Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, chair of the Elders group of former world leaders, echoed a phrase attributed to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev talking about nuclear war in 1979, saying “climate change would leave the living envying the dead”.
Ever since the first cheesy monster or goofy robot leered out from the cover of a pulpy magazine, science fiction has struggled to shake off a certain tinge of campiness. No matter how hard creators may try to tell frightening stories, that slightly ironic silliness is always lurking just outside the frame. There will always be science fiction which takes those little hints of camp and amplifies them a million-fold. A little campiness is fun to giggle at, but frightening threats to the future of our planet are nothing not scoff at. However, Science Fiction has also long served as a useful vehicle for “safely” discussing controversial topical issues and often providing thoughtful social commentary on potential unforeseen future issues.
In a recent statement Arnold Schwarzenegger – the Terminator star and former California governor declared the science debate over, saying planetary catastrophe could only be avoided with ethical action. Schwarzenegger has been chosen by the French government to join Nobel prizewinners, philosophers, UN secretary generals, spiritual leaders and theologians to make the moral case for the world to act urgently on climate change.
Talking at the world’s first summit of conscience for the climate on Tuesday – ahead of the crucial UN climate change meeting in the city in December:
“I’ve starred in a lot of science fiction movies and, let me tell you something, climate change is not science fiction, this is a battle in the real world, it is impacting us right now.
“I believe the science is in. The debate is over and the time for action is now,” he told an invited audience of intellectuals and spiritual leaders from all faiths. “This is bigger than any movie, this is the challenge of our time. And it is our responsibility to leave this world a better place than we found it, but right now we are failing future generations.”
“This year alone we will dump 40bn tonnes of carbon emissions into our atmosphere. The World Health Organization says that air pollution causes over 7 million premature deaths every year and all over the world we can see flooding, monster storms, droughts and wild-fires that are completely out of control.”
The meeting, called by French president François Hollande ahead of the Paris political summit, was intended to put pressure on governments to act by mobilising millions of people to declare publicly that they “cared” for earth.
“If action is not taken immediately my grandson will live in a world suffering heat waves, severe droughts and floods. Cities like new York and Venice will drown. We are on the brink of catastrophe but the solution to the climate crisis cannot be left to governments alone … People are taking the lead and demanding change. We must not fail them.”
Heaven knows how deeply rooted cynicism is today in our culture. We are bombarded by negatives at every turn. However an artist who can effectively use humor to engage and entertain their audience possesses a valuable gift. They will be appreciated for providing heartfelt laughter; laughter that has therapeutic effects on listeners. And what they have to say will be remembered.
Humor plays a trick on the mind, painting a picture which is ludicrous or incongruous. Through the Live Art Performance ‘Swampy: At The Floodgates, artist Tom Estes attempts to perform a delicate balancing act of two ways of thinking; of the dualism of nature as a destructive force and as a force of renewal. This performance plays on both our irrational denial of Climate Change as well as our fears of being over-run or ‘flooded’ by immigrants. The performance took place at The Thames Barrier, built to prevent the floodplain of all but the easternmost boroughs of Greater London from being flooded by exceptionally high tides and storm surges moving up from the North Sea.
London is vulnerable to flooding and from heavy tides closing in. A storm surge generated by low pressure in the Atlantic Ocean sometimes tracks eastwards past the north of Scotland and may then be driven into the shallow waters of the North Sea. The surge tide is funnelled down the North Sea which narrows towards the English Channel and the Thames Estuary. If the storm surge coincides with a spring tide, dangerously high water levels can occur in the Thames Estuary.
Built across a 520-metre (570 yd) wide stretch of the river, the barrier divides the river into four 61-metre (200 ft) and two, approximately 30 metre (100 ft) navigable spans. There are also four smaller non-navigable channels between nine concrete piers and two abutments.
The threat has increased over time due to the slow but continuous rise in high water levels over the centuries (20 cm (8 inches) per century) and the slow “tilting” of Britain (up in the north and west, and down in the south and east by up to 5 cm (2 inches) per century) caused by post-glacial rebound.
