Issues 1-3 of n+1 feature a section titled “The Intellectual Situation” which “usually scrutinizes the products of our culture and the problems of everyday life.” (A typical scrutiny, from Issue 2: “A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.”) But in Issue 4, out today, the magazine’s editors, worried “that our culture and everyday life may not exist in their current form much longer,” take a break from topics like dating and McSweeney’s and devote the section to “An Interruption”: Chad Harbach’s summary of global warming. It’s a startling essay because, unlike writings on the same subject by researchers, politicians, economists, and scientists, Harbach claims absolutely no personal authority and offers little analysis of the particulars of the situation. Instead, he’s scared, and thinks you should be too. And you shouldn’t be scared just of the hurricanes, but of the nice days as well:
Our way of life that used to seem so durable takes on a sad, valedictory aspect, the way life does for any 19th-century protagonist on his way to a duel that began as a petty misunderstanding. The sunrise looks like fire, the flowers bloom, the morning air dances against his cheeks. It’s so incongruous, so unfair! He’s healthy, he’s young, he’s alive – but he’s passing from the world. And so are we, healthy and alive – but our world is passing from us.
Harbach longs for the days before he knew what carbon dioxide and methane do to our climate; he doesn’t seem to resent the “way of life that used to seem so durable” as much as he does the fact that he knows it is no longer durable, and is forced to watch it progress. It’s the coupling of access to knowledge and lack of agency that feeds Harbach’s nightmare. And the nightmare is compelling because it doesn’t come from a journalist who has gone to the ice caps or a scientist who has gone to the ice caps or a politician who has gone to the ice caps. It comes from a guy who has read about the ice caps on the internet. It’s as if the 21st century protagonist has Googled his duel and learned the outcome, but must nevertheless continue on his way, unsure when he’ll meet the opponent.
Or if he’ll meet him at all. It takes a minimum of 40 years for some burned fuels to affect the climate, Harbach informs us. In a sense, we’re living our grandfather’s dreams, and dreaming our granddaughter’s days. Where we, in the present, fit in is murky. How can emergency rhetoric operate in a discussion that holds its outcomes so far in the future, and its causes so far in the past? Harbach acknowledges that the “long lag is the feature that makes global warming so dangerous,” but his own warning is urgent, finite, and is positioned by his editors as a brief perforation with no past or future. The essay’s marked as “An Interruption” in the regular “Intellectual Situation,” signaling both that the content is important enough to warrant the reader’s immediate attention, and that that very attention is transient. In Issue 5, the editors imply, “The Intellectual Situation” will return to its usual treatment of “problems of everyday life.” What Harbach wants, however, is for Global Warming to be the every day problem. But what language can convey that, when the warning is always about tomorrow?
Global warming certainly isn’t a practical concern for most Americans. It’s practical to be concerned about events like hurricanes and tornados and floods, but global warming – whether there will be more hurricanes in the next century than in this one –isn’t enough of a practical concern to make any difference in the voting booth. Of course, gay marriage certainly isn’t a practical concern for most Americans either. Most Americans aren’t gay, and I can’t think of a single American who would be practically threatened by a gay marriage. But the language surrounding the issue – one of tangible emergency, one of assault on today’s family – makes the issue practical. It suggests that the marriages of heterosexual partners are instantly destabilized and undermined at the moment when same sex partners marry. Political power is gained, in that case, by constructing immediate personal threat.
Harbach takes an opposite approach – he tries to construct threat by unleashing a torrent of imagined future problems so awful and so overwhelming that they seem present. It’s a solid strategy because he executes it so well, but my lasting feeling was selfish – I’ll die before the shit hits the fan. Environment related language rarely confers personal threat. Guilt, perhaps, but almost never threat. Environmental Protection Agency? The environment doesn’t get scared or vote. Natural Resources Defense Council? Natural Resources don’t get mad or donate money. Voters are selfish, and to issue a call to arms about global warming you’ve either got to convince them to care about the earth, care about their grandchildren, or get them nervous about themselves here and now. Bush exploited this last strategy in his State of the Union address when he warned that “America is addicted to oil,” implying a human weakness and illness that had to be cured, and fast. Addiction is also a personal subject for the President; he is a born again Christian who kicked his booze habit and can therefore kick oil, too. He held Americans as today’s victims, not the earth.
Toward the end of his essay, Harbach addresses the “addiction” to oil: “This [the transition to renewable energy] is the responsibility incumbent on us, and its fulfillment could easily be couched in the familiar, voter-friendly language of American leadership, talent, and heroism.” It’s true, it could be easily couched that way – but what seems to keep Harbach himself up at night are global warming doomsday scenarios, not American heroism. “Addicted to Oil” plays on these nightmares. Perhaps it’s time that the NRDC and company did too.