For Real, Though


There’s a bird I hear in the mornings that I think of as a wind-down bird, because it sounds like a mechanical wind-up toy at the end of its stored-up torque, the sound getting lower as its slows to a stop. Two notes, maybe a musical third apart, sliding from low to high, that pairing repeated four to six times on a descending scale. WEEE-Weeee-weeeee-woooop. In Audacity, the open source software I use to record songs on the mandolin, you can select a section of a track and lower the tempo or pitch. That’s what this bird call sounds like, the initial phrase run through that filter three successive times. I wonder, now, if the ratio between the first two notes is the same as that between the descending repetition, because a lot of nature seems to be that way, the same patterns repeated at different scales.

This morning I padded down the metal stairs to the kitchen, where if I’m barefoot I sometimes surprise the neighbor’s quasi-feral cat, who then jumps through the bars of the open window. I made the last of the coffee, ate a mango, and then went back up to my cuarto to watch the headlines on Democracy Now! about the climate strike.

“Manana,” I had told the three students who I’ve been having conversation classes with every morning for the past few weeks, “es un dia de…cuando persones no trabajar porque calientar global. Global warming?” I eventually got them to understand that even though people around the world weren’t going to school or work to protest political inaction on climate change, I would still be at the University, because I didn’t think my striking would be effective, since no one would understand (if they noticed) why I wasn’t at work. English classes don’t start until October, but I’m in my office every day from 9-1 and 4-7. Instead, I told them, we could talk about global warming in our lesson.

I had also decided that rather than working on my usual projects, I would spend the day writing a blog post about global warming, to be posted in the evening.

In the twenty minutes before they arrived, I wrote questions, in Engilsh and Spanish, on a notecard. How many species are in danger of extinction? (they guessed around a hundred, the answer is a million). When was the hottest month recorded on Earth? (it was this July). What percentage of mammals living on Earth are either livestock or humans? (96%). I noticed they did better with questions about percentages (they guessed higher than the actual 50% of animals lost on the planet since 1970) than they did with large numbers (they thought the human population of Earth was 200,000,000!). This illustrates one of the main cognitive barriers to action on climate change: the difficulty in comprehending the scale. Human brains no more evolved to consider billions of people than they did to understand the relative size of quarks. In our four billion years of evolution (another impossibly vast scale) our survival never depended on grasping such large numbers, so we never learned how. 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted every year, is that much more than 33 million? We laughed at the answers, had fun playing the game, and it didn’t feel that much different than drilling verb tenses, even though we were discussing the end of human civilzation and much of life on Earth. It is hard for such things to seem real.

I: Defamiliarization

There is a well-rehearsed formula for writing or talking about climate change or other environmental issues: start of with an anecdote to personalize the issue, then pummel the reader with an increasintly heavy barrage of facts or arguments to underscore how serious the problem is, and then end with a note of unrealistic optimism–it’s up to us, it’s not too late, start with something small! Jonathan Franzen recently upset readers by deviating from this formula, asking what would happen if we stopped pretending it wasn’t too late to stop runaway warming (warning: annoying pop-ups and paywall).

Things aren’t real until they happen. There is a barrier, like for Alice behind the looking glass, that representations can’t break through, no matter how many times they are seen or heard. People join the army, I imagine, because the idea of getting shot, or dying, doesn’t really have epistemological weight–it remains abstract until the bullet pierces flesh. As a fan of the horror genre, I think about this a lot, how something could happen that replicates the situations or emotions you enjoy witnessing in fiction, but for real. The scary thing is that if you were to then try to write about the experience, it would have no more verisimilitude, be no more convincing or persuasive, than the kind of stories you used to read. Even when something happens to people close to you, it maintains a theoretical aura, not quite penetrating into your actual thoughts and calculations. People go bankrupt, get cancer, have car accidents, get addicted to alcohol or drugs, and while we empathize to some extent, it never really sinks in that those things could happen to us. Getting older is largely having your mental representations for things gain substance, mere outlines gaining three dimensions.

By the time global warming seems real, attains a more-than-story status, it will be too late.

Capitalism makes it worse, because it coats everything in a layer of bullshit, populating our mental landscapes with clones wearing masks of the real, until everything becomes a play of surfaces, a rising sea of cynical doubt. I told my brother once that in front of everything real, everything worthwhile, is a businessman in a suit, selling a simulacrum of the thing itself. You have to ignore him, look over his shoulder, and if it is worth it to you, struggle to push him aside, and reach the unassuming doppelganger of the genuine after which the distractions, the traps, were modeled. Climate change is real.

