Notes From Underground #10: The Cost of Knowing
The climate art of Cape Farewell, Ian McEwan’s novel Solar and the oil industry connections of veteran environmentalist Stewart Brand come under scrutiny in the tenth installment of Dougald Hine’s Notes From Underground. Since November, Bella has been publishing this series of essays, written for anyone who has been pulled under by the encounter with what we know and what we fear about climate change. Notes From Underground is also available as a podcast.
Image: From Ice Texts by David Buckland, founder of Cape Farewell
The headland known as Cape Farewell was given that name by the Elizabethan navigator John Davis during his search for the fabled Northwest Passage, the route around the top of North America which promised lucrative opportunities for trade with China but turned out to be blocked by ice. In Greenlandic, it is Nunap Isua, ‘the country’s end’, or Uummannarsuaq, ‘the great heart-shaped mountain’. The southernmost point of the vast territory of Greenland, it is also the windiest place on Earth, and climatologists who study its winds suspect they play a global role in driving the great ocean conveyor which draws warm currents away from the equator and pumps colder waters back again. Meanwhile, a fleet of icebergs hugs the eastern coastline, rounding the cape to turn north and circle Baffin Bay before commencing a final descent into the North Atlantic. The berg that holed the Titanic may have passed this way.
Cape Farewell is also the name of an organisation: a charity founded in 2001 by David Buckland, an artist and a sailor. Over the past two decades, it has been responsible for some of the most prominent attempts to bring together art and science under the shadow of climate change. Buckland’s aim with Cape Farewell was to enlist his fellow artists in finding a ‘people-friendly language’ for the messages coming from the scientists, ‘bringing the knowledge and reality of climate change to the public forum’. To this end, he has curated crews of prominent practitioners from all the fields of creative activity you find in the Culture sections of the weekend papers and taken them on expeditions to the high Arctic, to see climate change for themselves and to project their imaginations onto the vast white canvas of its melting ice – literally, in the case of his own Ice Texts, a series of messages beamed onto the wall of a glacier: SADNESS MELTS, DISCOUNTING THE FUTURE, GOING TO HELL ON A HANDCART.
I must have been in a bad mood the morning that I sat and listened to Buckland present the achievements of his organisation, because I could feel my inner heckler stirring. Buckland’s prize exhibit was the novelist Ian McEwan, who had joined an expedition in the winter of 2005. A party of twenty – among them the artists Rachel Whiteread and Antony Gormley – had been flown to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and driven in a convoy of skidoos to where Noorderlicht, a Dutch schooner belonging to the Cape Farewell project, stood immobile in a frozen fjord, ice-locked and periodically visited by polar bears. On his return, McEwan began work on what became Solar, a comic novel about climate change, whose anti-hero, Michael Beard, is a physicist, Nobel laureate, womaniser, coward and glutton on whose shoulders the responsibility for saving the world may (or may not) rest.
‘It took three years to find this form, two years to actually write the book,’ Buckland enthused. ‘He publishes it and then gets ten minutes on prime-time television news to talk about climate change, something every scientist would kill for.’
‘Is that it?’ my heckler wanted to say. Ten minutes on TV was a piss in the ocean, not much return on years of writing. I’d become used to arguing against the instrumentalisation of art – not because art should be useless, but because its power is unpredictable, its results mostly unexpected; it isn’t a tool that will do what you want it to – but here was a new, quantitative argument: energy returned on energy invested. There had to be more effective ways of securing ten minutes of prime-time coverage than putting years into a literary novel.
That led to the other question bubbling inside me: had Buckland actually read McEwan’s novel? Because I had. Its most memorable episode was a send-up of Cape Farewell and its Arctic expeditions. Beard is sent to Spitsbergen, and sat on the back of a skidoo he becomes convinced that his cock has fallen off after an emergency pee break at minus twenty-six degrees. Safe aboard ship and recovering from this false alarm, he voices his bemusement at the conviction that seems to unite the artists who surround him, and it is hard not to read the passages that follow as taking the piss out of Buckland’s project and its ambitions:
Beard would not have believed it possible that he would be in a room drinking with so many seized by the same particular assumption, that it was art in its highest forms, poetry, sculpture, dance, abstract music, conceptual art, that would lift climate change as a subject, gild it, palpate it, reveal all the horror and lost beauty and awesome threat, and inspire the public to take thought, take action, or demand it of others. He sat in silent wonder.
The idealistic tone of their wine-fuelled evening conversations is counterpointed with the growing chaos of the ‘boot room’, where outdoor gear is shed on entering the ship, and where everyone (not least, Beard) becomes involved in the borrowing and misplacement of each other’s boots and gloves and glove liners and goggles, and this becomes a parable about human nature. (This parable closely follows McEwan’s own non-fiction account of his expedition with Cape Farewell, written soon after his return.) When they do find boots that more or less fit, the artists indulge in some fairly ridiculous art:
Those sentinel snowmen guarding the foot of the gangplank … Jesus’s penguins, thirty of them, and three polar bears, marching along the ice beyond the ship’s bow, the harsh, impenetrable fragment of a novel punctuated with expletives that Meredith read, or shouted, aloud one evening – all these demonstrations, like prayers, like totem-pole dances, were fashioned to deflect the course of a catastrophe.
