Was it seven or eight summers ago, when the sun first became our enemy and set our skin on fire? We find it now in the normality of strange weather and the telescoping of the seasons; wherein it’s 27 degrees and there are no leaves yet on the trees, a hot August day in April. We watch the media spectacles of monster storms and mud slides that arrive with increasing force and frequency. And we despair over the death of the Polar bears, starving because the Arctic sea-ice upon which they catch seals can no longer bear their weight. Up there, we hear, the permafrost is melting, and the Inuit of Baffin Island are witnessing thunder and lightning for the first time in their lives. Down here, along the southern border of Canada, we are just beginning to feel the fear in our guts.
The ambivalence and discomfort which we may feel about these changes – whose effects are as intimate as they are remote – speak to a more subtle perception that everything has now come undone: realigned and re-made by forces beyond our control, and yet, of our own making. That significant futurity which was once the sine qua non of a rational modernity – the self-confident assurance that things can only get better and never worse – has fallen to the wayside of our collective memory, useful now only for the purposes of Hallmark greeting cards. As usual, we suffer from a failure of imagination, wherein the only facts worth knowing become unspeakable, verboten vulgarities never to be uttered out-loud in polite company.
What accounts for this silence? While we may increasingly feel that something is amiss in the world, this experience is not authorised or legitimated by the propositions of commercial media or conventional thought. What are the social consequences of this gap between the corporeal experience of global warming and its public representation? Can such affectual experience be mined as a means to advocate social change?
In Canadian and American commercial media, discussion of “global warming” is still largely absent (Ungar; Weingart, Engels and Pansegrau). When the hurricanes Katrina and Rita whirled into Level 5 status across the very hot waters of the Gulf of Mexico this Fall, mention of global warming was quickly flicked away as a minor irritant. Such omissions are not surprising, given the political economy of American media. The automobile industry spends US$3 billion out of a total of US$9 billion annual expenditures of all advertising on network television. Not one of these ads is for hybrid cars.
It is also our idea of nature that allows us to relegate matters of the environment to the periphery of our concerns. In its more piously Wordsworthian vestiges, nature is deemed as self-evident and unaltered by the ravages of time. It’s this temporal stasis attributed to nature that allows us to absolve ourselves from its fate. Nature, after all, is the non-human. And while the argument that only humans make history – that only humans transform and innovate themselves and their environment and manipulate the dimensions of time – can be recognised as a neat piece of social construction built in the interests of human conquest, we are still reticent to acknowledge nature on its own terms. Val Plumwood has argued that, “if the category of ‘nature’ is seen as phony, if it can only appear when suitably surrounded by scare quotes, [then] we are less likely to be inspired by appeals to nature’s integrity in [it’s defence]” (3). Somehow, believing in nature slides into an unseemly essentialism or a fetishistic form of love.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that so many people do not feel compelled to come to nature’s defense. Survey research from the United States, published in 2000 and 2003, shows that while 90% of Americans have now heard of global warming and believe it’s an important issue, a much smaller percentage are actually concerned about it (Stamm, Clark and Eblacas; Leiserowitz). Other matters such as employment, the economy and the rising costs of housing take priority over environmental issues. Furthermore, the research finds that while espousing environmental values, only a small percentage of respondents would self-identify as “environmentalist”. While being pro-environment is perceived as “having good character”, having too much of this good character is a bad thing.
Still, can’t they feel what’s going on? Certainly here on the coast of British Columbia, where rainforests still run along the ocean’s edge, something has changed. Nothing is quite as ‘temperate’ as it once was. The weather shifts unexpectedly and dramatically, and the summers have become too hot and too dry. Global warming has brought a new atmosphere to the forests, as if under all this unfamiliar dryness and dust a latent extinction is beginning to stir. This current prospect – the death of not just a million species of plant and animal life (Kirby), but of countless human lives – may be redirecting our attention now to the interdependent relation, the fluid interchanges, between human and non-human worlds. This deadly probability may engender a new vitality, new ways of feeling life. “Nature”, as Michel Serres puts it, “is reminding us of its existence” (29).
The challenge posed by this recognition prohibits the perception of nature in static terms, as a commodity or as handy oubliette for societal debris. In so doing, feeling the life of nature allows consideration of the ways in which nature and human culture have long been wedded to one another, not just in terms of the semiotic operations of a binarism, but as a complex and reciprocal project of interdependent life. Recognition of the interdependence of human and non-human life may also entail a particular affectual sensibility – a means of feeling life as it resonates against our skin and fills our senses. In this moment, “everything that is, resounds”. Here, “the sense and recognisability of things … do not lie in conceptual categories in which we mentally place them, but in their positions and orientations which our postures address” (Lingus 59). It’s not a question then of what nature means to us, but does nature do with us? How does it make us feel?
Emotion has remained discursively submerged in discussions of climate change, not only because the stakes are such that only the scientists, with their particular authority and legitimacy, are afforded a voice, but also because it threatens the legitimacy of a formal rationalist representation of nature which excludes the non-human from the purview of ethical consideration. An affectual relationship to the natural world does have its difficulties. “Feeling nature” is based upon some sort of understanding with it, a form of competency, of ‘knowing your way around’. Such knowledges are often bound by class: the privileged remit of the romantic individual in search of an authentic experience, or the uncomfortable locale of hard and often violent labour. Still, it is in feeling the shrinking of life into the shadows of an uncommon heat that we may use this sentience to good effect.
In his book The Natural Contract, Michel Serres argues that, “through exclusively social contracts, we have abandoned the bond that connects us to the world. … What language do the things of the world speak that we might come to an understanding of them contractually? … In fact, the Earth speaks to us in terms of forces, bonds and interactions … each of the partners in symbiosis thus owes … life to the other, on pain of death” (39).
Long ago, when we were young, many of us made good money working in the coastal forest of British Columbia – either cutting it or milling it or planting it. I was alone there once for 6 weeks and was haunted daily by a raven who would track my movements through the trees, muttering incantations and clicks. By the time I walked out of the woods I was nearly speechless and it took me weeks to recover the easy cultural behaviour that came so naturally before.
A friend of mine once had the job of getting rid of the young poplar and alder trees that colonise the logging slash. His task was to “cut and squirt”: to slash the trees with a machete and squirt poison inside the cut. Maybe it was a bad case of anthropomorphism, or maybe it was the drugs, but to this day, he swears he could hear the trees scream.