A Revisionist History For Nonlinear Thinkers
by Max Moinian
April 22, 2019
This article was orignially published May 31,2018 in our Urban Planning issue.
Moinian is an urban planner from New York, researching climate change and urban design. This work is adapted from the Future Earth Catalog, a project done for her master’s thesis at MIT.
Earlier this year I wondered how the ozone layer was doing. I remembered being terrified as a kid and constantly drenched in sunblock. “This is a completely different Earth you are growing up in,” my mom would say. And she was totally right.
Climate change is the environmental narrative of our time. It occupies the same anxiety as nuclear warfare, the population bomb, and the ozone hole. It ebbs and flows from popular consciousness with big events like the Kyoto Protocol or COP21, and with extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts, and fires.
The problem is the ebb and flow - where does a story start and where does it end?
We hold onto shocks delivered through sensationalist media but we cannot possibly grasp stressors - the slow warming of temperature, melting of glaciers and rise of the sea. When Trump tweets “this very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice” he reveals a common misconception.
He confuses weather (a shock) with climate (a stressor): a cold day with global warming.
But weather that we can see and feel is not climate. Climate is the history of weather. It exists on an expanded timescale and involves incremental change that cannot be perceived firsthand. Climate is always mediated, and it’s pattern is irregular. Dr. John Holdren says we should call it “global climate disruption” rather than “global warming,” a misleading term which suggests that the phenomenon is uniform around the world, all about temperature, and gradual.
Climate’s official story is mostly told through data by scientists, journalists, and politicians. We listen without realizing we can be storytellers ourselves. Rebecca Solnit wrote about the power of the stories we tell in her book, Hope in the Dark. “Stories trap us, stories free us, we live and die by stories.” In the helplessness of climate change, I found agency in challenging the narratives I consume. I can reflect on many stories to tell my own.
Our ability to measure and understand the past seems to be directly proportional to our imaginative capacity for the future. It is hard to be hopeful when you are told to see the world as parts-per-million of CO2. This is a really big problem. Not only are we hyperaware of our past, but we can measure our individual impacts on the future — through efforts to make the world a better place, but also through carbon footprint calculators.
We might need to ‘unlearn’ some of these climate change communication and education logics (individual consumption as parts-per-million of CO2) in order to imagine a different future. Like a process of ‘unlearning’ candy as an adult, because the ingredients are ‘bad for you,’ the current narrative of climate may be bad for our society: an ingredient list full of toxic fear, individual responsibility, and irreversible loss.
Back to my mom, who used to give kids clementines on Halloween. Although I resented her for it, I take much wisdom from it now: we might not have the future that we wanted, but we can have something different that is just as sweet.
As you click through the timeline, choose your own adventure. There is no answer, no ‘aha!’ moment, only fragments I am suggesting to be part of our cultural construction of climate. In a quest for knowledge we struggle to accept that there might not be any to find. Uncertainty is a theme here: the uncertainty of climate models, 1-in-100 year storms, how we got here, and where we are headed. But the uncertainty of our future Earth means it is somewhat up to us. This is where Solnit finds hope: “the future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.”
Albert Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. We have always relied on it to explain uncertainty. To bridge the gap between what we observe and what we cannot understand, through myth, fiction, and fantasy. Our cultural construction of climate is a perception that has as much to do with science fiction as the science we call fact.
Fantasies of utopia or apocalyptic doom are powerful narratives. They indulge our senses and give license to world, a verb philosopher Martin Heidegger uses to describe the continuous process of world-building, perception-shifting, and responsiveness to our own realities. To world new worlds in the time of climate change is to break the barriers of our own capacities, whether these barriers be real or perceived.
In Space Colonies, Fabian Reimann writes, “heroism is successful foolishness; and is space travel anything but government-funded foolishness?” Space exploration, in fiction and not-fiction, is hope. We stuck our flag on the moon ten years after Kennedy declared the space race. What can’t we do?
By the way, the hole in the ozone is still there, it’s just growing slower.
A revisionist history for linear thinkers who prefer not to go down cycles and spirals of internet holes uncovering stories and events, and always working backwards. Grounded in the present, rooted in the past, and ready for lift off.