I found myself asking this question the other day, out for a walk, and I thought of the above song.
The lyric does something quite common in pop music - takes a common idiomatic expression and gives it a new meaning in a different context.
At present, the human race exists in time, in history, with the suspense of the question, where will it end? I'm not sure that that is the meaning of the song, but that's what I was thinking about. In fact, I was writing about suspense just the other day.
There's a film that I often recommend that people watch if they are feeling depressed. It is Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. Actually, I haven't watched the film for some time now.
I'm going to post a couple of clips from it here, from the end of the film. Needless to say, the clips contain 'spoilers'. In what to me is the crucial scene, the Woody Allen character describes the resolution of his long existential crisis. If you don't have time to watch the whole film and you don't mind spoilers, here are the clips, with the scene in question starting about seven and a half minutes into the first clip and going over just a little into the second clip.
Now I'm going to write something that's a bit of a spoiler, so read no further if you want to avoid such: The basic message is that we don't know where it will all end, but that we might as well enjoy it while we're here. Sounds trite when written like that, but in the film it's not trite (I don't think). There's also, to me, a suggestion that part of the enjoyment of life comes in the not knowing, a sense that perhaps the most rewarding attitude to take to life is that one takes to a film or story, not knowing how it will end, and not wanting to have any spoilers.
Earlier today, I read this article (or one like it) about Obama's declaration that it was too early for a climate deal to be agreed at Copenhagen. I read some of the comments under the article, too (which I can't find under this one, so it must be a different article). On the whole, I find comments on the Internet depressing, and something of a reminder of what many people claim are the shortcomings of democracy. This was another such depressing experience. I can understand, to a degree, skepticism about climate change, but what I don't understand is the very prevalent denial. In very simple terms, if a number of people were sitting in a house and one (or most of them) said, "I can smell burning", what kind of person would say, "Shut up! Nothing's burning, you irrational, religionistic doom-monger!"? The answer, of course, is someone who was afraid that something was burning but didn't want to believe it or do anything about it. And this is the feeling I get from those who think that climate change is a hoax.
On the other hand, there is something, I think, that exacerbates this kind of denial. I have e-mail subscriptions to newletters from a number of environmental organisations. I got an e-mail from one of these with the title, "Who is the Scariest Climate Action Opponent?" I almost expect the words "of them all" to be tacked on at the end. I find this tone to be patronising. It's a talking down, as if to children (who shouldn't be talked down to anyway). Unfortunately, I've noticed just this tone more and more in the e-mails I receive, and I begin to think that it's no wonder people have the impression green activists are "religionistic", or whatever ridiculous, illiterate, Internet-age, made-up word they want to use, if this is a sample of the tone and attitude of the activism.
I suppose - I'm just guessing, in a writing-a-blog-post kind of way - that what the deniers and this particular kind of fixated activist have in common is fear. Of death, probably.
Where will it end?
I actually think, at the moment of writing, that it would be a shame if we let the film come to a premature end, through one kind of fear or another. To be accepting of the fact of death, of the end of the film, might make the film more enjoyable, and might make it possible to watch for longer. I suppose it has to end some time, but it seems to me that we haven't got to the really good bits yet. If there are any.
Sorry if this is trite.
I was going to link in David Bowie's Saviour Machine to this theme somehow, but I'm not sure I have a neat, seamless way of doing it now. I'll inset the clip, anyway.
Today, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, will chair a meeting on Climate Change. He does so because he hopes that such a gathering of Heads of Government will galvanise the chances of agreement being reached in December in Copenhagen at COP15.
It seems that he is aware, as are many others, that the threat of climate change is very real and that, as scientists now believe we have less than ninety five months left to avert the risk of its catastrophic consequences, we need to act and act very fast.
Human life is fleeting. An analogy has been made that, if the history of time (since the Big Bang) were scaled down to one year, then:
All human prehistory (from the first known stone tools) and history have occurred in the last 1/2 hour of New Year's Eve.