No doubt McEwan respects Buckland’s intentions: the two men kept in touch through the novel’s writing, and McEwan begins the acknowledgements by thanking him for that invitation to Spitsbergen. It is striking – as the critic Greg Garrard observes – that ‘he seems to have taken it as a commission to produce just the sort of motivated work of art gently mocked in that section of the novel’. Yet there is an awkwardness in all this – in Buckland’s pride at a novel that skewers his project, and in the difficulties McEwan encountered in his attempt to write about a thing like climate change – and the awkwardness may turn out to be revealing.
* * *
Ian McEwan belongs to a particular group of English writers whose books are events, not just guaranteed to feature in the reviews but likely to make the news pages as well. Their book deals, marriages, and reviews also have a tendency to become events, while their opinions – on the War on Terror, climate change or Brexit – are sought for the comment pages and by interviewers, and these opinions too can end up as news stories.
Alongside McEwan, the group’s core members have included his fellow novelist Martin Amis, the poet and critic Craig Raine, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Like the members of any literary movement, formal or informal, they are hardly of one mind. (I wrote a manifesto with Paul Kingsnorth, we edited a journal together for years, and I count him as a friend, but I don’t share all his views, let alone all the views that get ascribed to him.) What connects them, then?
In the first place, a shared commitment to their craft, to a certain understanding of what it means to work with language, typified by the title of Amis’s essay collection The War Against Cliché. One front in this ongoing campaign was conducted by Raine, who used to go through McEwan’s manuscripts marking ‘FLF’ – ‘flickering log fire’ – in the margin wherever he spotted a hackneyed image.
The second thing that connects them is their sheer connectedness: the tightness of a gang of bright young men, born within five years of each other, who came together in the excitement of early success in the literary London of the 1970s. No equivalent configuration stands out among the English writers who arrived on either side of this cohort. Brian Eno suggests in his notes on ‘scenius’, what he calls the communal genius of scenes, that the story of artistic achievement is generally told as a tale of heroic individuals while the reality has more to do with small pockets of artists coming together in ways that foster an ‘ecology of talent’. The gang that met in London in the 1970s surely serves as a case study, though they also belong to a whole generation that came of age in the mid-1960s and rode a wave unmatched before or since.
The third connection is that, wherever they started out in life, they ended up as writers of the centre. Not in the political sense – or not primarily, although the boot fits – but in pure geographical terms and in terms of the geography of culture. They are at home in the big houses in north Oxford or Fitzrovia or Brooklyn which they sometimes share with the characters in their novels. They see the world from here, and seem confident in the views which it affords them. These views, it seems fair to assume, find an echo in a good part of the public they appeal to – not the general public, exactly, although sales of McEwan’s Atonement reached the millions – but the reading fraction of the professional classes.
I passed through the outer edges of all this, an insignificant space rock skirting a solar system, when I was taught by Raine as an undergraduate. To me, he was nothing but kind and encouraging, and I’ve met no-one with a sharper eye for the choice of word or image, line by line. To him, I was a curiosity, a young man who had grown up in the same corner of the north-east of England, a sixth-form scholarship pupil at the same local independent school he once attended. ‘That’s a bad start, isn’t it?’ he said, the first time we met, as he fried sausages for his kids’ tea in the kitchen of a large house in North Oxford, where McEwan was his next-door neighbour. For all the encouragement he offered, and beyond the ordinary asymmetry of our encounter – I was, after all, just one more in the yearly flow of students passing through – our time was characterised by regular moments of mutual bemusement.
The reason for this only made sense to me a few years later when I discovered the work of John Berger and the constellation of writers around him, among them Arundhati Roy, Michael Ondaatje, Jay Griffiths and Geoff Dyer. These were people by whose words I began to find my bearings – and in Dyer’s introduction to the Selected Essays, there was a map of literature which put Berger at the opposite pole to that Oxford world I’d passed through. Dyer’s denunciation of the intellectual poverty of England’s writers of the centre climaxed with a quote from Raine: ‘We need ideas, but not in our art.’ And suddenly, I got the joke: the first grown-up writer to notice my existence had been the last person in the landscape of English literature with whom I was likely to find much mutual understanding.
What stands for ideas in the writing Raine, McEwan, Amis and even Hitchens have stood for is a mixture of an aesthetic empiricism – which sees good writing as the pursuit of surprising, objectively verifiable observations that will make us see familiar objects afresh – and a muscular rationalism, which forms the basis of their opinions. There’s a strong overlap, for example, between this literary circle and the strident voices of the New Atheism: Hitchens dedicated God Is Not Great to McEwan, while McEwan provides a glowing blurb for Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. It’s hard to separate their opinions on religion from their opinions on the War on Terror, while all of this borders onto the territory of the New Optimism, with its big simple stories about how the world has never been better.
