I watch NBC Nightly News regularly to get a sense of what version of our world a slice of America is regularly offered. In recent weeks, most of those newscasts -- which usually begin with Lester Holt exclaiming, "Breaking news tonight!" -- led with unprecedented rainfall, possibly historic flooding, and record numbers of tornadoes across the Midwest; in other words, a staggering version of extreme weather. One thing struck me, though. There was no discussion -- never even a mention -- of global warming.
Now, it's true, at least when it comes to those 500 tornadoes in a month, that the link to climate change is still being established. But not a word? Not a peep? Not a bit of thoughtful commentary or reportage or speculation on our obviously changing planet? You know, the one that could lose not just Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Miami, and the north China plain, but so much else in the decades to come. According to a new report from a reputable Australian think tank, global warming might have a shot at ending human civilization as we know it, starting as early as 2050. And yet the subject, the gravest (in every sense) in human history, stands no chance whatsoever against the endless reportage on Donald Trump's every twitch. It's a goner (even though we're talking about what could, sooner or later, make us all goners). Isn't that extraordinary, as humanity pours ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?
To find out something about all this, you need to turn first to climate scientists and then to our children, the young people school-striking in increasing numbers across the planet, and especially to the 16-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, who started it all and couldn't be more eloquent on the subject of what we're not hearing. Here's just a sampling of what she says (in a language other than her own) and NBC News doesn't:
"If there really was a crisis this big, then we would rarely talk about anything else. As soon as you turned on the TV, almost everything would be about that: headlines, radio, newspaper. You would almost never hear about anything else. And the politicians would surely have done what was needed by now, wouldn't they? They would hold crisis meetings all the time, declare climate emergencies everywhere, and spend all their waking hours handling the situation and informing the people what was going on. But it never was like that. The climate crisis was just treated like any other issue or even less than that... And we must admit that we are losing this battle... Most of us don't know almost any of the basic facts, because how could we? We have not been told. Or more importantly, we have never been told by the right people. You cannot rely on people... to read through the latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, track the Keeling Curve, or keep tabs on the world's rapidly disappearing carbon budget. You have to explain that to us repeatedly, no matter how uncomfortable or unprofitable that may be... This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced... For too long, the people in power have gotten away with basically not doing anything to stop the climate and ecological breakdown. They have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit. But we young people are waking up. And we promise, we will not let you get away with it anymore."
Today, TomDispatch regular David Bromwich, whose soon-to-be-published book, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us, explores a world in which "the news" is largely about one man (who will someday be seen as one of the great criminals of history -- if there still is a history -- for aiding and abetting the literal destruction of the planet), a world in which the media distracts us all. Now, let Bromwich take you into that world of ours, the one that specializes in both extreme destruction and extreme distraction. Tom
Fire and Flood
Politics as Usual and Planetary Destruction
By David Bromwich
More and more, we look into our screens and gizmos. And this helps us -- almost as if they were made for that purpose -- not to think about the weather outside. Kept busy "curating" our own lives, we are regularly spared evidence of the coming catastrophe.
Long ago, in a memorable poem, Robert Frost guessed that there was a human need to bring the moods of the world into conformity with our moods:
"Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me."
He says he has seen the "head" of the tree "taken and tossed" in rough weather, as his own head was "taken and swept" by a dream. This resemblance between the world and himself somehow added to his interest in life:
"That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather."
This sense of the human place in the fabric of nature -- that there may be a deep connection between inner and outer weather -- is starting to seem a thing of the past.
Can we still have inner weather when the outer weather changes so regularly and drastically? When 500 tornadoes rip through the country from Kansas to Pennsylvania in a matter of weeks? Or when 875,000 California acres burn down in the course of a summer? Rather than hear the message, we look into our smartphones or at our computer screens whose backgrounds may include breathtakingly lovely pictures of the planet -- photos that show how beautiful a place it has been. As if we could have this Earth forever in reach, as if we could preserve it with a password or, by logging off, exchange it for another as lovely.
What Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have said about the American Republic is now true of the planet as well: we have a world, if we can keep it. But so much of our interest is directed elsewhere -- to the work of "renaming," for example. There are scholars who think that by christening our age the Anthropocene, they are putting the fires and floods under a microscope. But does this human-centered word do much more than carve a new channel for pride? ("Just look around! It's all us!") The world, it seems, has become but one more link in the cyber-human chain by which we exit our natural bodies and turn into something rich and strange.
Greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change, climate disruption. Think of the succession of words we've used to describe the gradual onset of catastrophe and you see at once how inadequate words can be. In our time, corporate lingo has even rendered "disruptive" an admiring adjective for tech innovations on a par with "transformative." Think back to the way "creative destruction" was used in an age of trickle-down economics -- the message was that the economic damage to so many people signaled a corporate creativity that would make the crooked places straight. Never mind the "destruction" part -- the victims would find their recompense at a higher level.
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