Human life is not only recent, but would seem to be doomed. H.P. Lovecraft spoke of we humans as inhabiting a "placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity". The island in question is not merely an island in terms of space - this island Earth - but in terms of time. It's temporal extent is limited by beginning and end, so that it hangs in suspended isolation in eternity, as well as infinity (a concept that Lovecraft was to articulate in The Shadow out of Time). It's not only individuals and species that are born and die, but planets and solar systems (and probably universes, too):
The scientists agree that we do not yet know how ubiquitous or how fragile life is, but as Guinan concludes: “The Earth’s period of habitability is nearly over ― on a cosmological timescale. In a half to one billion years the Sun will start to be too luminous and warm for water to exist in liquid form on Earth, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect in less than 2 billion years“.
We all know about this kind of thing, already, and we all know (as well) that many are beginning to put the end of things (for the human race) as an event much nearer in the future. (Although, on a related note, a recent e-mail from the Center for Biological Diversity tells me that "less than half of all Americans have ever heard of the extinction crisis, and even fewer believe it's really happening".) In this article, Franny Armstrong is quoted as saying:
If we don't cause massive social change in the next few months then it is about all over for life on earth...
With a question as serious as the extinction of life on Earth (all life?), I wish that more specific information would be given, rather than just a vague but urgent apocalyptic threat, but I suppose that's the fault of the article rather than of Ms. Armstrong. On the whole, I find information on the impacts of climate change to by far less accessible than it should be considering how serious the whole issue is. It is far, far easier to find out, say, how Charlotte Church is getting on with Gavin Henson than it is to find digested, clear, specific information on the impacts of climate change, especially the projected impacts. Franny says it will be "all over for life on earth", but what is that based on? There's the Pentagon report, of course:
A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.
The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents.
'Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,' concludes the Pentagon analysis. 'Once again, warfare would define human life.'
Although that's a few years old now.
Still, what we're given the digest of is the 'what' and not the 'why' or 'how'. I wish the two elements of 'what' and 'why/how' were put together in a more readily available form, since, as we all live, more or less, on this planet, we all need to know about this sort of thing. I'm reminded a little of the government's completely uninformative public information films on AIDS back in the 80s:
Anyway, all this is a lead up to me saying that I wanted to compare and contrast the following two clips:
The second of the two was sent to me - I believe - in another Center for Biological Diversity, or possibly a Friends of the Earth e-mail. I noticed, when I first watched it, that it had had five hundred and something views. It was sent to me a few days later in a different e-mail, and I watched it again. I was curious as to how many views it had had in the intervening days. The figure was still only five hundred and something. I found this inexpressibly sad, and posted the clip on this blog. I see that, at the moment of writing, the clip has had 919 views.
George Carlin, by contrast, has had 1,430,146 views. He is far more qualified than Maria to fit the description he gives of environmentalists: "white, bourgeois liberals". He is a rich, white American. Or was.
I find some of Carlin's material amusing, and some of it interesting. A friend recently told me he'd discovered Carlin, and we had a brief conversation about him. He mentioned the clip I've just posted. "Yeah," I said, "but...", countering something that Carlin had said in the routine. "I think it's meant to be a joke," said my friend, "It's comedy."
Now, this is an interesting point. I don't get the sense that Carlin is being ironic here. Do you? I think he means what he's saying. We could say, yes, but he's letting off steam, or, yes, but it's in the context of comedy, and you have to take a more complex view of it, not simply take it at face value, etc. We have to ponder such things, because of the growth in observational comedy, the death of the punchline and so on, which means that comedy is not so much about being funny any more. I didn't notice any jokes in Carlin's seven-minute peroration there. There was the occasional allusion to humour, but nothing side-splitting. Basically, these days, stand-up comedy can be just like a blog - like this blog - a lay-person spouting opinions about anything they want to spout opinions about for an hour or two, although, unlike a blogger, they get paid for it. As long as the audience manage to cough up a titter or two during the course of the evening, and the person on stage makes a silly face now and then, it qualifies as comedy.