This strain of rationalism shows up in the role played by science in the novels produced by members of this group. Both Amis and McEwan have taken up the challenge laid down a generation earlier by C. P. Snow, whose ‘Two Cultures’ thesis was debated for years in the publications and radio programmes to which they would have been attuned as schoolboys. Snow had argued that 20th century art had failed to assimilate 20th century science, leading instead to two world views and two communities which ‘had almost ceased to communicate at all’. From astrophysics to neurophysiology, Amis and McEwan threw themselves into the project of assimilation with an eagerness that suggested science was the hard stuff, the big boys’ game, the real test of intellectual strength.
Michael Beard is not the first of McEwan’s fictional scientists, only the most grotesque, and despite his habits, he has much in common with Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon whose thoughts we follow through the day of the 2003 anti-war march in the pages of Saturday, the novel that preceded Solar. Both express dismay at their encounters with postmodernists, practitioners of science studies, and the whole culture of arts and humanities within the university; the stuff they fill their students’ heads with, the stuff they let them get away with. If it’s against the rules of fiction to read these opinions back from character to author, we can at least note that McEwan says similar things in interviews: he’ll talk about how the work ethic of science students contrasts with their contemporaries studying arts, about the ‘daftness’ of ‘social constructivism’ and how the actual scientists don’t even notice ‘the philosophers of science … who go around talking to each other.’
Listen to a few of his talks and interviews and you start to wonder if Ian McEwan has really bridged the ‘two cultures’ or simply defected to the other side? On the page, he plays on the obvious irony of letting his scientist characters express their scorn for the novel itself. In Saturday, Perowne is persuaded by his daughter, a poet, to read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary:
At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so. If, as Daisy said, the genius was in the detail, then he was unmoved. The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down.
Daisy’s argument is Rainean, just as the lines of her poetry in the book are in fact borrowed from Raine. Meanwhile, McEwan has some further fun as Perowne shakes his head at those contemporary ‘authors of reputation’ who – in novels ‘written for adults, not children’ – give their characters supernatural powers: among the unnamed examples that follow, one is clearly McEwan’s earlier novel The Child in Time.
Yet the irony here runs shallower than it seems, because emerging from McEwan’s novels is a resolution of the Two Cultures problem that resembles a modified form of the world view of his fictional scientists. It’s a marriage of science and the arts, but one implicitly gendered in a deeply old-fashioned way: science is the husband – hard-headed, rational, reality-based – with the arts as the softer, charming wife, not intellectually rigorous, but with a facility for empathy. The arts can offer a kind of salvation – as in the improbable climax of Saturday, when Daisy’s recitation of Matthew Arnold soothes the thuggish Baxter and saves the day – yet they are also prone to silliness and hysteria.
The antagonism to the arts and humanities side of the university, which is where McEwan’s patience with this silliness runs out, is understandable from a novelist who will have been subject to the attention of literary scholars during the high era of deconstruction. The author had been pronounced dead, and where critics of an earlier generation might take a scalpel to the text, now it looked more like a ritual dagger, as the work was sacrificed on the altar of Theory. If this grim scene contributed to the wholesale dismissal of ‘postmodernism’, ‘science studies’ and the rest that we get from McEwan, still the result is to leave him ill-equipped to handle or even recognise the kind of questions asked of us by a thing like climate change.
The overlap between the author’s world view, meanwhile, and that of his scientist characters leads to moments of glaring complacency, as in the passage in Saturday where Perowne expresses indignation about the stuff he heard from his daughter’s lecturers during an open day he attended:
In the evening one of them gave a lecture on the prospects for our consumerist and technological civilisation: not good. But if the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods … lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended lifespans, wondrous machines.
In an interview after the novel’s publication, McEwan repeated these musings in his own voice. Neither Perowne nor his creator, it seems, gives much thought to the possibility that the future may see us rather differently.
* * *
This sketch of McEwan’s status as a novelist and the world view that emerges from his work should give some sense of the direction from which he arrived at the matter of climate change. They may also explain why he couldn’t help but take up the commission he found in Spitsbergen, as well as the difficulty he found in doing so.
What we know and what we have good grounds to fear about climate change calls our way of living into question. The call comes not from postmodernist critics of progress, but from scientific evidence of the consequences of this way of living. To take this evidence seriously leads to difficult questions about the stories we have been telling about the shape of history, the nature of the world in which we find ourselves and the virtue of achievements in which we have taken pride.
The work of the scientists feeding the IPCC process has been accompanied by a gradual realisation: the high status our societies seemingly grant to scientific knowledge starts to crumble when the implication of the science is that we cannot continue on our current trajectory. I’ve written about this in earlier essays – and also about the difference between the practice of science and the belief system which bundles ‘science’, ‘reason’ and ‘progress’ together into an object of faith and a banner under which to go into cultural combat.
In Ian McEwan, I’d suggest, we have a remarkable case study: a writer of major literary talent and cultural profile who has taken up that banner – and who then comes up against the matter of climate change. He cannot ignore the alarm going off, because his commitment to science will not allow him to do so; yet the risk of taking it seriously is that the larger bundle will start to unravel, revealing itself as a belief system rather than just hard-headed common sense.
