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Eric Thayer for Reuters, from Thomas Fuller and Lance Booth, “California Hasn’t Seen Fires Like This: Pictures of a State in Flames.” The New York Times. November 10, 2018.    

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“No one knows how, in 1942, a tiger came to be on Hong Kong Island. Some argued it was a circus escapee, freed during the Japanese invasion when a bomb blasted a hole through its paddock. Others pointed out that it might simply have swam across Victoria Harbor from mainland China. It wouldn’t have been the first: tigers were a rarity in twentieth-century Hong Kong, but hardly the stuff of fiction.

However it got to Hong Kong Island, it never got off. Police shot the young male dead, its fulsome orange-striped body reduced to a ratty gray skin that still hangs in Tin Hau temple. In the decades since, the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) has become one of the world’s most endangered animals.

Tigers had always been an occasional—if potent—presence in the New Territories, a large swath of the mainland and several islands adjoining China’s Pearl River Delta. It was not so long ago when, in 1915—after being dispatched to investigate what were thought to be spurious local reports—British policeman Ernest Goucher and Indian constable Ruttan Singh were mauled to death by one such cat near Fanling. Unconfirmed accounts of (and injuries by) tigers continued into the mid-twentieth century, when, in an all-too-common refrain, the animal faded into memory.

Before the 1950s, some four thousand tigers roamed throughout southern China’s provinces—more than the total number of wild tigers, of all subspecies, alive today. Then, during the Great Leap Forward, China’s havoc-wreaking industrialization campaign, tigers were declared a “pest” and their numbers plummeted. Those that straggled on into the later twentieth century were picked off by poachers capitalizing on an increasingly lucrative trade in tiger skins and bones, which to this day are flaunted as status symbols and used in traditional medicines.

The South China tiger may not be gone yet—a confirmed sighting in 2007, in the northern Shaanxi province, offers some hope that a healthy wild population might be restored. But in Hong Kong, where I live, tigers are gone.

I think about them sometimes, returning home alone and at night. A ten-minute walk from the train and the world of concrete ends abruptly in a narrow, pedestrian-only path, which skirts the edge of a marsh and winds through a clutch of bamboo forest. Dense and laced with jungle creepers, humming with insect life—in times past, it offered ideal concealment for a big, hungry cat. So maybe, if only for my own sake, I shouldn’t miss them.

I do anyway. We so often gauge nature’s vitality by the presence of outsized, charismatic species like tigers, the kind that lend themselves easily to children’s book illustrations and magazine covers. These animals are emblems of all the other life, from tiger- to insect-sized, that is no longer here. Absence is perhaps the most common condition of the Anthropocene, this epoch in which humans have irrevocably altered the face and future of the planet. In urban and undeveloped environments alike, we are haunted by a spectral presence of vanished nature: those organisms that, because of us and despite us, aren’t coming back.”

– Sean P. Smith, “Ghost Tigers: Climate Change and the Escalation of Extinction.” Guernica, March 21, 2018.

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“What is the reality? Climate change is stoppable, but enough has changed that there are already consequences—Canadians have only to look to our melting Arctic ice to see them. And because of the warming oceans, there will be more consequences even if the global community cuts all carbon emissions this minute. It may be possible to reverse climate change by harvesting carbon from the air, though no one is sure where to put it afterwards, and it’s not clear that the political will exists to take any of these measures, especially given the current fate of the Paris Agreement.

Do we need to muster the political will required to take the measures still available? Absolutely. But do we also need to consider how to encounter the reality of climate change, how to feel it, how to live with feeling it? I think we do, though it scares me. T.S. Eliot wrote in the opening to “Four Quartets” that “human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” I used to think he was writing about other people, about a rule to which I was an exception, but I’m humbler now and see myself in his words. I can handle only so much.