In the 1928 Thames flood, 14 people died. After 300 people died in the UK in the North Sea flood of 1953, the issue gained new prominence. Early proposals for a flood control system were stymied by the need for a large opening in the barrier to allow for vessels from the London docks to pass through. When containerization replaced older forms of shipping and Tilbury was expanded, a smaller barrier became feasible with each of the four main navigation spans being the same width as the opening of Tower Bridge.
Estes’ performance Swampy is “a painful thing told playfully” and a “tragedy separated by time and space”. Note that both definitions treat humor as a serious thought viewed in a light manner. Ever heard someone say, “I laughed so hard I nearly cried”? Humor deals with serious subjects and is close to pathos: an emotion of sympathetic pity. Think about the old gag of someone slipping on a banana peel. Such an accident usually elicits a laugh. We might giggle or snicker when someone else takes a flyer. Perhaps though not when we ourselves are the victim. The laugh would be stopped mid-snort though if the person was hurt in the fall. Why? Because the playful element has been lost. Buster Keaton does a pratfall. Down he goes, but he must get up.
Of course Global Warming is a very serious subject. Irish president Michael Higgins has called for moral courage. “Our current malaise is grounded in a cynicism we must confront. We need to confront the cult of the individual and insatiable consumption and replace it with a new thinking. We must reconcile science with ethics.”
Cardinal Peter Turkson, Ghanaian president of the Vatican’s Pontifical council for justice and peace, who helped Pope Francis write the encyclical on human ecology published last month, said that the climate is a common good. “It is a global common meant for all but the costs are being borne by those who have least contributed to it.
“At stake now is the wellbeing of the earth, our common hope. What we need is care. When we care for something it is with passion and comitment of the heart. That’s why Pope Francis called for care of the earth. A sense of passion is needed.”
Operational since 1982, The Thames Barrier is located downstream of central London. The concept of the rotating gates was devised by (Reginald) Charles Draper in the 1950s.
Muslim theologians, Christians and Hindus said they saw climate change both as an existential threat and as an opportunity for renewal. Sheikh Bentounes, leader of the Sufi brotherhood Alawiya, urged mankind to carry “a hope of a future”.
“The prophet Mohammed called on man to plant and sow seeds. He said ‘Even at the end of times continue to plant and sow.’ We have responsibility to carry this hope to the end. This tiny vessel in infinite space that we call earth is unique.”
Daoists, Confucians, shamans, Jesuits, Bhuddists and others called for politicians to act on behalf of humankind at Paris. Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, despaired at humanity’s blindness, but quoted writer Fyodor Dostoevsky saying that “beauty would save the earth”.
“Scientists and theologians agree that humanity depends on nature. We must accept the moral imperative for action. Religion must also be involved in the crucial question of climate change”, said Bartholomew.
David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said: “Climate change takes place where there is unbridled avarice. It is a symptom of the disease and cry for us to respond. It is the opportunity for humans to rediscover the higher values than materialism and indulgence.”
Hindu leader Nandita Krishna, who has restored 50 sacred forests, feared that insatiable greed had gripped everyone on earth and this had led to climate change. “We cannot replicate the environment or create it. Unless we see the divine in creation we will not understand our role and duty as humans,” she said.
Nobel prizewinning economist Mohemed Yunus, founder of the Grameen bank in Bangladesh, said technology could help achieve zero poverty and zero carbon emissions . “[But] technology today is in the hands of the money makers and the war-makers. They are not directing it to solve the problems of the world.”
It was left to 86-year-old Benin writer and politician Albert Teveodjré to represent the views of secular thinkers. “Nature was loaned to us as a place to live. I witness a world of profit at all costs which will ruin the envronment and devastate everything. I am very worried. I think I will leave the world with many worries.”
And yet it is probably the man who played the role of ‘The Terminator’ that will be etched into our minds. And perhaps Estes’, goofy sea creature standing solo at the Thames Barrier.
Estes first staged this performance as Swampy: Venice is Flooded as part of ‘Bizzare Artist Happenings’ with The Biennial Project (as featured by Tate Shots at The 54th Venice Bienniale)