The novel he ends up writing is coloured by this difficulty. It’s one of the reasons why Beard needs to be a ‘low’ character, dubious in any number of ways, in comparison with Perowne. Another reason for the satirical tone of Solar – which has no real precedent in McEwan’s earlier novels – is his desire to avoid taking a side and writing a book that would advocate for a position, even a position that is backed by science. There is little in the toolkit of a novelist of the centre (geographically, culturally, politically) that is of use when it comes to calling for change, let alone calling into question the central assumptions of your culture.
Instead, McEwan achieves the curious feat of writing a novel which is clearly driven by his real concern about climate change while pursuing a kind of balance depressingly familiar to anyone who has followed the BBC’s reporting of climate science. This balancing act can be traced in the novel itself and in its author’s public comments, and to pull it off he draws assistance from an unexpected source.
‘Some of my best friends are climate change sceptics,’ McEwan told an audience at a literary festival after the book came out. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he expanded on this thought, referring to four positions on climate change:
There are the outright ideological deniers, who believe that man-made global warming is a myth. There are the sceptics whose minds will change as the data comes in. Then there are the warners – people who look at the data and feel that it’s pretty alarming. And finally there are the calamatists who feel it’s all going to be over next week and we’re in a handcart to hell.
McEwan has taken this taxonomy from the environmentalist Stewart Brand, the interviewer explains. The centrality of Brand’s role within the history of the environmental movement is beyond doubt, yet – as we shall see – his story is more complex than his credentials might suggest. His world view is deeply convivial to McEwan’s own way of seeing things, not least because it allows for a depiction of the climate debate as balanced, with a reasonable centre ground and unreasonable extremes on both sides of the argument. The only trouble with this picture is that it squares neither with the state of the science nor the political realities surrounding it.
* * *
While Amis, Raine and McEwan were catching such loose ends of the Swinging Sixties as reached the universities of Oxford and Sussex, an ocean and a continent away another scene was flowering. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the psychedelic counterculture rubbed up against the military-industrial complex, and there was no figure more mixed up in it all, none whose trajectory would prove more fascinating, than Stewart Brand.
He’s a man who seems to possess a narrative gravity, so that stories are drawn into his orbit; people, too. You find him showing up to meet Ken Kesey, out of jail at the opening of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: ‘a thin blond guy with a blazing disk on his forehead … an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher’s coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it’. And then he’s there at Menlo Park as camera operator for ‘the Demo’, an event that belongs to Silicon Valley’s genesis story, the first public outing for an array of inventions made at the Stanford Research Institute which would form the basis of modern computing.
By that point, Brand’s first big success was underway: the Whole Earth Catalog was the original Bay Area hippy start-up, going from zero to millions of readers within two years, with a National Book Award to boot. The Catalog became the bible of the back-to-the-land movement, but its pages were also a paper prototype for the World Wide Web. (‘Google in paperback form’, Steve Jobs once called it.) The title came from the cover, each issue bearing an image of the Earth from space. Two years before it launched, while tripping on acid on the roof of a friend’s apartment, Brand had been hit by the question: ‘Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?’ Convinced that the sight of our shared home would trigger a collective shift in consciousness, a new awareness of our interdependence, he lobbied NASA to release the photographs. When they did, his Catalog established the Blue Marble as an icon of environmental awareness, the formative image of the green movement. When you opened that cover, the first words of the first issue were a declaration: ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it.’ I can just see Henry Perowne nodding in agreement.
Among the skills that saw Brand survive the comedown of the counterculture are his nose for changes in the cultural wind and his fearlessness about jumping ship and sailing off in the opposite direction. Here’s a man who can pivot from the back-to-the-land wave of the 1970s to the urban triumphalism of the early 21st century, and hang the whole manoeuvre on a single anecdote about an encounter with a woman who had grown up in an Indian village. His skill as a scene-maker runs from creating the first online community, the WELL bulletin board of the 1980s, to his involvement with Wired magazine and the Long Now Foundation, which he founded with Brian Eno.
But among the organisations Brand has had a hand in creating, one stands out: Global Business Network was a consultancy which he co-founded in 1987 to help corporations and governments think about the future. Its methods drew partly on a countercultural feel for set and setting, charging its clients a membership fee of $40,000 a year for access to its network of ‘Remarkable People’ in remarkable places. A 1994 Wired article describes a role-playing game that was centred on the future of the planet and played aboard ‘the presidential yacht USS Potomac, the same steel-hulled craft that, half a century ago, carried Roosevelt to his meeting with Churchill wherein they secretly plotted World War II’:
The GBN members who rehearsed the future on that boat hailed from the Singapore Ministry of Defense, the Australian department of taxation, the Mexican Stock Exchange, the London Stock Exchange, Volvo, Fiat, Petroleos de Venezuela, Allstate, DuPont, ARCO, Saatchi & Saatchi, the American Express Bank in London, and the Executive Council of the Club of Rome.
Alongside the paying clients, the members of the network do sound like a fairly remarkable crew – a ‘Conspiracy of Heretics’, as the Wired headline has it, naming among them the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Limits to Growth co-author Donella Meadows, and the poet and deep ecologist Gary Snyder.