I think I might have to learn to handle more, though. Even if I don’t volunteer, I expect to be conscripted soon. And the tiny element of envy I’ve found in myself suggests there may be something in it for me. For if it’s true that we can only deal with so much reality, being numb is its own kind of pain. This January, after covering climate change for the Guardian for five years, Michael Slezak wrote an unusually personal article, “Writing about Climate Change: My Professional Detachment Has Finally Turned to Panic.” An excerpt:

Until recently, like a sociopath might have little feelings [sic] when witnessing violence, I’ve managed to have relatively mild emotional responses to climate change… Intellectually I’ve understood the things I’ve been reporting and the inevitable disaster that is looming for much of the world’s population. But somehow, I didn’t feel the deep sense of panic or dread that is obviously appropriate when facing such a serious crisis. But in 2016, something changed.

He describes what he thinks might have precipitated the change, then writes:

But the new emotional reaction I’ve developed to climate change, while obviously unpleasant, also comes as a kind of relief.

That panic may bring relief is odd, but I get it. Becoming emotionally in touch with the reality he was reporting made Slezak whole—at least as whole as any of us might claim to be. His thinking, his body, and his emotions fell in line. Furthermore, he was in a more intimate relationship with the drought- and fire-ravaged landscapes he was reporting on, in the sense that he made himself vulnerable to them, allowed them to act on him. So he was fully engaged with the world around him. And that kind of engagement offers a measure of well-being. The catch is that in the case of climate change, the intimacy is tied to tremendous distress.

Many Westerners are in a state of denial about climate change—I include myself here. I’m not an outright denier, but I tend to fall into the category of what Jonathan Rowson calls “stealth deniers”—those who “accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change” but don’t “appear to have the commensurate feelings, sense of responsibility or agency that one might expect.” In Rowson’s study of the British population, 19.6 percent were outright deniers (what he calls “the unconvinced”) and 63.9 percent were stealth deniers, like me. I’m what Rowson terms “an emotional denier.” I, along with 47.2 percent of the stealth deniers he identified, have trouble connecting emotionally with the reality of climate change. I’m Slezak circa 2015, the one who didn’t panic. But the encounter with the starfish led me a little ways out of that numbness, and in a way it felt good, even as my body tensed up and my breath shortened.

Denial, in any case, might show that I’m on the threshold of mourning, just overwhelmed by it … which could mean that I’ve crossed into it without knowing. For although there are myriad theories about how mourning is experienced, and certainly people mourn differently, denial is often an early stage. So as a denier who glimpses grief, I may be on my way to a richer, more painful engagement with the dying world—which I both want and don’t want. I want it for the reasons I’ve given already—I want to feel integrated as a person and wholly engaged by my environment. But I also want it for moral reasons. Philosopher Simone Weil has written that “to know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough, the rest follows of itself.” Weil’s point is that actually, vividly grasping the reality of another being leads straight into a moral relationship of care. That’s one reason I want to step further out of denial. Then there’s Lesley Head’s argument that truly grieving climate change, and the selves that will be stripped from us in the process, can free up emotional energy to be invested in more creative ways. “Bearing our grief will not necessarily stave off catastrophe, but it will give us a better chance of effective action,” she writes. What exactly constitutes effective action will vary depending on the situation: it could involve a variety of actions aimed at stopping or even reversing climate change; it could also be a matter of keeping vigil and offering to our human as well as our animal, vegetable, and mineral companions what palliative care is possible now that global warming is underway.

We need to think about what vigil and palliative care might look like, for these are becoming increasingly necessary forms of action. Head notices that “we are systematically excluding the more extreme parts of future projections from our consideration, just because they are so difficult.” She suggests that some of our preparatory efforts “must go into emotional preparedness for things that may be extremely unpleasant.”

