Do you have a backbone?

Originally posted in November 2010

Thermogeddon is a new term to me and a useful one. The word Climate Change is inadequate on its own. It sounds like something heavenly and abstract, a mild adjustment to the rain and shine we can expect. Global Warming can only sound pleasant to people from Northern climes. I tried following Obama’s advisor in using the term Global Climate Disruption but it had no traction with people. It sounded too technical and I had to explain it even if nobody asked me to. Thermogeddon has the advantage of sounding like a movie title and being intriguing. The other plus is that it relates to our bodies rather than the ether. It arises from research by some scientists in Sydney about how higher temperatures will affect (ie kill off) creatures with backbones. That means us, and most of the creatures we eat, and otherwise appreciate. This state may come in the 23rd century but within 100 years it could apply to large areas of the planet. Rather than the analysis focusing on weather systems, it shows how those big systemic changes directly affect our bodies and the resources we are dependent on. Thermogeddon is a term that points us to the outcome of climate change not so much the process. It may be helpful to shift the entrenched notion that environmentalists don’t care about humans (i.e. that they’re too science-bound…although that notion is contradicted by just as common criticism that environmentalists are anti-science).

This thermogeddon research comes along at the same time as another report which shows that many populated areas of the planet may become a vast dustbowl, with widespread drought. There will be heavier rain but that falling onto dessicated deforested soil, so causing fluvial flooding on devastating scales.

So, that’s what we face. I’m interested to know: Do you hear anyone talking about it, I mean, referring to or visualising these scenarios? I expect the answer will be no. I think about it a lot, write about it less, and speak about it to my family hardly at all. I’m anxious about the moment when, because I have to be honest in answering questions, I have to convey the full detail of what I have seen and heard about the projected future to my 10 year old. When she imagines her own future, from being at university to being an old granny, I don’t want to say ‘Sorry to disappoint you sweetheart but scientists tell us that things are going to get worse and worse, and none of our leaders are doing enough about it’. I encourage her to imagine a great future, but I also explain why I’d rather she didn’t have another piece of plastic trash or why we’re not having a foreign holiday.
The reason I ask if you hear people talking about this is because I think our culture (in the hegemonic sense of our culture led by mass media) is going through an extraordinary phase of denial, ranging from the outright to the constructive. In the debate that followed last night’s controversial C4 programme ‘What the Green Movement Got Wrong’, presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy said that the environmental movement had learned at last that it didn’t do to tell people how terrible the future looked, because it puts them right off.

I think that is questionable. Firstly I question it because I don’t think environmentalists (or anybody concerned about the planet, whatever they call themselves) have a past track record of talking ‘doom and gloom’. Science-based reporting or writing has told what scientists are discovering and modelling, often very cautiously. Others who focus on green culture and lifestyle have been relentless in trying to motivate people. Even writers such as Clive Hamilton and Alaistair McIntosh, whose book titles might sound the epitome of doom (Requiem for a Species, Hell and High Water etc) keep a strong wellspring of hope mingled with despair.

I mainly question it because it is part of a patronising conception of the masses as passive recipients of messages from a governing and industrial elite. It assumes that people are so disconnected from their own means of making sense of the world that they must ‘be told’ rather than enabled to find out. Should we censor scientific research which models future scenarios so that the people won’t find out? Of course not. I don’t want to hear dirge-like messages coming daily from the media about how ‘we live in the end times’, obviously. But I want honesty and transparency. I want our media and cultural organisations to stretch their empathy and imagination to the limits so that they can help us deal with the projected scenarios. In the case of the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK, they are resting in a position which ranges from:

  • The positive (mostly from the BBC): encouraging public to celebrate and conserve biodiversity and celebrating green architecture in the occasional episode of Grand Designs
  • The neutral: An absence of reference to environmental politics across current affairs (for example, no references to climate change in coverage of the Pakistan floods)
  • The negative: An assumption that we want to be entertained by spurious storytelling and bogus binary debates between the ‘two sides’ of climate denial and acceptance.

The majority of coverage which gets attention and stimulates debate is the latter, but this is not useful debate. It is time-wasting, agonistic and does not help us design a better world.

So, if you have a backbone, and are one of those creatures that won’t survive thermogeddon, and if you have any way of influencing the way that environment is represented in our cultural and media programming, get noisy and get positive.


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