One industry was central to the DNA of GBN, and that was the oil business. To match Brand’s counterculture flair and colourful contact book, his co-founders brought the methods they had learned in the Group Planning department at Royal Dutch Shell. The activities of this department are almost as wrapped in myth as Brand’s own antics: there’s no end of management books and articles that laud its creativity, the way it broke out of the linear, quantitative attempt to forecast the future and taught the company’s executives to expect and respond to the unexpected. Under the guidance of Pierre Wack – a student of the mystic G. I. Gurdjeff, who distilled his own thinking into a diagram of ‘the gentle art of reperceiving’ – Group Planning is said to have foreseen the energy crises of 1973 and 1979, and later the fall of the Soviet Union. There are also accounts which bring the story down to earth, questioning how much difference Wack and his colleagues really made to Shell’s decision-making. But if you’ve ever read a report or taken part in a workshop that uses a two-axis, four-quadrant model of scenarios for the future, then you were encountering the legacy of the ‘scenario planning’ techniques developed by the Group Planning department. Two of the five co-founders of GBN came from Shell, and the scenario planning methodology lay at the core of its consultancy practice.
Where does all this intersect with the map of the climate debate which McEwan gets from Brand? Well, it wasn’t just the price spikes of the 1970s or the fall of the Soviet Union that Shell saw coming. Thanks to the investigations of the Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers, which turned up documents stretching back three decades, we have a pretty clear picture of what Shell knew about climate change and when. By 1988, an internal report on ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ accepted that there was ‘reasonable scientific agreement’ on the connection between greenhouse gases and global warming, and that ‘such relatively fast and dramatic changes would impact on the human environment, future living standards and food supplies and could have major social, economic and political consequences.’
In 1991, the company produced a public information film called ‘Climate of Concern’, which warned of the seriousness of the threat and noted that this warning was ‘endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990’. Yet over the following decade the tone of its internal reports shifts, with increasing emphasis on scepticism: in 1992, company president Lodewijk van Wachem claimed that there was ‘still debate about the basic science’ of climate change, while a 1994 report from environmental advisor Peter Langcake focuses on the views of a ‘significant minority’, including ‘distinguished scientists’ who believe ‘concerns over global warming to be exaggerated and misguided’. Although it is ‘not possible to dismiss the global warming hypothesis as scientifically unsound’, the report goes on, ‘any policy measure should take into account explicitly the weaknesses in the scientific case’. To see to it that policy followed this prescription, Shell joined the other oil giants in funding the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group that worked to discredit the IPCC and undermine the negotiations leading to the Kyoto Treaty.
What was going on here? Nothing in the direction of travel of climate research in the 1990s justified an increase in scepticism. Rather, we see a pattern of ‘keeping the controversy alive’ by seeding confusion in the public debate in order to delay the enactment of policies whose costs would fall on the companies involved. This is well described by Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at Harvard, and Erik M. Conway, a historian who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech, in their book Merchants of Doubt, which traces how these methods were developed by the tobacco industry, then taken up by the oil lobby. Even the scientists speaking out against the consensus on the risks of passive smoking and climate change turn out to be the same people, such as the physicists Fred Seitz and Fred Singer, both connected to politically conservative think tanks.
Now, the Shell guys who founded GBN with Stewart Brand had left the oil industry in the early 1980s. The consultancy’s clients included oil firms, but the service they offered was meant to broaden their clients’ thinking about the future, and didn’t involve lobbying on their behalf. I don’t see anything particularly problematic about taking a company’s money to tell it what you think – and I don’t think Brand is consciously involved in the project of sowing doubt. But I do think he became acclimatised to the world in which he moves, with its heady collisions of ‘remarkable people’ and holders of corporate and political power. And I think his map of the four positions on climate change (its form an echo of all those four-quadrant scenario diagrams) reflects the way the industry lobbyists want us to see things rather than the actual state of the science.
He wrote up that map as a New York Times op-ed at the time of the Copenhagen summit. Here’s how he presents the ‘skeptics’:
This group is most interested in the limitations of climate science so far: they like to examine in detail the contradictions and shortcomings in climate data and models, and they are wary about any “consensus” in science. To the skeptics’ discomfort, their arguments are frequently quoted by the denialists.
And here’s his summary of the four positions:
The calamatists and denialists are primarily political figures, with firm ideological loyalties, whereas the warners and skeptics are primarily scientists, guided by ever-changing evidence.
This is the position we found McEwan presenting in his interview, where the sceptics are the ones ‘whose minds will change as the data comes in’. Contrast this with the account given by Oreskes in her 2004 article in Science, ‘Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change’. She cites a poll for Time magazine which found that ‘a majority of Americans believe that scientists are still divided about the issue’ of whether climate change is happening, whereas her review of the reports of ‘all of the major scientific bodies in the United States whose membership’s expertise bears directly on the matter’ shows that ‘climate scientists agree that global warming is real and is substantially attributable to human activities’, and an analysis of peer-reviewed papers confirms that ‘the basic reality of anthropogenic global climate change is no longer a subject of scientific debate.’
Both Brand and McEwan identify as warners. I suspect they would say their sceptics do accept the basic reality of anthropogenic global climate change, though there’s some slipperiness here, given that these sceptics are also apparently furnishing arguments which denialists like to quote. But the picture of the scientists as divided between warners and sceptics – with the latter still waiting for the data to come in – has more in common with the public perceptions seen in the Time poll than it does with what Oreskes finds in her review of the science.