This takes me back to poetry. I’m not foolish enough to think that poetry is The Answer to climate change, or even to the question of how to live with the escalating pain it’s causing. But as a poet, I have to wonder what it has to offer, how it can help me to shift out of denial, and how it may support me as I move deeper into the work of mourning. For poetry is often a part of mourning. As Don McKay has observed, poetry is one of those things that seems expendable in a fast-paced world where we live so much on the surface. It roars to the fore at crucial moments of life where we want language to step up and acknowledge significant events and feelings—birth, death, love …

Even people who don’t otherwise read or listen to poetry will often look to it for support in the face of death: poetry is often a part of vigils, eulogies, funerals, memorials. It can support us in so many ways that I can’t hope to write about it comprehensively. But here are a couple of things it can do.

It can help with denial by making loss feel real. Jorie Graham has said that in America, a coup has been enacted “upon the reality status of events and of people and therefore on nature itself.” “The state of emergency,” she says, “is this: this not-even-feeling-it-is-there, the not-even-feeling-others-are-real.””

– Sue Sinclair, “AS THE WORLD ENDS, HAS THE TIME FOR GRIEVING ARRIVED?” Brick Magazine. Winter 2018, #100. Via Lithub.

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“In Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Bruno Latour aims to reintroduce us to our own planet. The Earth emerges as a bizarre and unfamiliar presence, dimly glimpsed but exerting a colossal and uncertain pressure on all our actions. Though its unpredictable effects promise no meaning or redemption, this alien power forces our attention to the immediacy of terrestrial life.

Latour’s work has set the pace for science and technology studies since his ethnographies of laboratories in the 1980s and 90s; since We Have Never Been Modern, he has upended received wisdom about the bond between science and progress, challenged academic habits of critique, and inspired radical approaches to objects and ontologies across the social sciences and humanities. The concern for ecology that runs throughout these works takes center stage in these much-awaited lectures, pushed forward by what Isabelle Stengers calls the “intrusion of Gaia”—the catastrophic fits of an Earth whose tolerance has been exceeded.

Human-caused climate change reawakens an apocalyptic sensibility, altering everything we do, think, and feel, whether we acknowledge it or not. “We have become the people who could have acted thirty or forty years ago – and did nothing, or far too little.” Political cataclysms are as much part of this “new climate regime” as hurricanes and wildfires: after the US election, Latour described the “innovation” of Donald Trump as “a mad dash for maximum profit while abandoning the rest of the world to its fate.” Trump would be the first truly ecologically-oriented president, through pure negativity: “For the first time, climate change denial is determining all political decisions.”

What would it take to shake us out of our denial, delusional hope, or numb passivity—all these ways in which “ecology is making us crazy”? We need new senses and new tools for thought, Latour contends. Not just more carefully verified observations and arguments, but “plays, exhibitions, art forms, poetry, and maybe also rituals” that can sensitize us to the feedback loops between our smallest actions and their consequences near and far. “Gaia” is one such conceptual experiment.

The Greek goddess of the Earth, the mother of the Titans, Gaia was reclaimed by the chemist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis to describe the earth’s unique status as a symbiotic system, where living things co-evolve with their geological and atmospheric conditions. Despite its New Age echoes, Latour seeks to dispel any cozy reassurance: the first of the Gods to appear after Chaos, Gaia was a vicious troublemaker, giving her son Cronos the stone sickle he used to castrate his father Uranus. Likewise, in his reading of Lovelock and Margulis, Latour guillotines any idea of a harmonizing designer, thermostat, or clockmaker overseeing the feedback loops through which organisms and environments alter each other. Even if relatively stable equilibria hold sway at times, each entity of the planet, down to the outer shell of its molten core, acts with and on the others; actor and context, figure and ground are constantly reversing their hierarchies.

After centuries of stony sleep, this altered assemblage demands to be heard and seen. Latour does all he can to keep Gaia weird—to define it such that it always escapes definition. “Facing Gaia” means “instituting” and “inaugurating” this elusive entity, establishing its place in our affairs. Yet even as we roll out the red carpet we realize, as in a tale of gothic horror, that the visitor is already in the house: it’s the carpet itself, the floor, the walls, and the foundations, and has taken over our bodies and minds.

