Global Climate Sprawl

What should not have been so surprising: 
my error after error, recognized when appearing on the faces of others. 
                          Jane Hirshfield (from “I wanted to be surprised”)

–In her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein writes about the “painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring [greenhouse] emissions”. She is not alone. Professor David Campbell writes: “The trillions which the developed countries have spent and plan to spend on mitigation have been and will be wasted. . .The failure of the collective brain of environmentalism to look this in the face will erode the goodwill which is its principal resource when its role in causing the immense waste becomes indisputable.”

To argue that the environmental movement—environmentalism writ large—has failed is a significant proposition, even if true only as far as it goes. After all, it was the environmental movement that helped articulate the crisis narratives for GCC. To label this, “failure,” is to argue that climate change is occurring because the recommendations of the environmental movement have not been implemented.

This “conclusion” has same ring of certainty that environmental movement recommendations have had. “The climate for the next several decades is set in concrete. . . .[T]here is nothing now to prevent those disastrous events,” an expert already told us a decade ago. Such certainty takes its force from being both determinism–“set in concrete”—and fatalism—disaster is unavoidable—at the same time.

–Surprise, in other words, has been exiled to another planet. This is not new. Go back to the 1990s to see “no surprise clauses” in habitat conservation plans. Here binding restrictions were sought that would leave the landowner or developer immune from further restrictions, should a threatened or endangered species be unexpectedly found on the property. But the unexpected is to be expected, notwithstanding no-surprise clauses. Why? Because to behave as if surprise can be eliminated is itself behavior that produces surprise.

–On the more positive side, then, to take such surprise seriously means, at a minimum, acknowledging and protecting those in and around the ecosystems of concern who, in managing already-existing surprises, also manage to improve ecosystem services and functions in the face of GCC.  That such efforts necessarily occur along case-by-case trajectories of fits and starts, some abandoned, others sustained for longer, is also to be acknowledged and understood.

–Which takes us back to that colossal waste of time and effort that Klein and like believers see in the efforts with respect to combatting GCC.

“Waste” is ambiguous, though. It’s just not that we often differ over what is “waste.” We can actually agree that the waste associated with GCC has been colossal, but differ over what its epic proportions entail.

By way of illustrating, I want to suggest GCC isn’t just a bad mess; it’s a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it, awful bad mess, and with implications not fully recognized.

–Let’s agree: GCC and its drivers are remaking a first-class Nature into world-class garbage truck. But why stop there in our description? Consider what many others have to say about the stunningly profligate human nature involved. You see the sheer excess of it all in Philip Roth’s rant about human nature from American Pastoral:

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

This mind-boggling rush and excess of getting it wrong again and again and again—note too the “so” in the epigraph’s first line from Jane Hirshfield—has been neatly captured by many others. The elder statesman in T.S. Eliot’s eponymous play admits,

The many many mistakes I have made
My whole life through, mistake upon mistake,
The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes
By methods which proved to be equally mistaken.

The missing comma between “many many”—no surprise, right?—says it all, in my view: At the limits of cognition, we cannot pause, with words and thoughts sprawling over each other and piling up against a puzzled unknowability. (That the wildly different Philip Roth and T.S. Eliot are together on this point indicates the very real mess this is.)

That word, sprawl, is like that word, waste: full of yeasty ambiguity. Here is Les Murray’s more magnanimous view from his “The Quality of Sprawl”:

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home…

This extravagance and profligacy are not ornery contrarianism solely. “[W]aste is another name for generosity of not always being intent on our own advantage,” poet Robert Frost wrote.

To my mind, Global Climate Change is the hot mess—both senses of the term—now sprawled all over place and across time. GCC is inextricably, remorselessly part and parcel of “living way too expansively, generously.” If I had my druthers, I’d rename it, “GCS:” Global Climate Sprawl.

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