I want to note here that Oreskes is a professor of science studies, the very discipline which is singled out for its absurdity in Solar. Both in the novel and in interviews, McEwan suggests that actual scientists are barely aware that science studies exists, and that the field consists of a bunch of non-scientists talking to themselves. Perhaps things have moved on in the past decade, or perhaps the impression I’ve had is misleading since the gatherings I get invited to are by their nature interdisciplinary, but this doesn’t entirely fit with my experience. In any case, as far back as 2004, Oreskes’s article on the scientific consensus on climate change was being published in Science, one of the world’s most-cited journals of actual science.
But if McEwan were less contemptuous of science studies and other corners of the humanities, he might also be less naive when it comes to Brand’s taxonomy, and in particular the ‘distinction between ideology and science’ which runs down the middle of it. The insight of social constructivism – a theoretical current that comes in for his particular scorn – is not that science is anything you want to say it is, but that whatever is said is always said by someone, somewhere, in a certain language, coming out of a certain context, and can never be fully cut free from this social, cultural and historical tangle. The methods of science (as Oreskes points out in her article, there is no single ‘scientific method’) allow for the production of certain kinds of human knowledge which have an unusual solidity and power in their correspondence with the material world, though these methods also rely on – and can’t exist without – particular institutions and networks, which are themselves social, cultural and historical constructs. This way of knowing also has its limits, because not everything that matters about our experience can be carried into the forms of knowledge it produces. And when that knowledge is brought into the public debate, which is what Brand is talking about, it can’t help getting entangled in ideology.
The claim that there is one good, rational, ideology-free side (the sceptics and the warners) and one problematic, irrational, ideology-laden side (the denialists and the calamatists) is itself an ideological move. What’s disturbing is what gets left out when you draw the map this way: there’s no hint of a billion-dollar industry involved in producing and sustaining climate denial, or that this can hardly be compared to the excesses of those who claim a certainty about the calamitous consequences of climate change that goes beyond or conflicts with what the science can tell us. (We’ll come to this phenomenon in future essays.) Nor would you guess from the distinction between denialists and sceptics that the production of reasonable-sounding, scientifically framed scepticism so as to ‘keep the controversy alive’ is a key tactic of the climate denial lobby which Shell and the other oil giants spent decades funding.
* * *
Even before he wrote Solar, McEwan was talking in interviews about why it’s hard to make climate change work as a topic for a novel. ‘Fiction hates preachiness,’ he told Boyd Tonkin in 2007. ‘Nor does it much like facts and figures or trends or curves on graphs.’
When a writer of literary novels reflects on the lack of fiction about climate change, he tends to walk into a fight. It happened to the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh when he published his fascinating book-length essay The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The title is Ghosh’s own suggestion for how the future might see us, one I find more compelling than Henry Perowne’s musings: we must have been deranged, out of our senses, unable to recognise or conceive of what we were doing and where it was leading.
When the Guardian ran an extract, though, they headlined it with ‘Where is the fiction about climate change?’ To which a horde of readers and writers of science fiction replied rather crossly, ‘Over here!’ To make things worse, Ghosh had actually nodded in their direction – only in terms at which they took umbrage. The conventions of the ‘realist’ novel are such, he explains, that it is hard to get away with writing ‘a scene in which a character is walking down a road at the precise moment when it is hit by an unheard-of weather phenomenon’:
To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.
This passage caused considerable agitation. When I wrote in praise of Ghosh’s book, I got a furious mail from Dan Bloom, the founder and promoter of ‘cli-fi’, a self-declared genre of ‘climate fiction’, accusing Ghosh of ‘prejudice … bias and arrogance’ and asking me why I was ‘kissing his ass’. Well, I took that image of the manor house and the out-houses as a sociological observation rather than a display of snobbery. To note that sci-fi is treated as a low form, while the realist novels of McEwan or Ghosh are treated as a high form, is not a matter of casting shade – and there is something telling about the inability of the high form to handle the topic of climate change.
In the first part of The Great Derangement, Ghosh traces the historical entwinement between the novel in its high form and the mathematical idea of probability. Storytelling has always relied on surprises and unexpected turns, but only in the novel as it emerged from the 18th century is it considered necessary for the writer to work at concealing the improbability of the events described. The literary novel is a way of telling stories for people who tell themselves that the world is becoming manageable: the Enlightenment is driving away the shadows of superstition, the frontiers of knowledge are expanding, and all the mysteries will be cleared up in due course.
This is a rich line of thought and one which converges with much that I’ve written, yet if Ghosh has a point about the realist novel struggling to contain sudden and extreme events, I’d say the biggest difficulty it has with climate change is the opposite of this. The overall story of climate change lacks dramatic tension, the lines of causality are muddied and the headline figures understated: two degrees of warming by the end of the century, three, four. Most of us have some sense of the chaos implicit in these numbers, yet they sound so underwhelming, smaller than the day-to-day variations on the weather map.