The way past this fatigue of over-representation, the deadened, burnt-out nerve-cells of our imagination, is to defamiliarize a subject, dragging it via metaphorical ropes into a new light where it can be seen more clearly. To tell it slant, make it new, all those writerly techniques of polishing the mental dust off real metal forks and spoons.

For years I’ve been listening to the podcast Ecoshock Radio, and one of the things Alex Smith, the avuncular Canadian citizen scientist who runs it has said, is that you have to find your own way to contribute to the effort. I’ve toyed with the idea of learning data science to the point where I could contribute to ecological studies, but I know that any chance I have of doing good, making a small difference, is in using the tools I already have, the skills I developed over long years of otherwise pointless schooling: to write about the environmental crisis in a way that is original and unfamiliar. That’s what I’ll be doing in the ten years we have left to try to keep the Earth from igniting.

One of my unpublished Science Fiction stories transposes the global warming problem thousands of years into the future, hiding the pattern and problem of it at a larger, universal scale.

In my story, faster than light travel exists, but every time a warp drive is used, the fabric of underlying dimensions tears slightly. The effect was barely noticeable at first, and wasn’t a real danger until flying faster than light had become an indispensible aspect of galactic culture. No one wanted to give up interstellar space-ships and go back to the stone age! Yet the warnings grew more dire, and the chances of a universe-destroying cataclysm, the one unfortunate jump that would, without warning, start an entropic and unstoppable chain reaction, became increasingly more significant. The problem was that the strung-together theories of interdimensional physics scientists used to make their warnings were too obscure for the average sun-hopper to take seriously, and besides, even if one system prohibited warp drives, then the rest of the galaxy would continue using them regardless. Collective action seemed impossible in the face of convenience, momentum, and established transportation infrastructure. You get the idea.

II: As Above, So Below

The best thing I can think of to change your perspective on the climate crisis is a theory of mine, not scientific, not even philosophical, nor rigorous nor testable in any way, just…literary, maybe. Here it is. We know that the physical universe tends to operate on principles of balance, of equal and opposite forces. Nothing comes for free. What are hydrocarbons, or fossil feuls? They are the unused energy of hundreds of millions of years of life, unimaginably condensed into rock or sludge. Dinosaur blood, I like to say. They represent, though, the darkly distilled remains of billions of organisms, living things, far back into the antediluvian past.

My idea, which I’ve never heard expressed in this way, is that drawing from one column of the balance sheet adds to the other. We pay for using all that life from the distant past by causing death in the distant future. We draw trapped potential energy from prehistoric life, and it is pulled out of our possible future. Imagine a scale, on one side of which are all the life forms that once existed to provide us with those miraculous hydrocarbons. On the other side are all the species going extinct, deaths from air pollution, ecosystems and societies otherwise abysmally drowned, wrecked, or destroyed. There is a terrible, inescapable symmetry to it, a Faustian bargain.

Think of conventional fuels, then, as made not from a fossilized past, but out of the biotic potential of the not-yet fossilized future. The scale, the amount of life and energy combusted and lost, is the same. As many innumerable waves of procreation that contributed to the slow accretion of oil and coal are also being pulled from the not-yet-real domain of the far future, stuffed into and guzzled by tanks of gas, turned into poison smoke.

III: Earth is my Religion

Profe!” a voice called from the taquería, even though technically I’m only a maestro, not a professor. It was a woman who worked at the university, with whom I’d traded smiles and low-level flirtation but never actually talked to. She called me over to introduce me to one of her friends. She’d seen me running on the track, she said, in the desportivo, which was where I was headed then, even though it was 8 o’clock at night. You run a lot, you never get tired! We established my age, marital status, and she gave me her phone number.

Later, we were sitting on low stone benches in the courtyard outside of the church, where a crowd was watching a dance performance by children, something related to the day of the puebla, a fiesta which will apparently go through the weekend. She kept offering me tacos, and I kept saying I was vegetarian. She has lived in Teotitlan all her life, and is the youngest of ten siblings. She wants to learn other languages (although not English, apparently), and travel to Europe. She asked if I am catholic and I said no, and she asked then what is my religion? Loud fireworks are going off, and we can only see the head-dresses of costumes above the crowd. My Spanish isn’t up to the task of elucidating the finer points agnosticism and atheism, but I know the word for church, and I know the word for mountains, so I say that I go walking in the mountains, and that, for me, is like going to church. God isn’t a person, it is nature.

