Climate of the Future
Why It’s So Difficult to Respond to Climate Change
Questions concerning the cultural assumptions about and the consequences of climate change are currently being discussed in a wide variety of contexts. Yet also at issue is what each of us can do to counter impending disasters. In ‘Over To You’, the title of the final chapter of Tim Flannery's programmatic analysis, The Weather Makers (2005), it is precisely the author’s concrete proposals (covering a mere five pages and including suggestions such as buying environmentally-friendly refrigerators) that has engendered scepticism rather than inspired confidence. What does a culture that protects and preserves the environment actually look like? Hardly anybody today seriously doubts that in the last millennia humans have influenced and changed climatic conditions in certain environments – at latest, since the gradual transition to a sedentary life, or ‘Neolithic Revolution’ as coined by Vere Gordon Childe in Man Makes Himself (1936) – and that most of those changes were not planned, the majority of influences undertaken unconsciously.
Culture = climate?
Johann Gottfried Herder anticipated as much in his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit [Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man] written more than two hundred years ago, wherein he developed the concept of a climate-based cultural anthropology. Climate is – like culture – a ‘compound of powers and influences’, to which every living being contributes, and promotes in ‘reciprocating mutations’; man has stolen ‘fire from heaven’ and ‘has contributed to the alteration of climate in many ways’. Europe was once a ‘dank forest’, the inhabitants of the continent ‘have changed with the climate’. According to Herder, even Egypt would be nothing more than ‘the slime of the Nile’ without the influence of man’s ‘policy and art’. Ancient civilisation was ‘gained’ from the Nile Delta and ‘all living creation adapted itself to the artificial climate’. He considers mankind a ‘band of bold though diminutive giants, gradually descending from the mountains’, trying to subjugate the earth and change the climate with their ‘feeble fists’. The philosopher concludes with the words, ‘The future will show us how far we are capable of going with it.’
How do humans create, change or endure the climate? Herder speaks of ‘diminutive giants’ with ‘feeble fists’ as though he wanted to underscore the ambivalence between power and powerlessness in dealing with climate as culture. Trees, swamps, and mud deserts have disappeared, Herder claims, along with the climate; the inhabitants of the forests and riverbeds have also changed. Nature is cultivated, but that goes for man as well. Did initiatives or passions prevail? Obviously, the term climate and the concept of culture share an ambiguity in terms of effectuating and enduring. Culture is described as what humans have produced by manipulating nature, but culture is also what is imposed on the individual involuntarily in terms of his/her historical, geographical, linguistic or political/religious background. Is culture a pseudonym for climate (and vice versa)? Is this the reason why it is so difficult to agree on concrete measures for implementing climate protection culturally?
The ‘social uterus’
Often enough, humans create a connection between the climate in their concrete social environment and the earth’s climate itself. This tendency is reflected in a variety of common metaphors: from the curses that ‘rain down’ from a boss who’s taking it out on his employees again, to ‘dark clouds’ forming on the horizon of a bright friendship; from the ‘bolt from the blue’ when two lovers first meet, to the ‘sunny smile’ of one's beloved, the gradual ‘cooling’ of a relationship, to two antagonists who greet each other with ‘frosty’ expressions and ‘icy’ stares. Who knows, perhaps today’s debate on climate change is at all plausible – in terms of its abstract, predominately simulated metrological manifestations – because it can be mapped by experiences of social climate change, and perhaps, conversely, doubt surfaces with regard to those responsible for the global climate when the difference between micro- and macro-climate can be characterised as an ‘insulation’ survival strategy.
