Saturday, June 13, 2015

16 Theses on Meteorology

Kant noted that innocence was a splendid thing, but didn't keep well, and tended to be misled. We cannot afford to be innocent about the weather, but we do not know where to go for wisdom. The blasphemous desire to see the spectacular extremes of weather is not innocent, but neither is it wise.

There was a collective sigh of relief breathed in the middle of the nineteenth century when Sir Thomas Huxley, the doyen of British science, announced that the oceans were to all intents and purposes infinite. We might take from and dump into them as much as we wanted: they would be forever fecund and forgiving. It took the spectacular collapse of the Atlantic fisheries, even more than the near-extinction of several species of whale, to persuade anyone otherwise.

Water and air: the facts of the south are oceanic. As refugees from the dead Atlantic ply further south to feed the gourmets of Paris and New York, what price our islands and shores, what price our ice and swelling El Niño?

The iconic weather maps with their sweeping curves decorated with triangles and semicircles were inspired by maps of battlefields. The language of 'fronts' comes from the same source. The weather, for almost as long as there has been anything like a science of meteorology, has had its metaphorical roots in war. The satellite technology we use now puts the weather under surveillance. Defence against the elements: we have made the climate in our own image, and it has become our enemy.

1962: the year of the Cuban missile crisis, also saw the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book that launched ecology as a global political movement. In less than fifty years, we have moved from the fear that politicians would annihilate us through their actions to the fear that they will annihilate us through their inaction.

The Saturday papers in late May 2007 carried a brief notice of the opinion of a group of researchers that the terrestrial biomass may have passed the point at which it is capable of sequestering the carbon that the human population produces. The catastrophe may already have happened, while we dickered over blame.

Even as the Weddell Sea divulges a hundred new species in the dark depths below the ice, the ice is melting and their habitat expiring. Was our species the only great experiment of consciousness? Will the universe bother trying it again?

A catastrophe is not a crisis. It occurs as often as not quite quietly, while we walk the dog, or pickle lemons. It is only days, weeks, months later that you realise that somewhere back in the past the crucial nail fell out of the roof, the vital pipe began its slow leak. A crisis, by contrast, is a sudden loss: we recognise a crisis because, suddenly, the news reports have no images to show us. A crisis is a moment for which the response is pure action. There is no ecological crisis: only a catastrophe. Now is not the time for action. Now is the time for talk. And for images, songs, perfumes, pretty clothes and good cuisine.

Political inaction may have brought about this state of affairs, but political action is probably the most dangerous of all possible tools to apply to rectifying it. Ecofascism is also fascism.

It is enormously difficult to see the planet, even with our iconic photograph from the Apollo moon lander (the last true photograph ever taken in space). "Free the human six billion" is not a slogan that will rally the world. The portentous music and slick graphics of news programs on TV are there to persuade us that the world is knowable, exactly because in our hearts we know that it is not.

Weather is definitionally what we cannot know as a whole: this is why it is the commonest example of emergent behaviours in chaotic systems. We consider the butterfly effect, and begin to retrace its logic: how does a hurricane in New Orleans effect the butterfly in China? (If Milton Friedman had read Kipling's Butterfly That Stamped instead of The Wealth of Nations things might have gone better, or at least otherwise). The interconnecting turbines of the four southern oceans are as unknown to us as galaxies on the far side of space, but no longer so distant.

Because the weather is our enemy, we have been cowering in artificial caves for millennia. We have the technologies that would allow us to turn our houses inside out, to publish our intimacies in ubiquitous networks. Instead we have invested in smaller artificial caves with wheels, which we use to transport the three-piece suite of the frightened living room around streets on which we no longer care to walk because of all the other frightened caves rolling around them. In the age of instantaneous communication, we sit gridlocked and fuming.

In the information economy, human creativity is held, like Huxley's oceans, to be effectively infinite. No matter what we dump in it, and how much we extract, will it forever produce energy and ideas from calories? Creativity may yet turn out to be a finite resource. We must nurture it, because we do not know what it is for. This is not an analogy with Huxley's oceans: it is the same case.

We do not know what oil is for. In 1856, then aged eighteen, William Henry Perkin extracted the first aniline dye from coal tar. We have no notion what riches, what cures, what marvels lie hidden in the long-chain organic compounds formed in the Earth's crust. So we set fire to it. Saddam Hussein merely cut out the middleman.

Climate change has become the cause célèbre of our times, so much so that politicians can reanimate what we all had hoped was the decaying corpse of nuclear power. I write this sentence of a machine whose built-in obsolescence would have embarrassed Detroit in 1962, and which is destined for the miserable recycling villages of the Philippines. "Kyoto" has become a slogan for the ecofascist tendencies of the society of control. The only way to avoid catastrophe is to want less. Art is not very good at that. Art is not a way of avoiding catastrophe, but a way of defusing crisis.

"A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom" wrote Robert Lowell (the best thing he ever wrote). What we call creativity is the struggle between reality and the imagination. To the extent that that struggle has no end, it will never achieve wisdom. It may never escape from innocence. But without creativity's start in innocent delight, we will never truly recognise the dangers of innocence.

These hypotheses first published in The Trouble with Weather: A Southern Response, curated by Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda, UTS Gallery, Sydney 2007; online at