That’s why some of the comparisons between the burning of Notre Dame and the Amazon rain forest seemed apt to me. When Notre Dame was in flames, though, it was only a place to worship God was being destroyed. When the rain forest is on fire, God itself is burning.

Not far from the puebla, last time I went hiking, was a cardboard box for a high definition television. On the box was a highly saturated image of mountains, and a sky. A picture of a perfect view, printed on trash that was ruining what would have otherwise been a perfect view.

I deviated from my usual path, going up a narrow little gulch between the mountains, which meant scrambling over some rocks and cacti, but ended up with a relatively easy-to follow trail in what was probably once a stream-bed. A defile, I thought, considering the double meaning of the word.

There is a lot of trash here, on the trails, on the side of the roads. When I ran on the track tonight, I smelt that toxic tang of burning plastic, and wondered if I was damaging my health by inhaling as much as I was improving it through exercise.

IV: Human Ecologies

One of the scariest things about global warming, and a phrase I had a hard time translating for the students this morning, is a tipping point. Not a propina, I explained, not money left on a table at a restaurant, but an inclinacion. I showed them my coffee mug, tilting it to the side.

Possible tipping points, after which irreversible feed-back loops will be initiated, include the losing enough of the amazon to disrupt its hydrological cycle, leading to the forest becoming savanna, catastrophic amounts of methane being released either from warming oceans or melting permafrost, decreased albedo from loss of polar ice, phytoplankton die-off, and many other nightmare scenarios our collective toes are edging towards.

There’s another tipping point, though, that as far as I know has never been discussed. It has to do with (bear with me) my graduate studies, which were on so-called literary ecosystems. Natural systems live a global environment are often thought of as distinct and qualitatively different from human or social systems, like a global culture, but one of the things that drew me to the now-unfashionable field of memetics was the ability to find parallels between the two. Narrative genres, I argued, could be seen to evolve within cultural environments and selective forces in the same way that biological species evolved within physical environments.

Ecologies of all kinds are fascinating to me, and beautiful, including ecologies of language, behavior, and technology. I am in awe of modern industrial civilization, at least much as I am appalled by it. The tipping point that I am afraid of, even more invisible than that of geo-physical systems, is where the economic, material, and technological substrates of our global human ecology become degraded to the point where we no longer have the intellectual infrastructure to come up with or implement possible solutions. Having worked at Universities I’ve had glimpses of how precarious the complicated networks of funding and research are. In the face of resource shortage and societal collapse, the ability to coordinate large-scale scientific efforts will also disappear. Governments will become more despotic and violent, and efforts will go more towards mitigation of short-term effects of catastrophes than to the long-term prevention of them.

The fragility of our ability to effectively collaborate and communicate is another reason why these climate strikes are necessary, and why I’m trying, in my own way, to participate in them. Human ecologies of technology and culture need to function more like natural environments, with a requisite level of diversity and free flow of information. Under the present form of capitalism, the efficiency of human populations, as a unbelievably massive system of parallel processing, is hindered because the voices and opinions of so few are given so much weight, distorting collective thought and action. Harnessing the wisdom of crowds requires parity among members of society. Vast inequalities of wealth are not only unjust, they make us, as a collective, stupider.

It’s like a neural network where the program contains a fundamental error causing certain nodes to exert a billion times the influence on surrounding nodes than would be the case in an optimally functioning system. We are living in a fake democracy, a simulacra of a collective society, like a picture of mountains on a cardboard box. A mechanical bird instead of a real one, that is winding down in the early dawn of a different kind of day.

That’s what I wrote today, trying to be as real as possible. You have know way of knowing If I’m really terrified of climate change, or am only deploying these well-known tropes for rhetorical effect.

I’m not going to come down on one side or the other of the question of our doom. It’s a sliding scale, and a small apocalypse is better than a larger one. We should save as much as possible, and enjoy it while we can.

For real.

-Teotitlan de Flores Magon, Oaxaca, Mexico, September 20th, 2019



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