To understand what is happening to the living planet, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold remarked, is to live “in a world of wounds … An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”(1)
The metaphor suggests that he might have seen Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People(2). Thomas Stockmann is a doctor in a small Norwegian town, and medical officer at the public baths whose construction has been overseen by his brother, the mayor. The baths, the mayor boasts, “will become the focus of our municipal life! … Houses and landed property are rising in value every day.”
But Dr Stockmann discovers that the pipes were built in the wrong place, and the water feeding the baths is contaminated. “The source is poisoned …We are making our living by retailing filth and corruption! The whole of our flourishing municipal life derives its sustenance from a lie!” People bathing in the water to improve their health are instead falling ill.
Dr Stockmann expects to be treated as a hero for exposing this deadly threat. After the mayor discovers that re-laying the pipes would cost a fortune and probably sink the whole project, he decides that his brother’s report “has not convinced me that the condition of the water at the baths is as bad as you represent it to be.” He proposes to ignore the problem, make some cosmetic adjustments and carry on as before. After all, “the matter in hand is not simply a scientific one. It is a complicated matter, and has its economic as well as its technical side.” The local paper, the baths committee and the business people side with the mayor against the doctor’s “unreliable and exaggerated accounts”.
Astonished and enraged, Dr Stockmann lashes out madly at everyone. He attacks the town as a nest of imbeciles, and finds himself, in turn, denounced as an enemy of the people. His windows are broken, his clothes are torn, he’s evicted and ruined.
A recent editorial in the Daily Telegraph, which was by no means the worst of the recent commentary on this issue, follows the first three acts of the play(3). Marking the new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the paper sides with the mayor. First it suggests that the panel cannot be trusted, partly because its accounts are unreliable and exaggerated and partly because it uses “model-driven assumptions” to forecast future trends. (What would the Telegraph prefer? Tea leaves? Entrails?). Then it suggests that trying to stop manmade climate change would be too expensive. Then it proposes making some cosmetic adjustments and carrying on as before. (“Perhaps instead of continued doom-mongering, however, greater thought needs to be given to how mankind might adapt to the climatic realities.”)
But at least the Telegraph accepted that the issue deserved some prominence. On the Daily Mail’s website, climate breakdown was scarcely a footnote to the real issues of the day: “Kim Kardashian looks more confident than ever as she shows off her toned curves” and “Little George is the spitting image of Kate”.
Beneath these indispensable reports was a story celebrating the discovery of “vast deposits of coal lying under the North Sea, which could provide enough energy to power Britain for centuries.”(4) No connection with the release of the new climate report was made. Like royal babies, Kim’s curves and Ibsen’s municipal baths, coal is good for business. Global warming, like Dr Stockmann’s contaminants, is the spectre at the feast.
Everywhere we’re told that it’s easier to adapt to global warming than to stop causing it. This suggests that it’s not only the Stern review on the economics of climate change (showing that it’s much cheaper to avert climate breakdown than to try to live with it(5)) that has been forgotten, but also the floods which have so recently abated. If a small, rich, well-organised nation cannot protect its people from a winter of exceptional rainfall – which might have been caused by less than one degree of global warming – what hope do other nations have, when faced with four degrees or more?
When our environment secretary, Owen Paterson, assures us that climate change “is something we can adapt to over time”(6) or Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian, says that we should move towards “thinking intelligently about how the world should adapt to what is already happening”(7), what do they envisage? Cities relocated to higher ground? Roads and railways shifted inland? Rivers diverted? Arable land abandoned? Regions depopulated? Have they any clue about what this would cost? Of what the impacts would be for the people breezily being told to live with it?
My guess is that they don’t envisage anything: they have no idea what they mean when they say adaptation. If they’ve thought about it at all, they probably picture a steady rise in temperatures, followed by a steady rise in impacts, to which we steadily adjust. But that, as we should know from our own recent experience, is not how it happens. Climate breakdown proceeds in fits and starts, sudden changes of state against which, as we discovered on a small scale in January, preparations cannot easily be made.
Insurers working out their liability when a disaster has occurred use a process they call loss adjustment. It could describe what all of us who love this world are going through, as we begin to recognise that governments, the media and most businesses have no intention of seeking to avert the coming tragedies. We are being told to accept the world of wounds; to live with the disappearance, envisaged in the new climate report, of coral reefs and summer sea ice, of most glaciers and perhaps some rainforests, of rivers and wetlands and the species which, like many people, will be unable to adapt(8).
As the scale of the loss to which we must adjust becomes clearer, grief and anger are sometimes overwhelming. You find yourself, as I have done in this column, lashing out at the entire town.
First published in the Guardian. Courtesy: www.monbiot.com
1. Aldo Leopold, 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press.
2. Read at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2446/2446-h/2446-h.htm
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT