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.