Sketching Gaia’s portrait, Latour’s strongest lines are erasures; he emphasizes what Gaia is not. Against the habit of Western metaphysics to try to master the cosmos by gathering it into a sphere, Gaia is not a totality, whole, globe, system, container, or organism. Most crucially, it is not the “Nature” of science: dead matter ruled by mechanical laws. In the age of the Anthropocene, the “external” nature we confront in rising temperatures, extinctions, salinization, and erosion is partially the result of human industries, policies, and ideologies. We walk a Möbius strip in which “everything is looking at us,” where “we are so mixed up with [Nature] that it has become internal, human, all too human, provisional perhaps, in any case sensitive to everything we do.”

Even Latour’s most faithful readers may need to squint to bring Gaia’s positive features into focus—for example, his puzzling refrain that Gaia is the first “finally secular” figure of nature. Gaia was a goddess, after all, and Latour has repeatedly highlighted resonances between religion and science. Facing Gaia began as the 2013 Gifford Lectures on “natural theology,” launched in the 1890s to reconcile Christianity with post-Darwinian science. He earlier argued that science and religion both depend on “factishes”—material, human-made objects and the powers seen to animate them, which, through proper ritual administration in laboratories or shrines, set parameters for the actions of their adepts. Latour has also acknowledged the influence of Catholic essayist Charles Péguy: just as the interpreter of religious texts must restate, update, and transform them to allow their message to endure, scientists speak reliably about their objects only by translating them through fragile, constantly-maintained chains of instruments and inscriptions.

If the “flat ontology” of his earlier Actor-Network Theory blurred the worlds of science, religion, and politics—treating all entities as networks of humans and nonhumans—he is now keen to establish their limits. Yet Latour’s Gaia does not herald a social order safely “disembedded” from the cosmos in Charles Taylor’s sense of “secular.” Gaia is “secular” because it compels us to abandon the sub specie aeternitatis perspective from which moderns have considered the universe as a whole.

To prepare his project to “re-set modernity,” Latour sketches the emergence of its supreme authority, “Nature.” According to Egyptologist Jan Assmann, in ancient polytheistic empires a “moderate relativism” allowed for conciliatory translations between divinities: “our Ra” is “your Apollo,” more or less. With the appearance of Mediterranean monotheisms and their jealous god(s), religion became “counter-religion”: an ever-vigilant struggle to purify the true faith and denounce false idols. In the West, this zeal eventually morphed into a rage against all idolatry and superstition, until science became a further “counter-religion” against religion itself, with “Nature” the new standard of truth. The 17th century’s experimental science arose as a solution to the wars of religion, shuffling relations among Nature, politics, and God. Matter was defined as dead and inert, while humans were granted all freedom of action, thought, and will (at least until the human sciences detected the “mechanisms” of economics, social structure, ideology, and the unconscious). God was chased from the earthly scene to a heavenly (or imaginary) world beyond; both creationists and militant atheists now share the view of Nature as a lifeless machine.

For decades, Latour has been chopping away at this resilient but deceptive “distribution of agency”—his general term for the order that every collective, including ours, establishes to divide up “powers, aptitudes, and capacities, among things, gods, humans and classes.” He now takes a positive and constructive approach. His previous book aimed to reinstitute modern values and ontologies—what the West holds dear—on a more realistic, pluralist basis. Clearing away the phony touchstone of scientific “Nature”—the unitary truth supposed to lurk beneath the multiplicity of partial and contradictory interpretations—allows for a “redistribution of agency” which more closely follows the contours of our actual practices.”

– John Tresch, “We Have Never Known Mother Earth.Public Books, December 1, 2017.

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Fairy tales and feedback loops
“Looks like snow is coming,” Toma declares solemnly, his face pressed up to the window and the white, thick air on the other side.

Ever since we left Alberta, his five-year-old mind has been struggling to understand the smoke that has marked his summer. Trying to make sense of my chronic cough and his raging skin rash. Struggling, most of all, with the soundtrack of worried chatter among the grown-ups in his life.

