Climate Change Is, Like, Such A Big Deal

Overheard recently on the bus: “And I was like, I like you so, like, I want to know whether you, like, like me too.” The constant use of “like” has become a cliché of “youth speak,” a kind of white noise getting in the way of clear and concise communication. Thinking about the way the word is used, it’s noticeable that it establishes a distance between the speaker and the scenario they describe – allowing the speaker to pose as observer of themselves – regardless of whether we are in the past tense (“And I was like…”) or what we can call the remembered present (“So I’m like…”). Expressing the most personal of responses, the speaker becomes a second observing self, undercutting their own narrative authority by introducing approximation – “I’m like…” implying “I said something a bit like / similar to / along these lines/ with roughly this attitude.” It’s a way of standing outside one’s interactions, a constant narrativisation process that turns each scenario into story fodder, a strange instant remediation of human experience. While usually read as simply a linguistic fashion that replaces pause words or sounds such as “umm” or “err,” “like” seems to me to be a product of a cultural mindset in which we are all encouraged to view ourselves again, the perpetual stars of our own reality shows.

In recent times, on this blog and far beyond, questions of the stories of our changing climate, and of the “narrative of climate change” have been raised. Coherent human narratives are now seen as the way to make an often abstract and incomprehensible scientific discourse into something that might be understood and (it is hoped) acted upon by the wider public. Narrative, in this sense, is seen as inherently positive – a means to understanding, a catalyst for action and an immediate and affective intervention. Yet the remediation inherent in the ubiquitous use of “like” lets us know that narrative can be treacherous – creating distance between ourselves and our actions. How can we make sure that narratives of our changing climate are not those from which we can step back, those that we view from an external position? These stories must be entirely owned, expressing a personal commitment and belief that must be transmitted to others. Because climate change is so, like, the biggest challenge that has ever, like, confronted humanity.

Update: Shortly after writing the above notes, I saw that Sam Wollaston has suggested (with tongue only partially in cheek) that a reality show version of the COP15 negotiations might be the way to engage the public in climate change discourse. Perhaps he’s on to something – maybe we can only take our narratives remediated these days?

Thursday, 12 November 2009


A major new exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society’s Kensington headquarters seeks to shed light on those who made vital contributions to the expeditions of the past, but whose names have been overshadowed by the glorification of lead explorers. The AHRC-funded “Hidden Histories of Exploration,” curated by Felix Driver and Lowri Jones of Royal Holloway, University of London, uses the extensive archives of the RGS (with IBG) to bring advisers, guides, porters, Sherpas and artists back into our accounts of famous historical explorations. If the names Mohammed Jen Jamain, Nain Singh and Juan Tepano mean nothing to you, this exhibition will help to explain why this is a grave oversight, but also how such an oversight is produced by our cultural reception of (white, male) hero explorers - an example of Adichie's single story problem. The effort to move these other, crucial participants in expeditions from the footnotes of the historical record to centre stage is ambitious and important. The exhibition is running until 10 December 2009, and an online version is available for those who can’t make the expedition to Kensington.

Image: Tenzing Norgay (Nepal), Edmund Hillary (NZ), Everest 1953. After their successful ascent, debate raged in the press as to who had first stood on the summit, and which country could therefore make the “first ascent” claim. In this case notes about feet threatened to assign one man to the historical footnotes, an outcome that Hillary resisted by claiming that they had completed the challenge as a team.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


An interesting talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the TED series is available here, on the topic of "The Dangers of the Single Story" (hat tip: Dusty Araujo). It's a simple premise: that the mono-vocal becomes the offensive, oppressive or downright dangerous, and Adichie carefully constructs her talk from a series of stories. Beneath the ostensible subject is a further point: that a single story leads to a failure of imagination and, ultimately, a failure of compassion. More fuel, then, for the argument that when tales of our changing climate come, they must come not in single stories, but in battalions.

Image: Karen Jackson