Impressions about the heat

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By JULIO TUDE DAVILA*

The devastation caused by climate change around the world

The documentary Invisible Demons portrays the devastation caused by climate change in the world like few others. With a particular focus on India, the film shows entire communities destroyed by floods, polluted rivers and landfills bizarrely filled with trash, as if they were pieces of a new world, or the remains of a country in civil war. The curious thing is that some of these images are beautiful. The way the trash moves in the water, for example, awakens a strange feeling of serenity, just as the impact we feel when we see the mountains that form with the accumulation of waste and waste is strange.

It is as if, for a few moments, we detached ourselves from the reality in front of us and appreciated that object from an inexplicable distance, since we are perfectly aware of how terrible the images are that, briefly, touch some aesthetic sensitivity. Something similar can be seen in the latest edition of the magazine Piaui. Photographer Christian Gravo compiles portraits of an electronic landfill in Accra, the capital of Ghana. One of these images shows a metallic bull surrounded by smoke from the burning that takes place in this place, which “represents the dead end of the unrestrained consumption of rich societies, and exposes the humiliating way in which they treat poor nations”. Despite this, the same Christian Gravo says that bonfires with green flames (resulting from the burning of certain types of metals) were “strangely beautiful”.

There must be a way to alert people about the climate crisis (the right method, which affects everyone, has not yet been found) and there must be a way in which art can help in this effort, affect someone with a force that the enumeration of data is not always available.[I] But what the enchantment with man's destructive power produces is a distancing, an aesthetics of contemplation that in that glimpse of stupefaction gives us the feeling that we are outside the world. A possible horizon for art in this scenario is the opposite direction: placing ourselves radically within nature, beings who inhabit this space together with other beings – an attempt to dismantle the ideological trap that places humanity on a pedestal and masks the urgency of problem.

In the essay in which he narrates a conversation with the Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, about the possibility of making a hydrogen bomb, Werner Heisenberg describes the reservations he made about his friend's enthusiasm. For Heisenberg, the biological and political consequences of such a bomb would be reason enough to refrain from conducting such an experiment. Fermi responds “but it’s such a beautiful experiment.” For Heisenberg, the Italian's response would represent the strongest motivation behind the application of science: the scientist wants to know if he really understood the functioning structure of the world, “to obtain confirmation from an impartial judge; nature itself.” Perhaps Fermi's answer reveals something more unsettling.

In the movie The Day After Trinity, scientists who participated in the Manhattan project share their stories about what day-to-day life was like at Los Alamos, the figure of Oppenheimer and their reflections on the consequences of creating an atomic bomb. Towards the end of the documentary, Freeman Dyson says that the atomic bomb has an irresistible and intoxicating effect on scientists, which he calls “technical arrogance”: observing the impact that their intellect and production can have on the world – “Feeling that the power It [the bomb] is in your hands, to release the energy that powers the stars, to lift a million stones towards the sky. It gives the illusion of unlimited power.” It is the portrait of a science absolutely alienated from reality.

Alienation also extends to art, not always so clearly. It is confused with hope, or with despair, in a particularly ambiguous way in our era of the Anthropocene. In 2015, director Robert Rodriguez and actor John Malkovich completed a bizarre project: as an advertisement for Rémy Martin's Louis XIII cognac, the artists made the short film “100 years”, which will only be shown in the year 2115. Until then, The film's originals are stored in a safe that will be automatically opened on November 18, 2115. The film's poster features the phrase “the film you will never see”. The joke has a more uncomfortable truth than the director's provocation: it is difficult to conceive of a minimally functional society in 2115. The horizon of environmental apocalypse curbs the imagination.

Fredric Jameson was right to say that it seems to be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but the feeling now is that it is not possible to envision anything other than the end. Art's answer to this, if it makes sense to articulate something in these terms, may not be as clear as it seems at first glance. SIM SIM SIM, by the group Bala Quero, or Rivo III e a Fé, by Rodrigo Alarcón, could easily be described as alienated and alienating records, exercises in celebration and hedonism in a historical and political situation that demands another type of relationship between artist and its social context.

