When we talk about climate, we are talking about time. Not simply about time that appears to be running out, but about how we, as a species, are so poor about judging our relationship with the future.
On Monday at the Roundhouse in London six musicans performed a version of the score of Jem Finer’s Longplayer. What they played, on 234 Tibetan bowls, was just a fragment of the complete score. Jem Finer may be a musician better known for his three-minute punk-folk masterpieces as musical lynchpin in The Pogues but Longplayer, is no three chord wonder. It is designed to play for a thousand years. You can hear a fragment at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London, where the complete score is gradually being played out, note by slow note, by computer.
In America, The Long Now Foundation measures time in millennia. It was founded, as they say, in 01966 by Stewart Brand and a group of friends who included Brian Eno; (it was Eno who gave the organisation its name). They have built a clock [above right] which struck solemnly twice as the new millenium dawned, and will strike next three times at the dawn of New Year’s Day 3000AD.
In 2005 the artist Betinna Furnee set a time lapse camera up on the East Anglian coast. In eight months she filmed the relentless disappearance of land for her artwork Lines of Defense. Only by condensing that event into just under six minutes, by altering our perspective of time, does the scale of the the erosion become awesome enough to hold our attention.
The paradox of the modern age is that we have been given the power to see for miles and miles, yet most of the time we can only look as far as the end of our nose – or to some apocalyptic future that is beyond our control. For 80,000 human generations we struggled through the Pleistocene era, honing our ability to cope with our immediate needs – food, shelter and sex; in the 500 generations since then we have utterly transformed the planet – first gradually, then over the last dozen or so at a breakneck speed which now puts our own relationship with earth in danger.
Perhaps not a surprise, then, that we are having trouble with the immensity of the paradigm shift we need to get our head around this new era. Maybe those of us who campaign around climate haven’t quite got that paradigm right ourselves yet, either.
I thought about this when I read Matthew Cain’s recent blog, Climate Change: I don’t care enough:
I don’t care enough about climate change. I’m not proud of that. I believe experts when they say that it is the biggest threat to the future of civilisation. I pity the plight of poor farmers in areas of the world vulnerable to changes in the climate (Maldives, Bangladesh spring to mind). And I would like to live a responsible lifestyle, contributing more to society than I take out. But that’s not enough to make me care about climate change.
It’s a very honest statement. We may worry about denial buffoons like the Tory MP Douglas Carswell who blogged earlier in the week that the idea of “man-made climate change” was merely the product of the “lunatic consensus” but in truth, they are just the clowns. The real problem is the middle ground… the vaguely sympathetic. The IPPR’s recent report reminds us that there are large numbers of people out there who, far from being energised by the noise we all make on days like today – Blog Action Day, instead feel resentful about being made to feel guilty about their lifestyles. The difference with Matthew Cain is he’s big enough to own up.
We accuse them of being selfish. We pile dung on their driveways. [Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for piling dung on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway, but… ] But all too often our grandstanding produces lethargy, not action.
There doesn’t appear to be much that’s self-centered about Matthew Cain – apart from an over-keen interest in his own web stats, perhaps. He’s as interested in social causes and progressive change as the rest of us – more probably. He shares with the rest of us that altruism that we know is encoded in all of us.
So why isn’t he as engaged with climate change?
It’s time to start asking whether that’s our own fault. When I say “our” I mean, us, the true believers… those who think it’s the most pressing social issue of our time.
Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, has a new book out, Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Hulme’s career arc has been a fascinating one. He is the scientist responsible for founding the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. If you’re remotely interested in the science of climate, you’ll know what major players they have been. But recently his place in the unfolding story of climate research has made him more interested in the social response to science than the science itself. He has watched with fascination as the news about impending climate change has been translated into panic, anxiety and inaction. He realises he has seen us handing over our ability to think about the future to people like himself.
Much of the rhetoric here at the RSA has been about allowing individuals to take control of their lives, yet Hulme suggests the narrative of climate change has been about surrendering our mastery of the future to numbers, to politicians and to scientists. Yes, I support the campaign to stabalise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 350 parts per million, but what does that really mean? I barely understand the science of it, let alone what it means for the way we will live.
Yes, I want to see significant progress at Copenhagen, but most of the political solutions on the table require a stronger state to enforce carbon reductions. In the Politics of Climate Change Anthony Giddens argues that we must return to an old style command economy. Is this really the future we want? Much of the silent middle ground, left and right wing, sees climate as the excuse the state is using for taking back the power they lost in the second half of the 20th century. And who’s to say they haven’t got a point? If activists like Matthew Cain, who have spent their political lives trying to give people power over the machinery of the state, don’t feel engaged in climate, is that really such a big surprise?
We tend to think those who do not share our need to act to make the future safe are short-sighted. They don’t understand the “long now” those artists have all identified.
But maybe it’s time for climate change campaigners to start thinking more seriously about the future themselves. Shouldn’t what we want our society to be like in the future be a lot more connected to what we want it to be like right now?