His response goes through phases: Nightmares wake him up at night. He writes songs with lyrics like, “Why is everything going wrong?” There’s a lot of inappropriate laughter.

At first, he was excited by the idea of wildfires, confusing them with campfires and angling for s’mores. Then his grandfather explained that the sun had turned into that weird, glowing dot because the forest itself was on fire. He was stricken.

“What about the animals?”
We have developed techniques for controlling worry. They begin with taking deep breaths, and we do it several times a day. But it occurs to me that breathing extra amounts of this particular air is probably not great, especially for small lungs already prone to infection.

Avi and I don’t talk to Toma about climate change, which may seem strange given that I write books about it and Avi directs films about it, and we both spend most of our waking hours focused on the need for a transformative response to the crisis. What we do talk about is pollution, though on a scale he can understand. Like plastic, and why we have to pick it up and use less of it because it makes the animals sick. Or we look at the exhaust coming out of cars and trucks, and talk about how you can get power from the sun and the wind and store it in batteries. A little kid can grasp concepts like these and know exactly what should happen (better than plenty of adults). But the idea that the entire planet has a fever that could get so high that much of life on earth could be lost in the convulsions — that seems to me too great a burden to ask small children to carry.

This summer marks the end of his protection. It isn’t a decision I’m proud of, or one I even remember making. He just heard too many adults obsessing over the strange sky, and the real reasons behind the fires, and he finally put it all together.

At a playground in the haze, I meet a young mother who offers advice on how to reassure worried kids. She tells hers that forest fires are a positive part of the cycle of ecosystem renewal — the burning makes way for new growth, which feeds the bears and deer.

I nod, feeling like a failed mom. But I also know that she’s lying. It’s true that fire is a natural part of the life cycle, but the fires currently blotting out the sun in the Pacific Northwest are the opposite, they’re part of a planetary death spiral. Many are so hot and intransigent that they are leaving scorched earth behind. The rivers of bright red fire retardant being sprayed from planes are seeping into waterways, posing a threat to fish. And just as my son fears, animals are losing their forested homes.

The biggest danger, however, is the carbon being released as the forests burn. Three weeks after the smoke descended on the coast, we learn that the total annual greenhouse gas emissions for the province of British Columbia had tripled as a result of the fires, and it’s still going up.

This dramatic increase of emissions is part of what climate scientists mean when they warn about feedback loops: burning carbon leads to warmer temperatures and long periods without rain, which leads to more fires, which release more carbon into the atmosphere, which leads to even warmer and drier conditions, and even more fires.

Another such lethal feedback loop is playing out with Greenland’s wildfires. Fires produce black soot (also known as “black carbon”), which settles on ice sheets, turning the ice gray or black. Darkened ice absorbs more heat than reflective white ice, which makes the ice melt faster, which leads to sea level rise and the release of huge amounts of methane, which causes more warming and more fires, which in turn create more blackened ice and more melting.

So, no, I’m not going to tell Toma that the fires are a happy part of the cycle of life. We settle for half-truths and fudging to make the nightmare subside. “The animals know how to escape from the fires. They run to rivers and streams and other forests.”

We talk about how we need to plant more trees for the animals to come home to. It helps, a little.

A wake up call — for some
One of the regions hit hardest by the fires is a place I have visited often, the territory of the Secwepemc people, which encompasses a huge swath of land in the Interior — much of it now on fire. The late Arthur Manuel, a former Secwepemc chief, was a dear friend and hosted me several times. So far in 2017, I have visited his territory twice: once to attend Manuel’s funeral and once for a meeting he had been organizing when heart failure took his life.

The gathering was in response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to approve a $7.4-billion project that would nearly triple the capacity of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries high-carbon tar sands oil from Alberta through British Columbia. The expanded network of pipes would pass through dozens of waterways on Secwepemc land, and is forcefully opposed by many traditional landholders. Arthur believed the struggle has the potential to turn into “Standing Rock North.”