But it seems to me that these works call us to another place, they describe a post-catastrophe world. Revelry is placed alongside tenderness, and the celebration is limited to a specific group, the generation that inherited a world in flames and that sees no horizon for overcoming this reality. We can read between the lines of “heat in this desire” and the “weight of a smile with pain” the soundtrack of a party on the edge of the abyss, in which only the young guests enter, aware that there is no hope, that no one will leave I live there. All you have to do is enjoy it. It may be cynicism and historical abandonment, but it seems to me more honest and coherent than other artistic projects that are in schools today.

“For the heart, life is simple: it beats as long as it can. And then it stops.”

It is interesting that Karl Ove Knausgård is one of the authors who will submit an unpublished manuscript to the project Future Library, similar to Rodriguez and Malkovich's initiative. The idea is to collect a book every year from a great author who agrees to participate in the initiative. According to the rules of Future Library, the writer cannot reveal to anyone what his work is about, which will be kept confidential until the year 2114. Writers such as Margaret Atwood, Tsitsi Dangaremba and Han Kang also participate in the initiative.

The authors describe the liberating and special sensation of feeling that they will be read by people in the distant future, long after they have died. Aside from the slightly pathetic nature of this idea – a work that depends on a sensationalist device like this to be read by future generations does not seem more interesting than a book that will still be read for its quality, relevance and strength (we still read Dostoevsky, Cervantes, Aeschylus) – the same feeling remains in the air that the “100 years” poster brings us: who will they be read by? What minimally structured society will survive until 2114? In moments like this we seem to be inhabiting different realities.

“I understood one thing: the world collapses simultaneously everywhere, despite appearances. What happens in Tvaián is that one lives consciously in its ruins” (Nastassja Martin, Listen to the beasts).

French philosopher Bruno Latour argued that no one is truly a denialist. “Denialism” would be a form of political construction based on the same perception we all have: the world is ending. The difference is that conservative deniers would organize around the idea of ​​a return to a strong nation-state, a community based on a clear value, which can define its borders, its limits and its enemies. When the crisis comes, they will be ready for war.

On the progressive side, denialism sometimes takes the form of “namaste”, according to the precise term of João Batista Jr. It is a type of closure of the subject within himself, sustained by the refusal of reality and internalization of mantras that create a confusion of mysticism and self-help. A way of organizing life is created that excludes those who have not reached a certain level of personal enlightenment.

However, if we follow Latour's notes again, the “progressive” response to the environmental apocalypse would be, as conservatives do, the creation of a sectarian community, but in this case based on identity. This is how he explains the emergence of contemporary identitarianism (it is also possible that Bala Desire fits better here). Be that as it may, when we read about initiatives such as Future Library, we feel that these people actually believe that there will be a future in which projects of this type will be received with the charm and enthusiasm with which they were conceived.

Is hope confused with denialism? Or is it just a form of self-deception? When novelists of this caliber express their excitement at the prospect of being read by such a distant audience, “not having to worry about whether it’s going to be good or bad,” in David Mitchell’s terms, it feels, again, as if we are living in parallel realities. Mitchell also said that the Future Library is a “glimmer of hope in a season of depressing news cycles” – the interview is from 2016. Two years later the IPCC would release the report that warned the world about the catastrophic risks of an increase of more than 1,5 degrees Celsius in average global temperature.

The latest UN report on the subject announced the possibility of an increase of up to 2,6 degrees Celsius by the time we reach 2100, in addition to highlighting how far we are from the goals set for 2030. With each passing day, Mitchell's hope seems wilder and inconsequential.

Climate change has long been not an issue we will only deal with in the distant future. It is present in our reality and disturbs our world every day. Extreme events happen all the time, one after the other. In addition to the direct deaths generated by these events, many people already suffer from loss of electricity, poor air quality, emergency evacuations, forced immigration, loss of means of subsistence and deaths caused indirectly by the transformation of the world's climate.

2023 has not been an ordinary year in relation to environmental issues. Record summer temperatures, forest fires (in Canada at least 16 million hectares of forest burned – an area close to the size of the state of New York), floods (the case of Pakistan was more emblematic, but several West African countries such as Ghana, Niger and Nigeria are also suffering from this issue), droughts, cyclones, tornadoes, typhoons, etc.

In an excellent analysis of Kehinde Wiley's work, Saul Nelson shows how the strangeness we feel looking at his paintings comes from a fragility in the artist's work and concept, the inability to coherently articulate the critical aspects that supposedly underlie it. His portrait of former president Barack Obama would be the perfect example of this, because the image that tries to be idyllic and sublime ends up generating discomfort, as if something were out of place, and the different connected elements did not form a cohesive whole: “The The president's image is a tense surface stretched over an empty interior.