The problem this presents for the narrative arts is seen most clearly in the contrast with the threat that shadowed the world in which McEwan and Amis wrote their early fiction, the possibility of outright nuclear war. The drama of Mutually Assured Destruction involved clear lines of cause and effect, human fingers on buttons, events that would happen on a scale of hours rather than decades. It’s striking that one of the novels most often cited in discussions of literary cli-fi, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, doesn’t actually make any reference to climate change but depends instead on a sudden and unexplained catastrophe which sounds more like the event that those of us over forty grew up fearing: ‘The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’
Then there’s the matter of setting. The novel is at home indoors, in human-made and human-inhabited environments. From Wuthering Heights onwards, there are many wonderful exceptions that push at, play with or just ignore these boundaries. Still, the boundaries are policed, especially when a novelist seems to take seriously a metaphysical framework other than that of secular materialism. In his notes for an unfinished essay on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell expresses his admiration for Waugh as a novelist, despite the gap between their views, then builds towards a breaking point:
But. Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross. Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner or later. One cannot really be Catholic & grown-up.
Half a century later, the Guardian ran a review of Alan Garner’s Strandloper in which Jenny Turner levels precisely the same charge. In this case, what irks the reviewer is Garner’s intensely researched portrayal of an Aboriginal tribe in early 19th century Australia – or ‘the usual anthropological nonsense’, as she puts it – and her complaint culminates in this paragraph:
But such a phantastic view of history cannot ever rationally be made to stand up. This underlying irrationality usually works all right in poetry, which no one expects to make a lot of sense. It’s okay in children’s writing, which no one expects to be psychologically complex. But in a grown-up novel for grown-ups, it just never seems to work.
If these are the terms on which novels are to be written, no wonder the most celebrated English novelist of his generation – a description often applied to McEwan – is also a paid-up member of the anti-God squad. But what if the rationalism of this form of fiction is implicated in its failure to contend with climate change?
Generally speaking, the presence of non-human agency within ‘grown-up’ literary fiction has been licensed only when it is clearly marked as fantastic, as in the novels filed under ‘magical realism’. This applies as much to animals as it does to angels; it conforms with the post-Enlightenment sensibility of the novel as a form, and it leaves its practitioners ill-equipped in comparison to other storytellers when it comes to contending with our present situation. The ways of telling called for in a time of climate change cannot treat nature as a backdrop. They need to accommodate our involvement with forces vastly larger than ourselves, implacable yet capable of being provoked by human actions; forces that will not be mastered, either in terms of control or comprehension, and that confront us with the limits of our knowledge. The strange thing is that this is a fair description of the forms of storytelling put away as childish things, as the grown-up novel came to the fore. Someone who sees this more clearly than most is the storyteller Martin Shaw:
We hear it everywhere these days: time for a new story … A container for all this ecological trouble … this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged … I suggest that the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago.
To which I’d add that these old currents of story are the ones that went underground, in the age of secular materialism, into the ‘low’ forms of fantasy, sci-fi and children’s literature. In some cases, at least, the authors are well aware of the weight and power of the material they are carrying. What we are talking about here, of course, is myth.
Myth is not something primitive or childish, a comfort blanket between us and the blunt truths revealed by modern science. Myth carries ways of knowing on which people relied when their lives were not cushioned from consequence by the shadowed abundance of fossil fuel and supply chains rooted in colonialism: ways of knowing our vulnerability and entanglement with the world. Myth is not incompatible with the knowledge produced by modern science, only with the ideological elevation of science, reason and progress which does the practices of science no favours.
In fact, over recent decades, there has been a turn within those sciences most concerned with the study of life to a humbling awareness of entanglement. The discrete competing units of cells, individuals and species turn out to be porous and interconnected in ways that bring those concepts into question. This is territory in which you find field biologists and geneticists in fruitful dialogue with anthropologists, ‘science studies’ scholars, and even sci-fi authors, in the case of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, whose book The Mushroom at the End of the World comes with a warm endorsement from the late Ursula Le Guin. Spend a while reading in these borderlands and you find yourself thinking thoughts like the one voiced by Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro:
Maybe, as Lévi-Strauss often remarked, science, which started out by separating itself from myth … will eventually encounter it once again at the end …
Even the literary novel is feeling the touch of this turn towards what Tsing calls ‘multi-species storytelling’, with the huge success of Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a book whose characters’ lives are entwined with the lives of trees. Powers read deeply into the literature on ‘the new forestry’, and one strand within the novel is about the power struggles within science over the emergence of this new paradigm.
In my years of editing Dark Mountain, I read a lot of submissions, including short stories and extracts from novels attempting to tackle the topic of climate change. Almost none of those pieces made it into our books. I came to think that it’s a category error to try to take up climate change as one topic among others, like trying to pick up a continent. The climate is changing, these changes are around and ahead of us, and even in the best scenarios many things will be broken against these forces of change. Somewhere down the list of breakages, a long way down it, will be the cultural forms we inherited from the recent past, especially the high forms, the forms of the centre. To take seriously what we know and what we have good grounds to fear about the changes around and ahead, to do the work of knowing what we know, is to have our stories broken open. Whatever the future makes of us, in whatever shape our kind makes it through, the ways of telling we’ve cherished around here lately will not emerge intact.
