14 March 2006

The Weather Makers


Over many years, I have discussed my inside life with three Roshi. (Roshis? Who knows. Buddhist priests. The folks who tell you what kind of meditation to do.) They all said variations on the same thing:

Thinking that you are in control, or that you have any power at all... this can only lead to anxiety. And anxiety is the ultimate state of powerlessness.

Which means you can only find power in powerlessness. I agree with this. It's a fundamental sculpture concept. You want to make something cool, and cool things often defy physics or present other physical problems to solve. And because it's a real thing you're making and not a representation of a thing, you actually have to engage in a dialogue with The Real World and negotiate a space in which your thing actually stands up and works. You can't do that if you think you have all the answers. People who think they have all the answers are really good at building stuff that doesn't break too many rules. Like furniture.

Park Friend Noah Fischer calls it Listening To Physics. I think that's a nice way to put it.

So it's interesting that Flannery has called his book The Weather Makers. That's a lot of agency to give individual humans. And it is no surprise that the introduction chapter is absolutely histrionic--an open and emotional description of his own worry. This is a strange way to start marshalling the troops around buying hybrid cars and turning off the lights NOW. I don't think it's going to be very effective.

Flannery has every right to be anxious--it's a rational response. All the data indicate that we are a bunch of lobsters in a pot. We see real evidence right now that we are lobsters in the pot. Serious, life-altering climate change really could happen within our lifetimes. That is legitimately scary. It scares me, too.

But is it useful to look at anything scary in terms of how scary it is? Or in terms of our own agency? What if we all start calling ourselves Weather Makers?

We are changing the climate, after all. And because we have the means to control our effect on the climate, we really should take some responsibility. But Flannery is gearing this book to the individual Weather Maker. Is one person a Weather Maker? Heck no. Even if I never drive again, which is easier for me to do because I live in a rationally dense place, turn off all my lights and do everything else I personally can do to ease my CO2 output, this will not make a bit of difference. Everybody's got to do it. And we have a system for harnessing huge groups of individuals into more powerful bodies. It's called government. It is asinine that our government insists on framing conservation a "personal virtue" for this very reason. And it is not helpful of Flannery (from Australia, another country who refused to take on Kyoto) to perpetuate this fallacy.

The bottom line is that you can guilt a few people into buying hybrid cars and turning off their lights for awhile, but to what end? On an individual level, I am going to feel virtuous for a little while, and that is going to temporarily assuage my guilt. I will feel less like a lobster in the pot. If I am not particularly bright or aware, this pallative effect will perpetuate indefinitely. If I do actually care, I will come to my senses and realize that I am being played. Why should I fret every time I personally get in a car? The roads are clogged with cars that don't look guilty at all. For that matter, I get all the negative side effects of cars (asthma, sinus headaches, new "allergies", hurricanes in December, that nagging feeling that I should not be living on the waterfront...) whether I drive or not. Why bother being personally virtuous when nobody else is? It's like being that one quiet kid in the classroom when all the other kids are ignoring the teacher's requests to quiet down. My virtue means nothing.

Powerless. I am personally powerless to stop climate change! Even if I personally reduce my CO2 emissions to what I personally exhale and NO MORE that is a tear in a salty sea, and it is arrogance, arrogance! to indulge in fantasies that my "personal virtue" will actually keep lower Manhattan from flooding.

Step One: admit total powerlessness.

Step Two: be just arrogant enough to keep poking at it anyway.


Climate change is a physical problem. Guilt, morality and personal virtue are useless. I have never figured out how to solve any physical problem using guilt, morality or personal virtue.

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