Thursday, December 17, 2009

We Were Warmed

My parents, God love 'em, never throw anything away. Usually this is a source of consternation and physical inconvenience--as when one tries to maneuver around the tottering piles of years-old newspapers that litter their home--but occasionally it can be a source of revelation, a recovery from a buried personal archaeology. That's what happened yesterday.

I was searching for their old copy of The Night before Christmas, the book my dad used to read to us every Christmas Eve. I figured the original, if it was there at all, would be in too shabby a shape to risk reading, but I thought I might find the same edition on Amazon or Ebay to read to my own children. What I found instead, among the moldering, masking-taped series of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries that crowd their attic bookcase, was a book from 1974, when I was nine, a book titled Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet. It's the kind of book my almost-eleven-year-old daughter still likes to read between mammoth chunks of her favorite fantasies, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson: a chapter book, yes, but with large print, pictures on every third or fourth page, and only sixty-four pages total. So I snatched it--one less piece of junk for my parents to deal with, one less for me to deal with once they're gone--and took it home.

That's when I discovered a certain eerie appropriateness in my choice. I'd remembered the book's basic plot as soon as I saw it: a lonely boy begins to receive telepathic communications from an intergalactic being, Dar Tellum, with whom he forms a friendship. What I hadn't remembered, though, was the plot's principal conflict. Here's how the protagonist/narrator tells it:

"It seems that the planet Earth was right in the middle of a big crisis. Dozens of cities were in danger of becoming flooded. . . . And the reason for this flooding was that the oceans were getting higher.

"From what I understood, and I'm sure there are gaps here and there, the smoke from cars and factories goes into the air. A part of this smoke called carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere of Earth. It lets the sun's heat in, but it won't let much heat out. This carbon dioxide makes a kind of one-way lid on Earth. Heat in, but not much out.

"And this extra heat was warming up the north and south poles. So the ice was melting and the oceans were getting higher."

How could I have forgotten my introduction (in 1974, mind you) to global warming? Was the idea so scary I wanted to forget? Or--and this is another way of asking the same question--did the concept seem so preposterous, even more unbelievable than telepathic communication with interstellar strangers, that I'd easily dismissed it? To put it succinctly: was I, at age nine, a climate skeptic?

I suppose I was. And I suppose, at age nine, I was entitled to be. But now here we are, with a third of a century behind us, a third of a century filled with warnings from aliens and earthlings alike, and collectively, we as a society are still nine years old. Still wishing it gone, stashing it in our parents' bookshelves, forgetting it, treating it as fantasy rather than fact. Still, to cite the final words of a grown-up book, Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, waiting for someone else (Dar Tellum?) to magically make it go away:

"All of the studies and news stories were there for everyone to read. But the storm of the future lay in the future, while the costs of preparing for it would have had to be borne in the present. It was easier, both psychically and economically, to turn away from the facts. And so life went on as before, and everyone hoped for the best."

Kolbert is talking specifically about Hurricane Katrina, finding in our non-response to the warnings that loomed over that doomed city an apt analogy to our non-response to the larger issue of global warming. Had she read Dar Tellum, she might have seen the warnings there too: smoke from factories and cars, warming poles, rising oceans, drowned cities. The stories were there for everyone to read.

But we'd rather hear a different story.

The tagline to the blockbuster movie 2012 reads: "We Were Warned." That what we were warned about is at once quasi-mystical (the end of the Mayan calendar), completely unrelated to the excesses of industrial civilization, and, as it happens, a result of the modern-day climate skeptics' favorite hobby-horse (solar flares) suggests that this movie's outrageous popularity owes at least something to its ability to preserve us blameless, childlike, without sin. In denial. Still preferring to tell ourselves a different story. Still forgetting that one book in our parents' attics that, years ago, might have told us the truth.

1 comment:

  1. I was born in 1967. This book is copyright 1973, I think; I remember buying a copy from the Scholastic Book Service back when I was in school, probably when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, 1974 or 1975. I did remember the global warming plot, and so a few years ago I found a used copy on ABE. Yes, a prescient book. I have been talking about it recently and planning to use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion on a podcast, and today happened to search and find your blog. What I'd really be interested in, is finding out what sources influenced the author to write about this, back in the day. Many of the landmark studies I'm aware of now were still in the future back then.