When the fires began this summer, Manuel’s friends and family wasted no time making the argument that building more fossil fuel infrastructure as the world burns is both absurd and reckless. A statement was issued by the Secwepemc Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty opposing the pipeline expansion project and demanding that the existing, smaller pipeline be shut down immediately to reduce the risk of a catastrophic accident should fire and oil meet.

“We are in a critical state of emergency dealing with the impacts of climate change,” said Secwepemc teacher Dawn Morrison. “The health of our families and communities relies heavily on our ability to harvest wild salmon and access clean drinking water, both of which are at risk if the Kinder Morgan pipeline was ruptured or impacted by the fires.”

This is common sense: When oil and gas infrastructure finds itself in the bull’s-eye of the cumulative effects of burning so much fossil fuel (think of oil rigs battered by superstorms, or Houston underwater), we should all do what the Secwepmc did — treat the disaster as a wake-up call about the need to build a safer society, fast.

Whatever you do, don’t talk about oil
Our political and economic systems, however, are not built that way; indeed, they are built to actively override that kind of survival response. So Kinder Morgan doesn’t even bother answering the community’s concerns. What’s more, the company is gearing up to begin construction on the expansion this month, with the fires still raging.

Worse, in true shock doctrine form, some extractive industries are actively using the fiery state of emergency to get stuff done that was impossible during normal times. For instance, Taseko Mines has been fighting for years to build a highly contentious, open pit gold and copper mine in one of the parts of British Columbia hit hardest by the fires. Fierce opposition among the Tsilhqot’in First Nation has so far successfully fended off the toxic project, resulting in several key regulatory victories.

But this July, with several of the impacted Tsilhqot’in communities under evacuation order or holding their ground to fight the fires themselves, the outgoing British Columbia government — notorious as a “wild west” of political payola — did something extraordinary. In its last week in office after suffering a humiliating election defeat, the government handed Taseko a raft of permits to move ahead with exploration. “It defies compassion that while our people are fighting for our homes and lives, B.C. issues permits that will destroy more of our land beyond repair,” said Russell Myers Ross, a Tsilhqot’in chief. A representative of the outgoing government responded: “I appreciate this may come at a difficult time for you given the wildfire situation affecting some of your communities.”

Despite the stresses the fires have placed on their people, the Tsilhqot’in are fighting the move in court, and the company has already been forced to suspend its drilling plans in the face of legal troubles. There is also a new provincial government, created through an unprecedented agreementbetween the centre-left New Democratic Party and the Greens. In a rare piece of good climate news, it is actively challenging the legality of the Kinder Morgan pipeline project on several fronts.

Yet anyone holding out hope that the fires might jolt Trudeau into serious climate action has been gravely disappointed. Canada’s prime minister loves being photographed frolicking in British Columbia’s spectacular wilderness (preferably shirtless), and his wife Sophie Grégoire recently unleashed a hurricane of emojis by posting a picture of herself surfing off Vancouver island (it was during the fires and the sky looked hazy).

But for all his gushing about British Columbia’s forests and coastal waters, Trudeau is slamming his foot on the accelerator when it comes to pipelines and tar sands expansion. “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he told a cheering crowd of oil and gas executives in Houston last March. He hasn’t budged since. Never mind that Houston has since flooded and a third of his country is on fire. This month, one of his top ministers said of the Kinder Morgan pipeline approval: “Nothing that’s happened since then has changed our mind that this is a good decision.” Trudeau is on fossil fuel autopilot and nothing, it seems, will make him swerve.

Then there is U.S. President Donald Trump, whose climate crimes are too comprehensive and too layered to delineate here. It does seem worth mentioning, however, that he chose this summer of floods and fires to disband the federal advisory panel assessing the impacts of climate change on the U.S. and to greenlight Arctic drilling in the Beaufort Sea.

– Naomi Klein, “My Summer With the World in Flames.” The Tyee. September 22, 2017.

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