I remember the winter it got so cold, the enormous tree in our backyard quite simply snapped one morning. It split with a snap louder than the world, and keeled over onto the power lines one morning before breakfast, while my parents were boiling the kettle for tea. I looked out and saw the split tree as a broken arm. A fixture in my childhood reality cracked and out of joint, the kitchen suddenly dark.
Later that same, bizarre winter, I ran to catch my brother in a game of tag in the garden. It had snowed to more than twice my height and my brother had shoveled trenches through the yard. I remember it as a labyrinth, my brother’s footsteps and laughter somewhere ahead of me. The house, the garden, barely visible in glimpses above the snowline.
We went walking on the lake, which froze nearly solid, and ran through the the withered, immobilized reeds. I remember seeing shriveled apples covered with snow on fruit trees in neighbouring yards on the way home.
I remember learning to ski. My childhood winter and easter vacations filled with skiing trips to remote cabins in the mountains. Oranges, raisins and chocolate in the sun. The pure, rushing sweetness of going downhill in the blinding glare and not being sure you can make it without falling.
I don’t ski much anymore. I want to, but the snow doesn’t stay anymore. The sky is slate-grey and uniform for weeks at a time, and the light I remember from my first winters here is only rarely seen. Sleet occasionally gets us excited, but eventually the slush browns with meltwater and goes away. The branches stay dark and wet all winter before exploding with green weeks early, crushing our hopes for snow with bouquets of snowdrops and lent lilys. My skis are in the cellar. They’ve been there since January of last year.
An affecting short essay by Zadie Smith was published in the New York Review of Books this week. It shows the author trying to find a way to eulogize the lost seasons of her childhood, now lost to the steady drip, drip of climate change.
There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.
It’s amazing the side roads you can will yourself down to avoid the four-lane motorway ahead. England was never as wet as either its famous novels suggest or our American cousins presume. The weather has changed, is changing, and with it so many seemingly small things—quite apart from train tracks and houses, livelihoods and actual lives—are being lost. It was easy to assume, for example, that we would always be able to easily find a hedgehog in some corner of a London garden, pick it up in cupped hands, and unfurl it for our children—or go on a picnic and watch fat bumblebees crawling over the mouth of an open jam jar. Every country has its own version of this local sadness.
It’s a powerful piece. I thought it beautifully articulated something I’ve missed in the unbearably frustrating conversations on climate change. The sense that the conversation is couched in entirely wrong terms. That there is something deeply improper about matter-of-factly discussing the loss of something so great. I listened to a lecture on climate change this morning which was so technically macroeconomic I couldn’t understand it.
The Stern Review’s evaluation of environmental protection relies on extremely low discount rates, an assumption criticized by many economists. The Review also stresses that great uncertainty is a critical element for optimal environmental policies. An appropriate model for this policy analysis requires sufficient risk aversion and fat-tailed uncertainty to get into the ballpark of explaining the observed equity premium. A satisfactory framework, based on Epstein-Zin/Weil preferences, also separates the coefficient of relative risk aversion (important for results on environmental investment) from the intertemporal elasticity of substitution for consumption (which matters little).
I’m not even sure what the lecturer is saying here. It might be something I would entirely agree with. But still, what nags me is that this seems a wrong language to talk about climate change in. A language with no room for the sacred, the — I use this term as an atheist — holy complexity of nature, of incomprehensibly complex biomes and organisms, millions of years of evolution crushed to nothing by market forces.
We need a way of talking that will tell us the truth: we broke the world. We burned our childhoods down. Scattered our remembered seasons and denied them to our grandchildren. For your country, maybe we took your future or something far worse than winter, but it’s enough that my daughter might not ever need to know how to ski, and it’s killing me.
What’s stopping us? Zadie Smith blames two forces in particular: moral relativism — I didn’t find that argument entirely convincing, but it’s worth a discussion — and apocalyptic longings. The British philosopher John Gray has made a living out of identifying that longing, and he finds it always in the same exact place Zadie Smith finds it: the fatalist, liberal consciousness which is letting winter melt. Here’s Zadie Smith again:
I don’t think we have made matters of science into questions of belief out of sheer stupidity. Belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised. Of course, on the part of our leaders much of the politicization is cynical bad faith, and economically motivated, but down here on the ground, the desire for innocence is what’s driving us.
Sing an elegy for the washed away! For the cycles of life, for the saltwater marshes, the houses, the humans—whole islands of humans. Going, going, gone! But not quite yet. The apocalypse is always usefully cast into the future—unless you happen to live in Mauritius, or Jamaica, or the many other perilous spots. According to recent reports, “if emissions of global greenhouse gases remain unchanged,” things could begin to get truly serious around 2050, just in time for the seventh birthday party of my granddaughter. (The grandchildren of the future are frequently evoked in elegies of this kind.) Sometimes the global, repetitive nature of this elegy is so exhaustively sad—and so divorced from any attempts at meaningful action—that you can’t fail to detect in the elegists a fatalist liberal consciousness that has, when you get right down to it, as much of a perverse desire for the apocalypse as the evangelicals we supposedly scorn.
I take away three things from this essay:
1. The brilliant truth that “belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised.”
2. The need to combat fatalism, cynicism and nihilism, to ignore them and to banish them from the discussion of climate change.
3. The need to “Sing an elegy for the washed away! For the cycles of life, for the saltwater marshes, the houses, the humans—whole islands of humans. Going, going, gone!”
I find that I have been singing that song for a while now, in my head. In the remembered winters of childhood and the frustration of the snowless present. I’m glad Zadie Smith reminded me. Maybe I’ll start singing out loud.