A lexicon of loss: we lack adequate concepts to describe our role in making the planet imminently unliveable

A lexicon of loss: we lack adequate concepts to describe our role in making the planet imminently unliveable

Developing a language to describe climate change needs both the sciences and the humanities

Developing a language to describe climate change needs both the sciences and the humanities

We most easily intuit the passage of time measured in days, months and years, the units with which we routinely calibrate our lives. But the span of the cosmos is incomprehensibly greater. The “Cosmic Calendar” is a useful way of thinking about time. It imagines the span of the universe’s existence as though it lasted a single year. The Big Bang, with which the universe began about 13.6 billion years ago, happens on January 1. The cosmic calendar year ends on December 31, at midnight, coinciding with our current time.

When compressed into a single year, all human endeavor is confined to the last few seconds before midnight on December 31. Indeed, modern humans appear just eight minutes before midnight and the Indus Valley civilization just 12 seconds before that day ends. In the river of time, humanity leaves the barest ripple.

Despite its evanescence on a cosmic scale, the human race now has the power to irreversibly alter the course of life on earth. The impact of human activity on the planet’s climate is clear enough that one cannot think of the future of the biosphere without accounting for it. Humanity now determines the trajectory of planetary life and the speed at which it changes. Our present, the Anthropocene or Human Age, is a fusion of historical and geological eras, when our species dominates all others.

Tea Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the apex international body that tracks climate change, projects increasingly gloomy scenarios for what might happen as levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase. Their reports anticipate more and more events of extreme weather and dramatic temperature fluctuations, leading to a precipitous reduction of biodiversity, and permanent habitat loss for many species.

Every other sort of historical circumstance, no matter how catastrophic, pales before these scenarios. Sadly, even if the emissions that result from burning fossil fuels could miraculously be reduced to zero, that would be insufficient to reverse these ominous trends for the next several decades.

Mirrored in art

The experience of the Anthropocene is reflected in art. In tandem with the Venice Biennale this year is an exhibition of a set of brooding works by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, displayed in the magnificent Ducal Palace on St. Mark’s Square. These works, called the “Venice Cycle”, were especially commissioned to mark the 1600th anniversary of the city’s foundation. Kiefer titles his show with an enigmatic line by the Italian philosopher Andrea Emo (1901-1983): “These writings, when burned, will finally cast a bit of light.”

Kiefer’s eight monumental images, installed on the walls of a large hall within the palace, are hard to describe in their entirety. But the seventh canvas, 9 m wide, is perhaps the most imposing. It depicts the Ducal Palace collapsing and covered in smoke, in the process of being burnt down, as though it had been firebombed. The water of the Laguna rises to flood St. Mark’s Square.

Above the charred and inundated scene — even as the viewer stands inside the very building and by the waters thus depicted — the imperial standard of the Venetian Republic, the winged lion of St. Mark, flies tattered and aflame. The huge burnished pennant, embellished with its ferocious mascot, cannot shield the city below from its final destruction.

Kiefer’s work is a commentary on the inexorable forces of a planetary apocalypse that threaten to extinguish the achievements of history. The fragility of Venice mirrors the fragility of the earth in the Anthropocene. Neither wealth nor technology nor the vaulting artistic imagination that permeates and defines Venice — perhaps more poignantly than any other place — can staunch the floods and fires engulfing it.

It is apt that Kiefer should address climate change and its human consequences in this beautiful yet vulnerable city. Venice is slowly sinking, under the physical weight of its buildings constructed upon stilts planted in the bed of the lagoon, as well as under the metaphorical weight of changes that it cannot control. These pressures that afflict Venice, of rising sea levels, extreme weather, and unsustainable tourism, also burden many other places around the world.

Climate refugees

“We are here Venice”, an organization led by scientist and activist Jane da Mosto, has concentrated on a particularly visible symbol of the environmental crisis, the immense cruise ships that invade Venetian canals, polluting their waters and endangering marine life. Ms. da Mosto is also building cultural bridges to the Bangladeshi community of Venice, many of them climate refugees who work in the shipyards of Mestre and Marghera, cut off from the society surrounding them.

When one steps out of the Ducal Palace onto the sun-dazzled boat-stops of San Marco and San Zaccaria, most of the street vendors selling raincoats and roses, umbrellas and hats, key chains and scarves, are Bangladeshi. What are they doing in Venice, how did they get here, what currents of the global economy uprooted them from the distant deltas of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, carrying them to the shores of northern Italy? Did they have to give up rice for pasta and replace freshwater fish with saltwater fish in their diet? How did the music of Bangla yield to the cadences of Italian?

Bengali-American writers Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri have been fascinated by these questions, of translation and transition, of what is gained and what is lost in these journeys across cultures and continents. Following the micro-history reconstructed in recent years by Mr. Ghosh, Ms. da Mosto has begun to mobilize Venetian authorities and citizens to better integrate the Bangladeshi immigrants in their midst.

It is time to recognize that some of the communities that migrate to work in southern Europe may well be climate refugees from peninsular South Asia. They are Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, transplanted to the first world countries of the Mediterranean region, simultaneously sought after for their cheap labor and reviled for their cultural identity.

The French artist Bruno Catalano has created a series of striking life-size bronze sculptures showing travelers – migrants, refugees and workers – with sections of their bodies, their clothing and their luggage missing. When we move elsewhere, we leave parts of ourselves behind. Climate change will swell populations that are similarly disposed, at once plucked from their natural environment while also running the daunting obstacle course created by national borders.

Two facets of modern knowledge

In teaching students about climate change, one must maintain a balance between spelling out its dire consequences and avoiding what has been termed “climate anxiety” or “ecological grievance”, a type of depression regarding the future of the planet. Such depression can be debilitating, especially as the actions of any single individual are inconsequential in comparison to what needs to be done.

Closer home, coastal cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Dhaka and Karachi are endangered by rising seas. How do we prepare the next generation for what’s coming, how do we mourn what we are losing, how do we find a commensurate idiom with which to describe and confront the inevitability of climate change? How can the arts and sciences help us address the planetary emergency we face?

We represent two facets of modern knowledge: one of us is a scientist while the other is a humanist. We are writing about climate change together because we believe that the importance of this subject supersedes our distinct academic domains. We suggest that new approaches are needed to communicate the reality and contours of climate change. The necessity of hope, of personal responsibility and of collective action can and should be incorporated into education and pedagogy across disciplines.

We need a vocabulary of loss to talk about climate change without reducing it to the dry enumeration of facts and projections. It is not clear what words might suffice. Recall the abject failure of language to communicate the violence and suffering noted by philosophers and poets after the World Wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For now, we lack adequate concepts to describe our role in making the planet imminently unliveable.

Epistemological tools from the natural, social and human sciences must be marshalled to tackle the paradox of the Anthropocene – the Human Age that could end all ages. A shared new lexicon must provide ways of understanding the vulnerability of the planet and becoming conscious of our critical role in protecting its future. It must include a realization of both our insignificance in cosmic time and our disproportionate power to alter the story of life on earth.

Gautam I. Menon heads the Center for Climate Change and Sustainability at Ashoka University, Sonepat. Ananya Vajpeyi is an intellectual historian at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. The views expressed by the authors are personal.

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