Let's just assume Carlin means what he says, because I think he does. You might wonder why anyone would care what a dead comedian thinks, anyway. I suppose I was struck by this clip the first time I saw it, precisely because I do think that his spiel is put together well, and because there's something, if you like, 'important' in what he's saying.
I'm not keen on long blog posts recently, so I'll try and keep this short. What he's talking about is facing death. That's what's important. We all have to face death. I die, you die, butterflies die, whales die, planets die, everything dies. At one point he says, "The planet isn't going anywhere - we are". We are on our way out. Well, yes, sooner or later, and it looks like a distinct possibility that it will be sooner. For Carlin it was very much sooner. He's already gone. And I'm sure he was aware at the time that he was about to go. When you're on your way out, why care about the future, and about other people's futures? I can certainly sympathise with that point of view. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I still want to concentrate on death for the moment. It must be faced.
I can't help thinking that this is, in some ways, the logical conclusion of what might be called the Christian extroversion of Western culture.
I can't find it on the Internet anywhere, but the same friend with whom I had the Carlin conversation once told me of some Tibetan lama or someone who came to the West and was asked, "So, what do you think of Western religion?" He answered, "It's like Christmas, isn't it?" "In what way?" asked the interlocuter. "Sit on my lap and tell me what you want."
Christmas is precisely the phenomenon that shows how a supposedly spiritual religion, in fact, encourages materialism. All that's good in life is material possession. That is the message of Christmas. And what is behind this message? The fear of death. I wonder if the fear of death is stronger anywhere on Earth than in America, which seems to be the apogee of this tendency in Western culture. I like America, actually. I'm quite fascinated by the sugar-coated optimism of it all, beneath which there lurks one of the highest homicide rates in the world. What I find hard to take about America is the evangelism and unquestioning patriotism... Anyway, this is possibly a tangent. Materialism, consumerism (I hate myself and I want to buy) and the fear of death that lies behind it, are not exclusively American, by any means.
I even sympathise. And naturally I would sympathise. America, we are told, has a dream. I have dreams, too. Sometimes - very often - it seems that in order to face death, one must give up on those dreams, and I don't want to.
But what are our dreams, in the end? A Barbie doll? Kellogs Frosties?
There's a song called Working Class Hero by John Lennon:
As soon as you're born they make you feel small, By giving you no time instead of it all Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all.
Yes, John, yes, but... the thing is, we are small. Not just us, but our parents, who work their fingers to the bone for us. That's why they have so little time to give us, because they're fighting to survive in an environment where they realised they are small a long time ago (even if they have managed to stave off that realisation consciously somehow). Remember, John, that you're standing, on a planet that's evolving, revolving at 900 miles an hour...
So, that's the importance of death - of facing death.
However, to get back to my 'but' with regard to the Carlin clip. Carlin was on his way out, sooner than those of us now here to read this blog post. I am able to sympathise with his point of view because I'm probably now closer to death than I am to birth, and have been unsuccessful in just about every conceivable sphere of human endeavour. But there are people still being born, and, whether it's selfish or not, they'd like a clean, or at least a habitable environment, I'm guessing (using my faculty of empathy). If we don't want to simply say, that's it then, we're on our way out, and if we want some kind of future for the children that some people are still producing (large numbers of people according to Consuming Kids) then it's only a matter of practicality and common sense to try and ensure that they have the possiblity of living somewhere, though the more of them there are, the less possibility there is.
Also, there's the question of globalisation. Rich countries like the benefits that accrue to them from global commerce, but if globalisation is to be championed as a result, then that must also mean global responsibility. At present, as the clip of Maria from Kiribati suggests, it is largely the poorer nations who are suffering from the results of environmental destruction, though they are those least responsible for it.
Paradoxically, I think that facing death, that 'giving in', might be the only way to go on.
Let go that Barbie doll. Let go those Kellogs Frosties. Face it. You're going to die. It'll be a relief. Let it go. Let go.