Hugh Miller coined this term in his book Progress and Decline: The Group in Evolution (1964). He describes insulation as the unplanned techniques of socially organised creatures to reduce the evolutionary pressure to adapt by developing a climate within a climate (internal climate) that differs sharply from the external environment. For example, when plants grow closely together, they often create a more favourable climate for themselves by providing their external environment with increased shade and moisture. The plants optimise their conditions for survival; they advance to become the patrons of their own evolution. Insulation processes increase protection; they offer the possibility of building and residing in ‘ecological niches’. According to Dieter Claessens in Das Konkrete und das Abstrakte [The Concrete and the Abstract] (1980): ‘During the evolution of mammals towards the niche function of a survival-friendly medium like water, to the clearer protection of the egg, lastly transferring it to the parent animal (who then becomes the offspring’s patron and develops an artificial internal climate, which is the precondition for a more ambitious evolution), humans reverse the evolution to a certain extent: the uterus now becomes a social space, which means nothing more than that part of the protective function (which the mother's interior had taken over) once again shifts outwards, but this process would not be possible if such an exterior space had not previously been established: the “social uterus”.’
The climate as a cultural and aesthetic production
In other words: as specialists of social insulation, humans are also experts at producing a favourable climate-within-a-climate for their own survival. They generate their small private climate by heating their homes in the winter, for example, and in summer by providing technology to cool the climate, even if these measures affect the external environment adversely. They find it hard to believe the news that a partial sacrifice in regulating their interior climate could possibly help improve their chances of controlling the outdoor climate. Even if this message belongs within the canon of contemporary discourse, it still contradicts more than a century of practical living, learning and thinking about the climate as a cultural and aesthetic production. While in most agrarian civilisations – from the empires of the ancient Orient to the early modern European states – people learned to study and interpret the diverse manifestations of climate in terms of being a favourable or unfavourable omen for their survival, in the era of modernising industrial and media technology the distance between the internal and external has grown so radically that even the worst predictions can only be perceived as though they were a theatre play or disaster film.
As Peter Sloterdijk poignantly observed in Schäume. Sphären. Plurale Sphärologie [Spheres III] (2004) we have mutated into a public environment. ‘Modern meteorology (derived in the seventeenth century from the Greek metéoros: “floating in the air”) – which can be understood as the science of “rainfall” and all the other flashes in the sky or bodies floating up high – by means of its most successful journalistic format, the so-called weather report (informations météorologiques, Wetterbericht), has imposed an historically new conversational form on the populations of modern nation states and political media communities, which may aptly be termed a “climatologic briefing”. Modern societies are weather-discussing communities to the extent that an official climate information system provides its citizens with news about the prevailing weather conditions and allows them to engage in conversations about it. Supported by the media, weather communication transforms large communities, encompassing tens of millions of members, into village-like neighbourhoods in which people exchange comments about the weather: that it’s too hot, too cold, too rainy, or too dry for the season. […] Modern weather reports form national populations into spectators of a climate theatre in which the recipients compare their personal perceptions to the ongoing reports and thus form their own opinion about the current state of the weather. By describing the weather as an idea of nature, meteorologists gather the masses into an audience of insiders under a common sky; they make of each person a climate reviewer, who assesses nature’s performances according to his/her own personal taste.’
The theatricalisation of climate certainly envisages social weather as created weather, with climate engineers as the authors and directors of convincing stories and images. It comprehends climate and weather as the results of a strategy, a plan. This plan may have as its aim the improvement of one’s own internal climate, but equally it may aim to worsen that of the enemy. It is no coincidence, Peter Sloterdijk writes in Luftbeben. An den Quellen des Terrors [Terror from the Air] (2002), that a poison gas attack counts as one of the exemplary forms of action in modern warfare: it is no longer targeting the body of the enemy but his environment, his atmosphere, his climate. According to Sloterdijk: ‘The twentieth century started in a spectacularly revealing manner on 22nd April, 1915, at Ypres in Northern France, when, for the first time in the history of humanity, the German army used a chlorine gas against the Franco-Canadian forces which was meant to indiscriminately exterminate the enemy. In the preceding weeks, undetected by the enemy, German soldiers had installed thousands of hidden batteries, gas cylinders of a hitherto unknown type, at the edge of the German trenches. At exactly 6:00 p.m. pioneers of the new regiment, commanded by Colonel Max Peterson, opened 1600 large (40 kg) and 4130 smaller (20 kg) bottles filled with chlorine in the prevailing north-northeast wind. Through this “blowing off” of the liquefied substance, around 150 tons of chlorine formed a gas cloud that spread approximately 6 kilometres wide and 600 to 900 metres deep.’
