Thursday, 1 March 2007

A Lost Whale and a Polar Bear Swimming in the Footlights

It was like a sequence from the opening minutes of a disaster movie, that day last winter when a whale swam up the Thames and past the palace of Westminster. Two Leviathans, ominously juxtaposed: Hobbes' force of the state and this ancient, biblical force of nature, disorientated now and dying painfully. As in a film, the story played out through TV reporters and crowds gathering along the riverside, excited and amazed, yet oblivious to the significance of what they are witnessing. If only they knew, they would run for the hills...

Well, maybe not. But sitting in a concrete bunker on the opposite bank of the Thames the other night, listening as Iain Sinclair recalled that extraordinary event, it seemed to me that here was another example of the signs of the times I wrote about last month.

Climate change may be implicated in the death of the Thames whale. Colin MacLeod of Aberdeen University, who carried out the autopsy, believes changes in water temperature may have altered the distribution of her normal food, the marvellously named "gonatus armhook squid", driving it southwards into the North Sea. "If the whale then followed its natural migratory instincts to go south and west it will find all its pathways blocked by coastline."

Whether or not this is what happened, the whale in the Thames was a powerful symbol of a world out of joint. I guess this kind of eschatological tea-leaf reading could seem a poor use of time, given all the practical stuff to be done to raise awareness and limit the impact of climate change. Yet I believe that without such ways of thinking we will fail in more dangerous ways than we are likely to fail anyway.

As individuals, if we respond to our present circumstances with the ways of thinking currently respectable, we are likely to end in despair. Just yesterday, Paul Kingsnorth - one of Britain's most dedicated environmental journalists - demonstrated this tendency:

Imagine you are a visiting alien from another planet. Appraise the situation for yourself, and give me an unbiased and honest account of how likely you think it is that this species, at this time, in this situation, can do what is necessary to prevent potential climate disaster. What is the answer you get? Not good, is it?

Collectively, worse fates than despair beckon. There is a real danger that the application of existing ways of thinking to the circumstances of climate change will lead to the intensification of structures of domination, violence and oppression so as to preserve our ways of life - and that good people will actively support this in ways they would not ordinarily conscion.

In this context, the few voices which seem both hopeful and not obviously deluded belong to people able to operate outside the ways of thinking generally regarded as "grown up" in modern western societies. For example, one of my heroes, the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping! Now, I've met people who think the Reverend Billy is simply satirising religion. It's certainly true that he spoofs the hypocrisies of Christianity, yet he does so from a deep understanding of what religion can be at its best. (Very much in the line of Ivan Illich, in fact - that other turbulent priest and hero of mine.)

Anyway, I was struck by the difference between the despair towards which Paul Kingsnorth's article points, and a recent epistle from the Reverend Billy. He seems to be saying something I've been edging towards myself, that the force of nature which is starting to hit us is also an experience of the sublime, and may offer our last best chance of escaping the ways of thinking which have contributed to the mess we're in:

All activists are aware that we must take our strategies now from a more powerful partner in activism. Call it the Fabulous Unknown. We know that we are no match for the activist powers of this cataclysmic force.

We are all activists, or we think we are. We have searched for a theory of change. The apocalyptic Christians have their pillar of fire, war as a permanent weather system on their horizon. The liberals believe that change comes from some form of advertising, the industrial persuasion that they call democracy. People who claim to be changing the world are constantly offering alternatives for our lives which encourage a strict gradualism.

Western leaders, from Bush to Bono - they all have an idea for change, but they fear sudden change like a Puritan fears the sexual act. Arnold Schwarzenegger committed one of his four Hummers to a stern diet of veggie fuel. Glamorous gradualism. But our more powerful partner is both Fabulous and Unknowable, and has no fear of suddenness.

Last night, a friend of mine from "The Theater," shouted to an entire restaurant, "My art form hasn't changed the world since 'Angels in America' in 1995! I'll start the North Pole Theater. Yes, we'll go up there and... we'll raise our curtain on our play, and perform until our stage melts, and then we'll go down into the black freezing sea, and it will be a triumph!" I liked hearing this. She senses that now we must be extreme to be kind.

(Read the rest here.)

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