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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, November 05, 2007

conflicts of artistic duty

Yesterday Kimmie and Robin headed off to attend a baby shower in Coquitlam for a family member. I stayed at home, restlessly moving between activities (spent some time with my new laptop, tentatively exploring the strange world of Second Life). By reading-time I felt scattered and unsure of myself--unpleasant feelings that reminded me of times when I've been far out of my element, such as at industry cocktail parties or on certain kinds of aimless holiday when there's nothing particular to do but "have fun".

I need purpose, and my purpose must feel serious and meaningful. Yesterday I felt myself being stretched, by focus being split, tugged in different directions.

If I had to name a specific spark for these feelings, I would say it is reading Six Degrees by Mark Lynas: a description of Earth under the effects of global warming. It's already happening, of course, put in train when the Industrial Revolution started converting coal into energy for textile mills. At that moment, the human race unwittingly put a hotter planet into the mail; now we're starting to take delivery.

A warmer future, as Lynas points out, is not a cozier future. Even without global warming, the proliferation of human beings on Earth has led us into what is being called the sixth mass extinction of life--the fifth being the die-off of the dinosaurs at the transition from the Cretaceous to the Tertiary period 65 million years ago. Due to human causes--other than climate change--species are becoming extinct at 100-1,000 times the normal rate. Global warming will drastically increase that rate. In the next century, a large fraction of life-forms on Earth will disappear.

The Earth has been warmer than it is now. In the Pliocene epoch, 5-2 million years ago, the planet was 3° C warmer than it is today. The warming, it has been determined, was due to atmospheric carbon dioxide, which ranged from 360-400 parts per million (ppm) during that epoch. But wait: today's level is 382 ppm, and rising at 2 ppm a year. The inescapable inference is that we are already on track to heat to the Pliocene temperature. In the Pliocene, there were no glaciers (source of much of Earth's drinking-water for humans), and very little polar ice-cover.

Rainfall in many places may increase, but in the form of frequent and powerful storms; areas of desiccated ground will expand into what are now temperate zones. We shouldn't take comfort from the fact that Earth was this warm before, because in the Pliocene there was a greater abundance of life, unstressed by human depradations, able to manage the environment; and the sun was not as hot as it is today (it grows steadily hotter as it ages).

Another problem is that this episode of warming, unlike that of the Pliocene, is happening with catastrophic suddenness in terms of geological time. The migration rates of many species are too low for them to be able to outrun the spread of hotter temperatures; they'll die off with the disappearance of their food sources or as their metabolism is pushed past its operating envelope.

All right. So what's this got to do with me? Of course it concerns me deeply as a human being; I want to do whatever I can to help prevent or mitigate the worst of these effects.

But it affects me as an artist too. Even though global warming is high on the agendas of many organizations, media outlets, and even governments (at the level of talk, anyway), it has not really sunk in as an issue with many of us. This is partly due to ignorance. But I think a bigger part has to do with imagination: by and large, people find it hard to imagine this stressed world in our imminent future.

Well, imagination is something that I can do. Contrary to my grade 1 teacher Miss Warden, I do have an imagination--a good one. I can look into that crystal ball and imagine what lies ahead. I can imagine lots of graphic, gory details. I can imagine surprises.

Is this, then, what I should be doing? Should I be helping my fellow humans face the future properly by imagining it for them? Is that not my duty?

The clock is ticking, and I feel the nagging anxiety of conflict.

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