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The Elkington Report

Are we deranged, or just delusional?

A pair of sci-fi books illuminate our perilous path ahead.

Perched on the 27th floor of the Grand Kempinski Hotel in Shanghai, looking down at the barges, ferries, floating cranes and police boats surging back and forth along the Huangpu River, I felt a profound sense of vertigo — and in multiple dimensions. The scale of the economic activity suggested by this throbbing artery, part of the immense Yangtze River system, is — and this isn’t a word I often use — awesome.

I was in the city to speak at the Tongji University Sustainable Development Forum, co-hosted by Covestro — and my message was designed to disconcert, at least to begin with. I wanted to disconcert because I was disconcerted. As I looked down on the river and city, my brain tried to marry two very different views of Shanghai’s future — one without runaway climate change, the other with.

As Shanghai reaches for the skies, with more building activity than I remember seeing anywhere else in the world, the latest science suggests that a 2-degree Celsius warming trajectory could inundate land in the world’s largest city that currently houses 11.6 million people. A 4-degree warming could adversely impact 22.4 million.

Forget the decimal places — no one has a true grip on the scale of the devastation, and Shanghai is spending billions in attempts to moderate the likely impact. But, really, what sort of species would pour so much time, energy and investment into cities destined to become 21st-century versions of Atlantis?

What sort of species would pour so much time, energy and investment into cities destined to become 21st century versions of Atlantis?
This question has been in my mind for ages but was given greater urgency by two things I had read on the flight from London.

One was Mohsin Hamid’s stunning novel "Exit West," portraying a world where climate change has turned most of us into migrants. A world where London’s Green Belt, now called the "London Halo," is being bulldozed for swarming refugee camps. Nor is London alone: The same phenomenon also disfigures places such as California’s once-delightful Marin County, the next stage in the main protagonists’ journey.

The second thing I read as I winged east was a Louis Klee blog post, "Unthinking Modernity," written in response to Amitav Ghosh’s book "The Great Derangement." A world-class novelist, Ghosh’s 2016 book switched from fiction to fact, arguing that modern literature, history and politics often betray us when it comes to the looming consequences of climate change.

Gradual, not cataclysmic

All three make a set of assumptions, hinging on uniform and gradual processes rather than catastrophes and cataclysms. As a result, they render climate chaos unthinkable. Ghosh asks the question head on: Are we deranged?

He concludes that we are, because our cultures and imaginations simply fail to engage emergent realities. As Klee had put it in his review, "Words buckle under the unthinkability of the crisis." Or, as Ghosh argued, we increasingly suffer from "a crisis of the imagination."

His conclusion, as summarized in a blurb by his publishers, is that "hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel; they are automatically consigned to other genres. In the writing of history, too, the climate crisis has sometimes led to gross simplifications; Ghosh shows that the history of the carbon economy is a tangled global story with many contradictory and counterintuitive elements."

Happily, other voices are calling out the risk of climate catastrophe. Alongside writers such as Margaret Atwood — who argues that this isn’t just about our climate changing, but about everything changing — Mohsin Hamid has risen to the challenge. Weirdly, though, I can’t recall global warming being mentioned directly even once in "Exit West." Perhaps it’s a reflection of the challenge being too well known by then to name?

Another fine climate change novel, albeit in an even more apocalyptic vein, is Omar El Akkad’s "American War." Here, fossil fuel bans help trigger a second American Civil War, in the same way that the proposed abolition of slavery did back in the 1860s.

The Greek goddess Cassandra gave apocalyptic warnings a bad name, but that should not stop us pointing decision-takers and policy-makers to evidence that catastrophic climate change is, at least in historical terms, just around the corner.

With people such as Umair Haque concluding that the world is entering a new super-cycle of authoritarianism, the nature and scale of our task is unlikely to get much easier.
Thinking the unthinkable may be beyond most of these people’s pay-grades, but one reason I have returned to reading the latest science fiction is that sci-fi writers are people who have learned how to think around corners.

Ultimately, however, the challenge is not just to think, but also to act. And with people such as Umair Haque concluding that the world is entering a new super-cycle of authoritarianism, the nature and scale of our task is unlikely to get much easier.

Hence, the increasingly urgent need to experiment with every form of communication and behavior change at our disposal. I am constantly looking for new ways to help people think and speak carbon and climate. Among the people I most admire in this space are Disobedient Films — particularly its "Climate Symphony" project.

As they explain, "Climate Symphony turns data on climate change into a musical composition to tell the story of what climate change means through sound. This is the sound of a dying planet and our transient position in it." 

Now we need an upside version, capturing the sound and vibrancy of the fast-emerging solutions that could yet help us all move toward a climate-friendly future. Maybe it’s time for someone to set the 100 solutions in Paul Hawken’s "Drawdown" to music? Or even more dramatically, Shell’s uplifting Sky scenario?

Moving in this direction are The Climate Music Project, with its clarion call: "What do you want the future to sound like?" Its goal: to make climate science personal." As an analogy for climate," they say, "music is familiar, accessible, and — for most people — much easier to relate to than articles or lectures."

So my own future brief is clear. Just as David soothed a tormented Saul with his harp, it’s time to hand back the slide clicker and to pick up my guitar, plucking, strumming and, yes, sliding into the minds of tormented CEOs and other decision-makers around this sorely challenged world of ours.

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