This Month In Books: ‘One Degree Is About the Uncanny’

Illustration from L'Illustration, Journal Universel, No 245, November 6, 1847. (DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/Getty)

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter is suspended in a state of anticipation. “Like all dissidents in this country, I went to bed expecting the ring of the doorbell at dawn,” writes jailed Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan in his clandestinely written prison memoir I Will Never See the World Again. “The thing is, I think the most endangered species on this planet at the moment is us,” warns molecatcher and memoirst Marc Hamer, author of How To Catch a Mole, in an interview with Tobias Carroll. “One degree of warming has already revealed itself … Wild variability is the new normal … One degree is about the uncanny, and the unfamiliar. If this is one degree, what will three degrees be like? Four?” wonders Holly Jean Buck in After Geoengineering, before she goes on to persuasively argue that now is the time to begin considering seemingly drastic countermeasures to climate change, such as sun-dimming aerosols. After Geoengineering, truly, is the most anticipatory book I have ever encountered: the structure of the book is, partially, a series of chose-your-own-adventure climate change scenarios, all of which strongly suggest to the reader that it is a very bad idea to hold off on geoengineering, since holding off is tantamount to leaving it in the hands of the late-game bad-future ecofascist set … who will do it, but badly.

It’s crazy, of course, to consider geoengineering; and now that I’ve considered it and decided it’s a good idea, I can’t honestly report back on whether the uncanniness of the moment has increased or decreased for me. Can it do both? “There is a personal threshold at which one loses hope: many of the climate scientists I know are there already,” Buck goes on to write. “But there’s also a societal threshold: a turning point, after which the collective discourse of ambition will slip into something else. A shift of narrative.”

And that’s really what all this end of the world stuff is, Buck explains: a narrative, badly told; a story that we are therefore misunderstanding, and thus is the source of so much of our consternation. “The definitive story of the twenty-first century, for people working to combat climate change, may be captured in one graph: the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. The line features a dramatic, tension-laden rise — and, ideally, a peak, followed by a dramatic and then gentle downslope.” The problem, in Buck’s view, is that we are imposing a familiar narrative form on this graph — “from Shakespeare to the novel to the life course, the exposition–conflict–climax–resolution–moral story arc is a classic one” — when, in fact, the hero’s journey is nothing like how the carbon emissions story will play out. Imagine a bathtub, she suggests instead; imagine it filling with water. And you begin to worry that it will overflow. You can turn the faucet off, yes; but that will not empty the bathtub. And if you can’t turn the faucet off, not now and not for a long while, then it is imperative that you begin emptying the bath tub as soon as possible.


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Everyone wants climate change to be a peak that we will conquer, when really it’s a bathtub we need to drain. Narrative is the most powerful force at work in this equation; and that’s not just the case for climate change. In her review of Rachel Cusk’s essay collection Coventry, Sarah Haas writes, “In being ejected from her family’s narrative, Cusk was subjugated, too; an act of authorship in real time that Cusk cannot separate from violence.” She then quotes Cusk: “War is a narrative: it might almost be said to embody the narrative principle itself. It is the attempt to create a story of life, to create agreement. In war there is no point of view; war is the end of point of view.”

There is a way, though, to take control of a narrative: simply pay attention to how it is wrong. “I was living outside,” explains Marc Hamer when asked how he went about independently re-inventing the ancient art of molecatching (he rejected the poisons favored by modern exterminators), “I got into a state after a quite short period of time where I just stopped trying to think about things and work things out, and just looked at what was going on around me … I went quiet, I think, and that allowed me to just look and try and understand.” After observing the moles, he was able to catch them.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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