Obama doesn't live up to his brand. These discordant notes in Barack Obama's representation of power are significant. They can hardly be attributed solely to Wiley's political commitments.

He is not a critic of the neoliberal current. In fact, he is a component of it: obsessed with beauty and branding, immersed in the ideology of commercialism. But his paintings are more interesting than his statements — more relevant to our current moment of capitalist crisis — because, by looking so closely at this ideology, they show us its limits. They are images of spectacle and desire on the verge of collapse.” Likewise, an idea like Future Library It perfectly shows the limits of a certain type of ideological discourse: it can set goals, expectations and plans for a hundred years from now, but has nothing to say about now.

Mitchell insists the project is “a vote of confidence that despite the catastrophic shadows we live under, the future will still be a bright place.” References that should bring us closer to reality push us in the opposite direction and we receive several images that are the opposite of what we see and experience. It is in this sense that a project like the Future Library, anchored in an illusory hope, explains the contradiction of our current situation.

Denialism takes on a different form, in which the size of the problem is recognized, but there is the certainty that, eventually, we will arrive at the answer – it organizes a movement of collective self-deception, a community of people who spread seeds on burnt soil, going away and cross your fingers. We place our hope in abstract categories of salvation – science, art, humanity – and proceed as if “progress” in these areas would naturally lead to the resolution of the crisis. Ultimately, we are in fact living in two different worlds at the same time, and it is within this ideological framework that we can read contemporary culture and our subjective experience.

If, on the one hand, the analysis of the fragility of some contemporary artistic projects exposes the difficulty of giving a name and body to the catastrophe, and discerns in this fragile edifice the mental juggling act that sustains it, on the other hand we need to recognize the psychic cost of living in these two worlds that contradict each other.[ii]

We have never been so close to the end. Every year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists publishes its “Doomsday Clock”, which stipulates how close humanity is to the apocalypse. In 2020, 2021 and 2022 we were 100 seconds from midnight. This year there was a change: the hand advanced another ten seconds, an unprecedented marking that is largely justified, according to the organization's statement, by the continuity of the war in Ukraine. The risks are not limited to Putin's ambiguous flirtations regarding the use of atomic weapons, but also include the possibility that Russia will use chemical and biological weapons, the erosion of the legitimacy of international mediation institutions and the fact that war disrupts efforts to combat climate change,[iii] changing the focus of the global debate – something that the war in Palestine will undoubtedly intensify.

Little is said, for example, about the recent American effort to increase its atomic capacity, in response to Chinese initiatives in the same direction, or about tensions between India and Pakistan. The “nuclear winter”, that is, the climatic effects of an atomic bomb (contamination of soil and water, destruction of plantable land, cooling resulting from the spread of atomic soot), generated by a week of war between these last two countries would be enough to cause the deaths of two billion people.[iv] The inexorable link between nuclear war and the climate crisis – according to Chomsky the two greatest current threats to humanity – often goes unnoticed.

According to a survey of American Psychology Association In 2020, 56% of Americans believed the climate crisis was the most important issue to be resolved in the world today. Among younger people (aged 18 to 34), 48% said they feel stress on a daily basis due to the weather. In 2017, the association coined the term “climate anxiety”: a chronic fear of environmental apocalypse. Another survey, by the NGO Friends of Earth, estimated that the number is even more dramatic when the sample is made up of young people between 18 and 24 years old: around two thirds had experienced climate anxiety.

Research published in Lancet in 2021, he carried out a survey of ten thousand young people (16 to 25 years old) from ten different countries, and determined that 59% of them were “very or extremely concerned about the climate crisis”, at least 50% felt one of the following emotions: sadness, anxiety, anger, helplessness, helplessness and guilt, and more than 45% felt that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives. Interestingly, the authors make a point of stating that “although it is painful and disturbing, climate anxiety is rational and does not suggest a mental illness. Anxiety is an emotion that alerts us to danger.” Perhaps the overdiagnosis of anxiety and ADHD common today makes us forget this point.

