“However horrible the billions of deaths that await us may be, humanity’s most enduring loss in the long term may be that of its artistic heritage.”
Under the threat of global warming, things don’t look good for any of us or our art. That’s the view of Stephen Henighan, writing in a new book about climate change from the perspective of the humanities.
At about 60 pages, A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change is actually an extended essay. A Hispanic studies professor at the University of Guelph, Henighan was asked to write a humanist-eye view of climate change after publishing an essay in Geist.
His book will be launched this evening at the Bookshelf eBar in downtown Guelph, Ontario.
Think of global warming, and most of us — at least those who subscribe to the view that we are near if not past a kind of tipping point — think of flooded coastlands, melting ice caps, human populations on the move and ice floe-stranded polar bears.
Indeed Henighan begins by writing about changing landscapes, species extinctions and invasions, reduced harvests and dwindling water resources. Much of this grey terrain has been covered by many writers already. Henighan moves over it quickly to get to his point: It is already too late to ward off cataclysm.
We need to stop imagining that there’s no problem, says Henighan. We are in a kind of climatic phony war. Keep calm and carry on shopping, is the slogan for our consumerist mindset. “The consumption mantra has permeated our beings so thoroughly that it is no longer permissible not to consume,” he writes. Emo ergo sum: I buy, therefore I am.
He’s disgusted with humans, including his own hypocrisies. “My own claim to environmental virtue is that I have never owned a car; this pretension is nullified by my habit of making long trips on airplanes half a dozen times a year.”
Unless you’re a masochist, self-flagellation and jeremiads can become wearisome. Henighan lifts his argument at this point to ponder cultures, civilizations, art and languages — all threatened by our failure to acknowledge what he calls “the inevitable rise of global temperatures.”
He also laments the North, or our mostly southern Canadian idea of it captured in a 1967 radio documentary by Glenn Gould.
His solution? Love. Not love of self but love of our species. If we wish to preserve culture and civilization, we need to alter our conception of love. “As corny as it sounds to cynical, know-it-all, twenty-first century ears, think of the human family.”
Co-operation and self-sacrifice and the bonds of community — as well as technology — are what we need to deploy. Whether these things will be enough to persuade us to throttle back consumption is an open question. But Henighan believes it’s the only answer for our continued existence.
Sounds like a tough assignment. Where do you start? He doesn’t really say.
At the same time as I picked up Henighan’s book, I was reading another volume: Abundance, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Abundance begins in the same place by acknowledging our problems.
But where Henighan sees cause for pessimism, Diamandis and Kotler see reasons for optimism (their subtitle: The Future Is Better Than You Think). They point to the human propensity to imagine and innovate ourselves into a better world through technology, and note our tendencies toward volunteerism and co-operation.
Past different views of the half-full-half-empty glass, both books discuss many of the same things.
Look to A Green Reef for reminders of what we stand to lose through neglect and lack of love. But you might have to look elsewhere for details of the remedy for what ails our heart.
Stephen Henighan will read and speak about A Green Reef at the Bookshelf eBar in Guelph Oct. 8, 8 p.m.