- Saying Climate Change:Ethics of the Sublime and the Problem of Representation
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrateThrough all its purples to the final slate,Persisting bleakly in an icy haze;
One might in turn become less diffident—Out of such mildew plucking neater mouldAnd spouting new orations of the cold.One might. One might. But time will not relent.—Wallace Stevens, “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad”
In “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad,” Stevens presents a portrait of the chronic ennui of modern life, the impenetrable and inescapable sameness of the every day. The poet longs for an encounter, an event, to be jolted from his habitual existence. The potential agent of deliverance from the meaninglessness of his ordinary life is the weather, specifically, an experience of extreme cold that can disrupt his rote routine and make decisive action possible. The poet imagines with utter clarity what this intrusion of the natural world into the inner world of consciousness might feel like, what it might mean, yet the poem ends despondently; the poet doubts that this agent of change will come, and he is unable to act without it.
In the Anthropocene, it’s easy to empathize. We face an uncertain future, with predictions of the effects of climate change ranging from desperately bad to apocalyptic. These predictions include not only extreme weather events, such as heat waves (Peng et al. 2011, 701-06) and catastrophic hurricanes (Ming and Held 2010, 6382-93), but also coastal flooding (McGranahan, Balk, and Anderson 2007, 17-37), drought (Seager and Vecchi 2010, 21277-82), an increase in arboviruses such as malaria (Dhiman et al. 2011, 372-83), and ecosystem collapse (Perry et al. 2011, 3679-96). Predictions are complicated by the various positive and negative feedback loops that could accelerate or slow the pace and/or amplify or diminish the effects of climate change, but [End Page 109] the scientific community has clearly and unequivocally expressed that failure to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions will result in catastrophe. Yet even the threat of apocalypse has not made us “less diffident.”
Much of the scholarship related to environmental communication has been concerned with how the messages of climate science get short-circuited in the public sphere, including the difficulty of scientific discourse, campaigns of misinformation, and apathetic responses to what often feels like a lost cause. Certainly, this scholarship is important work. But I want to argue that there is another, potentially thornier issue in environmental communication, and that is one of representation: what does climate change mean, how do we imagine it, and how do we encounter it? In The Long Emergency, James Kunstler describes attending a conference where Peter D. Ward, a paleontologist from the University of Washington, gave a presentation about the eventual end of the all life on the planet, using artistic renderings to drive the point home. Kunstler reports that everyone in the room seemed noticeably disturbed, and that he himself was “so depressed [he] felt like gargling with razor blades” (2005, 147-48). Yet, only hours later, the mood of the attendees had noticeably lifted, and everyone resumed partaking of the complimentary food and liquor, making no apparent connection between these “products of our bountiful cheap-oil economy” (147) and the alarming images they had earlier witnessed.
Like the poet in Stevens’ poem and these conference attendees, many of us are able to comprehend basic climate science and can even imagine the effects of climate change and how they might motivate us to act. One critical problem, however, is that “climate change,” as a rhetorical object, is hydra-headed, referring as it does to processes, agents and actors, outcomes and effects, feedback loops, and national and cultural responses, making it possible to interpret and imagine climate change in very different ways. Many interpretations of climate change, particularly those proliferated under the banner of sustainable development, represent the problem as a grave concern, but nothing that tweaks to the system can’t successfully solve. Many of the sustainability action plans of municipalities, businesses, and universities, rather than revising the assumptions of the neoliberal status quo, sound like a gleaming dream of capitalism...