You can click on this link if you would like to send an e-mail or letter like the one below to your MP:
I do not know how many others will be sending you this e-mail. I suppose it's possible that I am the only one who will do so. Just in case you receive a large number of them, however, I thought I would at least write something a little different to the text prepared by the WWF at the top of my e-mail.
I am not sure how eloquent I can be, but I would like to appeal to your conscience and your reason. I'm sorry also, if that sounds like an assumption that you usually heed neither, but in these times it seems that it is rare for a politician even to possess those two things. We are seeing in the world now in at least two ways, how the politics of economic expansion is ultimately to the detriment of all. We are suffering for the greed of those with power not only through the loss of the beauty of our environment, and the squandering of resources, but also in economic instability. Can we afford to continue in such a short-sighted manner? I urge you sincerely to do the utmost in your power as a politician to support those changes in our society that will ensure we continue to have a coherent society. The words below are not my own, but I have read them and back them wholeheartedly. Thank you for reading:
I am writing to you as my MP to urge you to seize this last opportunity to help strengthen the Climate Change Bill. It is vital that three important changes are made to the Bill to ensure the UK does its fair share in tackling climate change.
Firstly, the emissions reduction target for 2050 must be increased to at least 80% in order to reflect the latest science. As you aware, the Committee on Climate Change has just given its advice to the Prime Minister that the UK should make a reduction of at least 80% by 2050 and it is vital that Parliament amends the Bill to reflect this. In addition, the 2020 reduction target must also be strengthened to 40% to ensure that the Government starts making substantial cuts straightaway and sets the UK on course towards a low-carbon economy.
Secondly, the UK’s fair share of emissions from international aviation and shipping must be included within the targets of the Bill. As you will be aware, the Committee on Climate Change also recommended that the 80% target cover all sectors including international aviation and shipping. It does not make sense to exclude the emissions from rapidly growing sectors when every other part of the economy will have to do its bit to meet the targets. Successful efforts to reduce emissions will be undermined by the growth in aviation and shipping unless they are brought into the Bill. Therefore, I urge you to vote to include international aviation and shipping within the targets of the Bill from the outset.
Finally, it is essential that the vast majority of these emissions reductions are actually achieved here in the UK. At present the Bill contains a loophole which allows the UK Government and business to buy an unlimited amount of carbon credits from overseas to achieve the reduction targets. Ultimately this loophole could open the door to a whole new generation of unabated coal-fired power stations, such as at Kingsnorth, which will ruin attempts to build a low-carbon economy. The Committee on Climate Change has called for a fully decarbonised power sector in the UK by 2030 so the overreliance on carbon credits is crucial. Therefore, it is vital that a requirement, added in the House of Lords, that 70% of the emission reductions are achieved domestically, is reinstated in the Bill.
The remaining stages of the Climate Change Bill mark a final opportunity to improve this legislation to ensure that the UK truly does its fair share to tackle climate change and is able to agree a strong global deal at Copenhagen next year.
I basically distrust television, though perhaps not as much as I should. Anyway, it didn't come as much of a surprise to me to read of what appears to be at least a bad case of negligence on the part of Channel 4, and quite possibly a campaign of grievous vandalism, with regard to the issue of climate change. The article in question is this one, by George Monbiot. I'm not going to give commentary; I think it speaks for itself.
With inadequate preparation [there] could be a significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the Earth's environment. ... an abrupt climate change scenario could potentially de-stabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints such as:
1) Food shortages due to decreases in net global agricultural production 2) Decreased availability and quality of fresh water in key regions due to shifted precipitation patterns, causing more frequent floods and droughts 3) Disrupted access to energy supplies due to extensive sea ice and storminess
We're here at the climate summit in Bali -- but it's reached crisis point. Working late, negotiators were nearing consensus that developed countries should pledge post-Kyoto emissions cuts by 2020--a step which the scientists say is needed to avert the worst ravages of global warming, and which will help to bring China and the developing world onboard. But then the news broke: the US, Canada and Japan rejected any mention of such cuts. Every few hours the draft changes.
