I am checking e-mail. I am vacuuming. I am listening to “We Have a Map of the Piano,” by Mùm. I am thinking about my book on the history of extraterrestrial intelligence. I am thinking about the latest report on record-breaking winter temperatures. I am thinking that art is useless. “The poem,” the poet James Tate said somewhere, “is man’s noblest effort because it is utterly useless.” Do I have that right? I am walking to the kitchen to get a Sprite Zero.
Psychologists speak of the finite pool of worry, which means, in so many words, there’s only so much we can have on our minds. Given this, how can the arts help us do more than tread water? How can the arts help us journey out of the finite pool of worry and onto the hard ground of useful action against climate change? Quick answer: I don’t know. I despair of not knowing. I give up. I get going. I can’t go on, I go on. If Denise Levertov is right, and poetry—or any art—can only change one person at a time, of what possible use are the arts when they are slow and globally weirded life is so fast? If, as may be the case, only massive and rapid technological triage (such as sulfur-based solar radiation management) will buy us time to reduce emissions, should the arts address the thorny issue of geoengineering right now? (Yes.) Finally, who is listening? (Some people, not enough.) And if too few people are, what solace can the artist find? (Any kind of solace will do.)
There is some good news. Really. There is.
Stanford University social scientist Jon Krosnick has a data set of U.S. national polling on climate change from 1997 to 2011 and contrary to media reports, Americans get it. They understand climate change and they want something done. The nationally representative survey—which is well-constructed with balanced, neutral questions and diction—shows that between 79 percent to 84 percent of Americans agree that it’s getting warmer. Some 72 percent to 80 percent agree that this is caused by humans. About 62 percent now agree that the federal government should do more. Some 76 percent support limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Only 18 percent thought that various actions—from alternative energy tax breaks to cap-and-trade–means fewer jobs. Only 14 percent thought such action would mean their lives would get worse. There are no regional variations in these numbers. No majority anywhere, in any state, could be found for climate skeptics. When asked what’s the most important problem we face if no action is taken, climate change is in first place in the surveys. People are willing to pay for climate solutions, and politicians who support meaningful action on climate change win elections.
The disconnect is clearly at the political level, both in statehouses and in Washington, where money from special interests that do not want to see action on the climate have locked down politicians. Short of campaign finance reform and the overturn of Citizens United, nothing in the U.S. will force political action on climate change except for, I believe, two things: 1) mass protests (unlikely) and/or 2) a string of extreme-weather events (very likely). Can art move congressmen to be rational about climate change? You tell me.
I am dusting. I am calling my sister. I am checking on the schedule for the opening day of the Canadian Football League. I’m skimming the recent New Yorker article on geoengineering. I’m watching a house finch pluck blossoms from a palo verde tree.
Art as inspiration for action. Art as education. Art as solace. Art can have—should have—all these functions but I feel at times a nihilistic sense of worthlessness. I just don’t believe in the capacity for a single work of art to make a major difference in our fractured culture. It’s too late for the next Silent Spring, and even though Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and, don’t laugh, Roland Emmerich’s film “The Day After Tomorrow” have helped increase public acceptance of climate change, that fact alters neither political inertia nor my own sense that I have little to offer that will work. Sometimes I dream what I can do will have a significant effect. Mostly, I don’t. But I keep going to the writing desk. I send out dispatches. I hope they mean something to someone somewhere.
I think of Lao Tzu: do your work, then step back. I think of entropy, the ultimate ends of things. I get on with routines. I send out my dispatches and hope they reach someone somewhere somehow. I love this rugged, broken planet.
I want to write the poem that a congressional staffer reads, the poem that changes one sentence in that staffer’s conversation with a senator, the conversation that leads the senator to a breakthrough in negotiating, say, a cap-and-trade agreement. I don’t have that poem written just yet. Does anyone?
A book I wrote years ago, on extinct American birds, had some small effect. It has led some people to write to me to say that they were inspired to fight conservation battles in places that matter to them. Which is beautiful. But I also see that the extinction crisis is not averting. I admit, though, that I did not write the book to inspire change in politics. I wrote the book because I was obsessed with the stories of these birds and I wanted to do honor to them.
Well. If we are true to what obsesses us and if we do honor to those obsessions, then we’re on the right path, whatever the course of things beyond our control or touch.
We cannot save the world. We can save each other from despair. We can try to save the Holocene—but if you are reading this your hand is on a very tiny lever in the machine that is the moment.
Well. Be neither deluded nor defeated. Do your work, then step back.
Then dance or make love or, after tapping on the keyboard, simply walk beneath the wind-tossed palms of your neighborhood, stopping to hear, as you might, the sound of a dove in the late afternoon heat of a midsummer day, when all is confusion, when all is simply clarity.
Christopher Cokinos is the author of Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars. A teacher at the University of Arizona, his meditation on species loss and human responsibility, “The Consolations of Extinction,” appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Orion.