When All Else Fails: What if it is in our species’ seemingly indefatigable irrationality that its best hope of surviving climate change is to be found? What if the means of our salvation turns out to be a work of a madman?
CHRISTINE ROSE’s poignant post of 17 November, “Feeling Like A Stranger In A Familiar Land” requires a response more substantial than fatalistic resignation. Tempting though it is to bury oneself in the small delights of everyday life for as long as that avenue of escape remains open, it must be rejected. Something as big as the end of the world as we know it surely merits Dylan Thomas’s unforgettable commandment:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light
The problem, of course, is science. Unlike the poet and the priest, the scientist who discerns only catastrophe in the data which is placed before him, must disclaim all right to hope. If the data points to the end of the world as we know it, then the only thing a scientist has a right to anticipate is the end of the world. Staring steadily into the dead eyes of the planet’s future is the only honourable scientific response.
For the poet and the priest, however, and all those possessing an artistic and/or religious turn of mind, there is something greater than catastrophe. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings”, called it “eucatastrophe”.
Ruth Noel, in her book “The Mythology of Middle Earth” explains:
Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s word for the anti-catastrophic ‘turn’ (strophe in Greek) that characterises fairy stories. The turning occurs when imminent evil is unexpectedly averted and great good succeeds. To Tolkien, tragedy was the purest form of drama, while eucatastrophe, the antithesis of tragedy, was the purest form of fairy story. In [Tolkien’s scholarly article] “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien gives the purpose and effect of eucatastrophe: “It does not deny the existence … of sorrow and failure … it denies universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
In Tolkien’s great trilogy the eucatastrophe comes in the very heart of Mt Doom, where the One Ring is finally destroyed. Interestingly, it is not the hero, Frodo, who makes this happen. At the end of his quest, like so many of the others who have come into possession of the Ring of Power, it betrays him. Were it not for the intervention of Gollum, the Dark Lord would have recovered his ring and darkness would have swallowed Middle Earth forever. It is Gollum’s mad obsession: the recovery of his “Precious”; that saves the day.
If we must put our faith in fairy stories, I hear you say, then our chances of surviving global warming are slim indeed. And yet, if we put our faith in science, then Christine Rose’s bitter-sweet resignation; her “ecological grief” at the inevitable demise of so many living things; becomes the only rational response to the irrationality of humanity’s wilful self-destruction.
But what if it is in our species’ seemingly indefatigable irrationality that its best hope of survival is to be found? What if, like Gollum’s obsessive pursuit of The Precious, the means of our salvation turns out to be a work of a madman?
Just think of the number of novelists whose plots involve the deliberate creation and release of a virus which wipes out 95 percent of the human species. Now imagine the insane billionaire who turns fiction into fact. That would be a eucatastrophe entirely lacking in Tolkien’s compassion, but it is hard to argue that, from the perspective of all the non-human species facing extinction, it would be a eucatastrophe founded in justice.
Scientists would interject here that even were such an event to occur, the warming already unleashed in the planet’s oceans and atmosphere remains irreversible. Life would still be up against it.
They are right, of course, but life on Earth has been up against it before – and so have we. For thousands of years this planet lay in the grip of an Ice Age that saw sheets of frozen water 1,000 feet high, weighing billions of tons, grinding all the way to the edges of what we now call the temperate zones. Getting through the Ice Age was no easy matter – but, somehow, our far-distant ancestors managed it. There is every reason to suppose that the five percent of the human species which survives the mad billionaire’s eucatastrophic global pandemic (roughly 400 million people) will learn how to survive in a world without ice-caps.
Life on Earth has been up against it before - and so have we.
I would like to think that whatever remnant of that 400 million makes it through “The Heat” will arrive on the other side of the Anthropocene with a vastly improved attitude to Planet Earth and its fragile biosphere. There is every reason to believe that these new humans will have no great love of science. Indeed, like Tolkien’s Hobbits, they will likely be profoundly suspicious of “machines more complicated than a forge bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom”. They will, however, have a great deal of love for poets and priests. And, most especially, for the tellers of fairy-stories.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 November 2018.