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Perspective: That thing that must not be named

The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert compares it to an apocalyptic meteor; the environmentalist George Marshall to the Holocaust; the activist Naomi Klein to slavery; and the economics journalist Mc-Kenzie Funk, tacitly in his excellent book Windfall, to industrial colonialism. The American military calls it a threat to our national security. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works calls it "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." And the people of the Maldives could quite rightly call it genocide.

If not faced, it will wreak havoc on the world financial system, but if we face it, we might mess up the economy. Both a "perfect" and a "wicked" problem, it is "the biggest story in the world" and a story that is utterly resistant to the telling. It is India and China's fault (in the future), a brave new world, and yet the world we live in now, but worse. The novelist Jonathan Franzen calls it "dominant," the issue that is crowding all the other issues out. (Bird conservation, for instance.) A lot of people have compared it to that other great taboo of death.

"We have met the enemy and he is us," as Walt Kelly, author of the classic comic strip Pogo, once put it. We may live in a time of media fun-house mirrors, political doublespeak, and distorted, misreported science, but what is happening is happening, and we cannot sanely look away, unless we want to look away from everything we know and love. (It will destroy "everything we know and love.")

"We just consume," says a woman in a Swiss focus group quoted by Marshall as an example of a distanced "we" constructed to allow for inaction. "We are somehow helpless. We don't care anyway, as we don't exactly know what effect we cause. If we took every problem equally seriously, we would become permanently depressed." "Even if we tried to, we wouldn't be able to turn this ocean liner around," says a friend of mine, a writer, at a party. Does he actually believe this?

Perhaps because I myself am a writer, it is the writers' reactions that disappoint me the most. "It falls out of my head," one writer says. "Do I want to be guilty every time I open the fridge?" says another. We are the people in our culture who are trained in what to call a thing, and yet so many writers that I know don't want to look at it or name it.

This is a stark contrast with that group of writers tasked in the previous century with countenancing that era's deadly threats. "Being deprived of hope is not despairing," wrote the existentialist Albert Camus in his classic essay, "The Absurd Man." And: "As all the specialists in passion teach us, there is no eternal love but what is thwarted. There is scarcely any passion without struggle." This was a thinker who, despite the overwhelming odds, and the somatic peril of living out his days under the tonnage of a thousand armed nuclear warheads, continued to write and to name, and, ultimately, to embrace the sheer absurdity of living in a fallen world.

Science is uncomfortable being treated as religion, and yet in many ways they are structurally the same. I was in New York City for both Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. I have read with profound horror of the drought in California and the melting of the ice sheets in Antarctica.

I believe those things I see and read and hear about, but I also often say things like "New York City at mid-century will feel like Alabama" or "for every 1 degree rise in global temperature, there is a 10 percent reduction in many crop yields" that I have to take on faith. I am an acolyte, listening with reverence to my personal pontificates: the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, and the National Science Foundation, among so many others. Science is like religion in that we believe if we just listen hard enough and do the things we're told we will be saved.

The old superstitions die hard. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition, it is taboo to speak God's personal name. The Islamic tradition speaks of "the one hundred names for Allah," Allah being a name for God. And the English word "God" is itself a translation of the Hebrew word "Elohim," but these are not God's name. When Moses asks God what his name is, God replies "I AM WHO I AM," and instructs Moses to tell the sons of Israel that "I AM has sent me to you."

In Wisconsin, when asked about average temperature increases in the region over time, or the area's susceptibility to drought, wildfires and insects such as gypsy moths, employees of the Commissioners of Public Lands have been prohibited from calling the causes of such phenomena by name. In Florida, when asked to speak about sea level rise, the decimation of wetlands or the chikungunya virus, employees of the state's Department of Environmental Protection have been similarly told to circumlocute and to euphemize.

The parallel between God and these polities isn't a coincidence. We are living now in fear of overwhelming and for the most part invisible forces that threaten to destroy us. In the past, to refrain from plainly naming such forces might have seemed to some devout or respectfully humble. Today, however, and with all that we know, to not name these forces is folly and, ultimately, a form of despair. We have to call this what it is until it seems as far away as God.

Katy Lederer, author of two books of poems and a family memoir, works with the climate change campaign 350.org. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Perspective: That thing that must not be named 04/30/15 [Last modified: Friday, May 1, 2015 4:45pm]
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