If you disagree with the gross irresponsibility of the USA, Canada and Japan, please sign the petition here.
I read this entry on Interbreeding today, and it reminded me of some of my feelings about politics and communism. I don't consider myself a political person. Because, in the same way people pester you to say what football team you support, they will often pester you to say what your politics are, I suppose I have tended to think of myself or represent myself as left-leaning, but I basically think that politics itself - left or right - is the problem not the solution. Interbreeding tells us that, "There is nothing noble about politicians. One of the core features of the dictatorship of the proletariat is their abolition." I agree with the first sentence. The second sentence is interesting because it reminds me that I feel myself becoming very sympathetic towards the idea of communism. However, as a political, historical phenomenon, I more or less hate communism. I have said in the past that any ideal society has to be communist in a way. The word 'communist' obviously belongs to the same etymological family as 'commune' (noun and verb) and 'community'. I feel strongly that what is missing from modern society is a sense of community. But any communism that takes place must, to succeed, be apolitical. It must represent the end of politics, not just another form of politics. To reiterate - politics is the problem, not the solution.
I suppose I'm not particularly optimistic about the possibility of a successful (that is, a spontaneous and apolitical) communism. There are too many people in the world, and their interests and values seem too much at variance. I only have to look at any public forum on the Internet, with ordinary people (idiots, as they were called in Greece) giving the world the benefit of their views, and I become depressed at the chaotic conflict of it all and wish to withdraw. And, since the population has reached its current state, where there is no room for people to leave and set up their own country (everywhere has already been taken), this withdrawal is what the triumph of capitalism is built upon. Money and politics are the symptoms of distrust and disharmony. Politicians feed on conflict for their power. Who would need these parasites if there were harmony? It is at this point that I begin to despair, knowing that my misanthropy feeds capitalism, but being unable to relate to (commune with) the vast majority of people around me.
I'm not quite sure what to do about that, except try to remain open and not to 'play politics'.
Playing politics is an interesting term. I find it being used by Housing Minister Yvette Cooper, here. There have been quite shocking floods in Britain recently, but Yvette Cooper says that we must not "play politics", by arguing that the floods are a good reason to stop the proposed housing developments on the flood plains. Well, this is interesting. So, tell me again, who is playing politics here, Yvette? Could it be someone with a vested interest like... er... I don't know, the Minister for Housing? Or could it be someone uninterested in politics who happens to notice that if you build houses on a flood plain, they get flooded. Not only that, but development on the flood plain increases flooding, for the same reason that all you folks who pave over the soil of your yard so you can park your massive polluting cars increase flooding - because the water has nowhere to seep away. And it's at this point that I begin to see violence as an attractive option. Anyone who indulges in such Orwellian double-speak has clearly already lost their soul.
The flooding raises another issue - that of climate change. Apparently these recent floods are sparked by the worst rainfall in Britain in living memory. I haven't noticed any speculation or enquiry in the media into how this relates to climate change. The issues focused upon are things like housing - political issues. A recent poll, in fact, found that most of the (British? In keeping with recent sloppy journalism the article I read did not specify the boundaries of the poll) public believe terrorism and graffiti to be greater problems than climate change. I hardly know what to say about such views. I feel as if I am living on a different planet to these people (I certainly wish I was). Of course, terrorism and graffiti are, in a sense, political inventions - they are 'issues' invented by politicians to divide people, to distract them, and to ensure the power of the political class. Climate change should not be such a political issue.