Such experiences have shaped the mentality of modern cultures. According to Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), they form the appalling scenes of a collective nostalgia for the transformation of man into a ‘cosmic frog-man’. ‘Modern engineering provides a means of housing that ranges from the space capsule to walls created by air jets’; but it has also exerted a lasting inspiration on the philosophy of the twentieth century: from Wittgenstein's Tractatus to Heidegger’s ‘anticipation of death’ to Sartre's L'être et le néant [Being and Nothingness] and ending with Peter Sloterdijk’s Sphärologie [Spheres]. It’s no coincidence that Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Sartre were stationed as weather observers on the eastern front and at the Ludendorff offensive during World War I, and on the Maginot Line during World War II. They were supposed to predict the movements of wind and clouds to better assess the scope of their own and the enemy's artillery defences.
Utopia and fashion
How should we assess future changes in the Earth's climate when even philosophers are only able to predict the coming events during an emergency? Those who want to speak about the future must indeed distinguish between the near and distant future. Near future is in an hour, tomorrow, next week, next fall or spring. The furthest reach of the near future probably extends no further than one legislative term away, or the World Cup. Distant future, on the other hand, is the new century, an age of technological triumphs or catastrophic defeats. The distant future is divided into eras and their catchword is utopia, the catchword of the near future: trend. Based on this distinction, we could ask whether, or not, the actual loss of positive distant future – usually discussed as a crisis of utopia – focuses our attention on the near future, the interest in fashion and trends. Only in rare cases do policymakers think within the Egyptian dream interpreter Joseph’s horizon of time: he developed a strategic plan for the Pharaoh based on forecasting the weather for more than three terms (seven fat years, seven dry years). What future is achieved using which technologies of planning and forecasting? In ancient times, the oracle was used for making decisions about the near future; however, astrology was also used for the construction of epochs and the distant future. And today? What range can be tackled by statistics? How reliable are scenarios created with the help of computer simulations? The issue of early warning systems has already signalled that today’s dominance of the near future may be connected to techno-methodological difficulties for constructing the distant future – whether in policy, economy, or ecology.
But then there is a great risk that we will discuss the climate of the future only as long as it belongs to the latest political controversy. A quarter of a century ago, it was opportune to imagine the impending nuclear war, while sixty years ago the good fortune of a nuclear future was being celebrated with excitement and enthusiasm; at that time even Ernst Bloch in Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope) (1959) gushed about a technologically-altered climate: ‘A few hundred pounds of uranium and thorium are enough to make the Sahara and the Gobi Desert disappear, to transform Siberia and northern Canada, Greenland and Antarctica into the Riviera.’ Even in the twenty-first century, we are born into cultures over which we have no more influence than we do over the prevailing climate – and like the climate, culture may be seen as simultaneously being one’s destiny and project. Climate change is cultural change, and vice versa. Even radical changes in life’s climatic and cultural conditions can only hope for the flexibility that a glance at the past history of mankind shows, like the ‘diminutive giants’ in Herder’s sense. The Weimar scholar was right when he commented in his Outlines of a Philosophy of the History Man that possibly a ‘traveller’ or perhaps even a new science and philosophy could be found that pursues ‘without prejudice or exaggeration the spirit of climate’. This hope has not been fulfilled to this day.
has been Professor of Cultural History at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin since 1993, where he co-founded the Hermann von Helmholtz Centre for Cultural Techniques. In recent years he has been extensively involved in addressing questions relating to climate change. He also co-edited the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Two Degrees: Weather, Mankind and His Climate’ at the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden in 2008.
Translated by Zaia Alexander
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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