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?