I read an article on the Internet recently, in the wake of Live Earth, giving the point of view of a climate change sceptic. Unfortunately I can't find the link now, so my remarks will have to remain general rather than specific. For one thing, the media prove themselves to be scum once again by angling always for controversy, by overemphasising the idea that the 'sceptic' interviewed is 'against' the idea of climate change, and is 'challenging' it. The headlines were along the lines of "Save people, not the planet." I don't know if you could find a more moronic slogan, but I suppose it will appeal to someone: "Yeah. Yeah. I've had enough of the fucking planet. Let's get rid of the damned thing, and just have the people." Anyway, the sceptic interviewed was basically saying (unable to deny climate change) that he thought money should be spent on 'more urgent' things. I find the psychology here really curious. What, really, is the motivation of this sceptic? Even if we accept that no one really knows what's going to happen, don't you want to do your best to prepare for the worst when there's at least strong evidence that it's coming? My impression is that the motivation here is political. That is, like the media, those with a political bent feed off contorversy and division. If anything looks like having a truth that transcends politics, they must, at all costs, challenge and politicise that truth, for fear of losing their power. But climate change is not political. We are dealing with forces that are way deeper than your shallow and petty little 'issues'. These waves and winds take no account of left or right. They are not politically motivated. You cannot engage them in political discourse. For once, we will have to rise above politics to survive. I have said it before, in different words, but this may be a chance for the human race to become spontaneously, apolitically communist, or it may see us all drowning in the farcical mire of politics, before we are finally drowned by the deeper waves of nature.
"Civilisation developed, and constructed extensive infrastructure, during a period of unusual climate stability, the Holocene, now almost 12,000 years in duration. That period is about to end," the scientists warn. Humanity cannot afford to burn the Earth's remaining underground reserves of fossil fuel. "To do so would guarantee dramatic climate change, yielding a different planet from the one on which civilisation developed and for which extensive physical infrastructure has been built," they say.
Apparently Tony Blair has just about caught up with the rest of humanity and declared that we "must act" to tackle climate change. Reading the news article, I was vaguely encouraged that politicians are slowly beginning to take this idea on board. However, I was also deeply depressed by certain other aspects of the article. We need to look no further than the first sentence, in fact:
The world will suffer irreversible economic damage without immediate action to combat climate change, the Prime Minister has said.
Notice the use of the word 'economic'. No mention of the destruction of the natural environment, or the loss of plant, animal and human life. No, if there's no money involved, it doesn't register on the political radar. This depresses me so much that it's truly beyond my power to put into words. After all, it's this political obsession with money, economic growth and so on, that has brought us to this crisis in the first place. I don't see us getting out of it by maintaining the same obsession. And the thing is, money is the biggest fiction, the least important thing in the world. I found this idea expressed admirably in a comment on the blog of David Miliband, Secretay of State for Environment. Someone signing himself as Mike Bennet writes as follows:
Hi David. I realise this is part of the upcoming announcement about new nuclear power stations to which I am totally opposed. I just wanted to make clear that there are two value systems going on here. Business and the Government work pretty much by money - if the case works financially then it's fine.
But the real world is far more complex than that - it doesn't recognise money at all in fact. And out here we citizens and our descendants are the ones who will bear the full effects of these decisions. And those effects are not financially measurable and are not included in your decisions really.
So I believe the starting point can't possibly really be public safety as you say - preparing for new nuclear power stations is not a path to go down if you truly value public safety.
David, you're in a good position to start to bring some honesty into politics - this would be a good place to start.
Incidentally, if anyone can help me out on this information, I'd been obliged. I saw Jeremy Paxman talking to some kind of government spokesman about the environment on Newsnight a week or two ago. I don't think it was David Miliband, strangely, though it's possible I just didn't recognise him. Anyway, the interview was fascinating, hilarious, depressing and scary. Basically, Paxman asked the spokesman, in view of Gordon Brown's statement that climate change is the biggest problem facing the planet, what exactly the government are doing to tackle that problem. The spokesman was completely unable to come up with anything that they were actually doing. He was really crumbling on camera. "So, climate change is the biggest problem facing the world. Can we therefore have a commitment from the government for some kind of action?" "Well, it's too early to talk about commitment." Blah blah blah. It also transpired that the respective figures for government spending on the environment and on the Iraq war were 100 million pounds (over one or four years, I can't remember) and five billion pounds. The most important problem in the world - 100 million pounds. Slaughtering a load of foreigners for reasons no longer intelligible to anyone - five billion pounds.