About time

6 04 2009

I’ve just reread a poem by Primo Levi called Almanac, written on 2 January 1987, 3 months before he fell to his death. It says “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them” and “Earth too will fear the immutable Laws of the universe. Not us. We, rebellious progeny With great brainpower, little sense, Will destroy, defile…” and it ends “Very soon we’ll extend the desert Into the Amazon forests, Into the living heart of our cities, Into our very hearts.”

An almanac is an annual publication of timely events, mostly of a cosmic nature but also of sacred events in the human calendar. Levi’s is a very rebellious kind of almanac, a prediction of a time to come based on his observation of the human disregard for planetary forces. He plays on the popular notion that people are far too insignificant to affect the great forces of nature, by suggesting that despite the immutable laws of the universe there still can be change on a vast scale. And that it is the very rebellion of humanity against nature which is bringing the desert into our hearts.

Now, you might think that Levi was a prescient genius. Referring to ecological catastrophe in 1987? Surely we didn’t start to think about this until the 21st century? Or at least since late 2006 when the Stern review told us that climate change was serious and most probably caused by man? Well, genius Levi was. But, in this case not so prescient. In fact, the ‘greenhouse effect’ was noticed in 1886 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. Significant global warming was noticed in the 1930’s and one man G.S.Callendar said it was due to the greenhouse effect. Thanks to Cold War funding, scientists continued to monitor the warming climate. In 1967 (the year I was born, the Summer of Love) a report made clear that the temperature would continue to rise with serious results. The 1970’s saw the rise of environmentalism but the research effort was so dispersed and under-funded in such a complex field, that climate change was not taken up as a major concern by the environmental groups. My parents were Green as can be but lived it out through self-sufficiency, thrift and nature conservation. They rarely talked about climate except whether the drought (1976) would mean we’d starve (we went hungry) or whether the rainy winter would make the soil too clarty.

I vividly recall news reports of global warming in 1988, when I was at the University of Sussex, and it had a big impact on me. My close friends then thought the biggest cause was feminism and equality, but I couldn’t agree. We studied humanities not science. The science faculties were over the other side of campus and we didn’t mix.

Since then I have always factored climate change into my thinking about the future,  much to the bafflement of my colleagues in museums and galleries over the years. The other day, chatting to some friends, the climate topic came up and they all agreed ‘it won’t happen in our lifetimes, it’s something that will affect our grandchildren’. I was surprised yet again that the waves of understanding had not caught up even with a group of people who keep up with current affairs and think hard about them.  Today the Wilkins Ice Shelf is collapsing. Jonathon Porritt predicts a ‘perfect storm’ of climate change and economic collapse as early as 2020. When we hear such news we close our ears, turn onto it with a challenge or just freeze. We are faced with so much information that we can be selective and choose not to believe it, unlike the trust felt by the early readers of almanacs.

Meanwhile, the G20 world leaders act with amazing alacrity to bail out the economy but at a glacial pace to respond to the climate crisis. “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them”. The irony is that if the leaders continue to act at a glacial pace, the glaciers, which have already started to melt, will disappear. The immutable laws of the universe mutate.

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