“- then you saw something
- Yes
– But you don't want to say what it is
– It’s nothing worth mentioning
– Because I didn’t see it
- IT IS
– And then you would be the only one to have seen
- Yes
– And then there is no
– Yes, I suppose”
(Jon Fosse, Ali).

Oppenheimer received unexpected resistance when he wanted to convince his friend Isidor Rabi to participate in the Manhattan project. Rabi, who would later receive the Nobel Prize, said that he would not like to see “the result of three centuries of physics be a weapon of mass destruction”. Science, supposedly an engine of progress and advancement for humanity, carries within itself the destruction of that same project.[v] Her Absolute is the end of what she had as her initial purpose. The same happens with technology.

A report from Goldman Sachs predicts that, in the near future, three hundred million jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence. Walter Benjamin said that revolution is pulling the emergency brake. One wonders how he would have reacted to the images of the atomic cloud, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the incendiary bombs dropped on Tokyo, considering his astonishment and despair about the future of the world when he saw the way mustard gas transformed war. Perhaps he saw, in the astonishment generated by the explosion of a nuclear bomb, in the applause of the American people upon hearing of the success of the Manhattan Project, in the turning a blind eye to the concentration camps that Roosevelt created to imprison Asian-American citizens, an aestheticization of politics, and provided another view of how all of this transformed the scientific field.

Prometheus before Gaia, this is the clash that a certain idea of ​​science seeks to promote – man sees himself above good and evil, spectator of the world, removed from it, master of it, capable of shaping it according to his desire. Like someone watching a painting, he contemplates its elements from a distance and, when he gets tired, he goes to do something else. It is difficult to know whether this stance creates an idea that eventually man will be able to solve the climate crisis or whether it serves as a refuge for those who want to escape this reality: faith in progress, in art for art's sake and in science, in technique and technology , alien to the reality of the world. In any case, it is a vision that undermines the efforts of those who, in panic, insist on the apocalyptic dimension of the crisis we are experiencing. It is a time of global upheaval and collective suicide, and humanity persists in this movement, of development hanging in the sky[vi]. Until the day the sky falls, and there's nothing left.

Latour insisted that our attempts to accelerate this process are an attempt to take possession of something that has already escaped our control, to oppose nature as if we were not part of it, as if we saw our end as a triumph of the powers of man.[vii] Paulo Arantes bets that when the world ends, there will still be one capitalist left to wonder how the end of the world affected the stock market. Perhaps there will also be one last spectator, who will watch the catastrophe and give his sincere verdict: “how beautiful”.[viii]

Julio Tude Davila Graduated in Social Sciences from USP.

Notes


[I] Marina Zurkow relativizes the supposed supremacy of man and his worldview by showing, in her work Breath Eaters, how, from the point of view of the climate crisis, the idea of ​​a national border loses all meaning. “If carbon is extracted and released to travel around the globe at the whim of the winds, why is the world of beings (humans, plants, animals) limited by national borders, surrounded and isolated?” In the video, we see the movement of gases around the Earth, the way they travel around the world without distinguishing more or less polluting countries. The smoke that comes out of China and the USA stays in the atmosphere and contaminates us all. It is a point that registers the need to now rethink the fundamental categories that organize our thinking, and can suggest a path to the problem we are raising.

[ii] Therefore, the fundamental question is not “what is the function of art in this context?” but, first, the function of criticism.

[iii] As stated in the statement: “The effects of war are not limited to an increased nuclear danger; they also undermine global efforts to combat climate change. Countries that depend on Russian oil and gas have sought to diversify and expand the sources of this gas, leading to greater investment in natural gas exactly when such investment should be shrinking.”

[iv] https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-022-00573-0

[v] Oppenheimer himself describes this contradiction clearly, in a lecture given to American philosophers, after World War II: “We have created a thing, the most terrible weapon, which has abruptly and profoundly altered the nature of the world... a thing that by any criterion of The world we grew up in is an evil thing. And in doing so… we raise once again the question of whether science is good for man.”

[vi] It is tragically ironic that, as always, those least responsible for this process will be those who will suffer its most terrible and immediate consequences. “The difference between War and Peace is this: in War, the poor are the first to be killed; in Peace, the poor are the first to die.” – Mia Couto

[vii] I thank my friend Eduardo Simon for clarifying this matter for me.

[viii] The author is deeply grateful for the comments and reading by Eduardo Simon, Sofia Azevedo and Eduardo Serna.


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