* * *
And yet I can think of one literary novel that’s left to be written in the old high tradition of neo-realism.
A novel about climate change which takes as its protagonist a man of a certain generation: born into the aftermath of war, oblivious to the recent horrors in the way that we all start out oblivious to the slightly absurd possibility that our parents somehow pre-existed us, and borne up on a socio-economic tide that seemed to lift all ships, then insulated from the harshening that followed by the take-off of house prices. He belongs to a generation whose lived experience coincided more directly with the grand stories of progress than any before or since.
He is not a brain surgeon or a Nobel laureate or a Booker-winning novelist, but he likes to read the books of men who are, or books about them, and feel their cleverness rub off in the affirmation of his views on the world which he seems to find there. And let’s say there is one man of that order to whom he has a personal connection, a slightly older cousin with whom he spent childhood summers, in whose achievements he feels a personal pride.
Our protagonist is retired now, but in his own career he got to play a bit part in the epic of development. From his time in Africa in the 1980s, he has stories of which he is sincerely proud, and when they meet with the challenges of a young man struggling to make sense of what is missing from this epic, the result is a sincere confusion. He doesn’t follow the arguments, the strength of feeling is unnerving, and he is certain this young man has got things wrong, or he wants to be certain.
Let’s say he has a granddaughter who has stopped going to school and started sitting outside parliament with a cardboard sign. This could be what sets the story in motion.
Of course, I said it’s a novel about climate change, but it’s really a novel about denial. It’s about the pathos of denial. We watch this old man teeter on the edge of knowing, and we see what it would cost him. So much of life already gone, why spoil what’s left by questioning the cause to which you nailed your sense of worth? Among the other characters we meet, there’s one who offers a glimpse of how dangerous such men can become, when the fear does hit them: in the name of their grandchildren’s survival, they will insist on actions which it would be indecent to demand in the name of their own survival. But in our protagonist, we get to witness someone whose identity is bound up with reason as he clutches at twisted logic and conspiracy theory, contorting himself to avoid the cost of knowing. And our reaction to this is pity rather than anger.
I don’t know that the world needs another novel inviting us to pity an ageing white man of that particular generation – I can see the review now, headlined ‘OK, boomer!’ – and anyway, I do know there are reasons why I don’t write novels.
But in the right hands, this not-to-be-written novel could have its place within the landscape of the English literary fiction of recent decades. It belongs somewhere near to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Amis’s Time’s Arrow. In quite different ways, each of those novels invites us to accompany a man who has things back to front, who takes pride in a story about his role within what we gradually recognise to be a horror, and who teeters on the edge of knowing what is missing from his story. Ishiguro’s butler, Mr Stevens, has to swallow the knowledge that he has devoted himself to the service of a master whose Nazi sympathies have led him to disgrace. (The book is clearer about this than the Merchant Ivory film.) Amis gives us the story of a man whose original name turns out to be Odilo Unverdorben, a doctor in the Nazi death camps, assisting a fictionalised version of Josef Mengele in the torture and murder of Jews; little ambiguity here, except that the conceit of the novel is to tell the story backwards, from the perspective of a narrator who inhabits Unverdorben’s experience but is travelling through time in the opposite direction. So he starts as an old man in the United States, takes up medical practice where patients arrive healed, are given wounds, then sit for a time in the waiting room before leaving; these and many other strangenesses, he comes to take for granted as he gets younger, until in the 1940s he finds himself at Auschwitz, tasked with creating life:
Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with shit, with fire.
Only in the closing lines of the book, inside his mother’s womb, does the narrator begin to grasp the possibility that his experience of events is back to front, and the horror that this would imply.
With both these books, the horror is the same: the Holocaust, portrayed directly by Amis, echoed in the sacking of the Jewish maids in The Remains of the Day, and also in the theme of the morality of obedience. (Stevens takes pride in following orders, the defence offered by the commandant of Auschwitz at Nuremberg and rejected by the judges.) Which brings us one last time to the matter of denial: those who would prefer to be called climate sceptics are hotly angered at the use of this word, considering it a smear, because of the implicit analogy to Holocaust denial. How can you deny what hasn’t happened yet? Once again we arrive at the question of how the future may judge us: will they look back on us as gods, or as a generation more akin to the good Germans of the 1930s and 40s? I know where my suspicions lie, but by now it should be clear to anyone paying attention that climate change is not some future event that may or may not happen.
At the end of this novel which I don’t intend to write, I would send the old man on a luxury cruise. His cousin is the star lecturer on board. The ship is headed past Cape Farewell, through the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay, and on across the Northwest Passage. In summer the ice now thaws enough to open the long-sought route to the Pacific, and the trip has become an item on many a well-heeled boomer’s bucket list.
* * *
This is the tenth essay so far in the Notes From Underground series. Readers who followed the earlier installments will have gathered that the form is changing as I go along, with the shorter essays giving way to more substantial chapters. I don’t expect them to keep growing at this rate, but I will be pacing the remainder of the series more gently, so instead of trying to keep to a weekly schedule, I’ll publish the future essays as they come along. Finally, for anyone who missed the earlier installments, you may find the podcast version the best way to catch up. — DH