Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2019: CLIMATE, pt. 5

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
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[L.Q. cover, quotes, and images from Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2019: CLIMATE, except where noted otherwise.]
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[NEW to Lapham’s Quarterly? See the standard notes at the end of this review. After 45+ LQ summaries I jump right in.]

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The three sections of Voices In Time this issue are Forecast (27 items), Advisory (27), and Evacuation (25). We are now up to:


55. In 2019 David Wallace-Wells posits that the climate has changed irrevocably and irreversibly.

“Hurricane Harvey, when it struck Houston, delivered such epic rainfall it was described in some areas as a “500,000-year event”—meaning that we should expect that amount of rain to hit that area once every five hundred millennia.”

”Harvey was the third such flood to hit Houston since 2015. And the storm struck, in places, with an intensity that was supposed to be a thousand times rarer still.”

”That same season an Atlantic hurricane hit Ireland, 45 million were flooded from their homes in South Asia, and unprecedented wild- fires tilled much of California into ash.”

[And on and on and on…]

”What that means is that we have not at all arrived at a new equilibrium.”

“ The last few years of climate disasters may look like about as much as the planet can take. In fact, we are only just entering our brave new world, one that collapses below us as soon as we set foot on it.” (p. 129-131)

The mention of David Wallace-Wells sent me off in search of David Foster Wallace, not the same person, but an author to whom I was introduced via Lapham’s Quarterly. My disagreement with a friend’s grammar last month (“When does you guys’s travel begin?) distracted me into reading a lengthy and convoluted article by Foster Wallace on the subject. The article resides at Harper’s, coincidentally, the site of a lengthy editorship by Lewis Lapham before he retired. One thing I learned from the article is that I’m guilty of ‘pretentious diction’ in my summaries. I think of a seemingly impressive word, verify the meaning, and insert it in my ramblings. It’s not usually a word I would use in everyday speaking. I’m just trying to look educated. I may fool some of the people some of the time, but not many or often. It’s an excellent article if you can stick with it to the end. Here.

“There is a time to battle against nature, and a time to obey her. True wisdom lies in making the right choice.”
—Arthur C. Clarke, 1979

57. John McPhee has a suspenseful non-fiction piece on surviving a debris flow from heavy rains in the suburbs packed against the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles.

“He told Scott to shut the bedroom door. No sooner was the door closed than it was battered down and fell into the room. Mud, rock, water poured in. It pushed everybody against the far wall. “Jump on the bed,” Bob said. The bed began to rise. Kneeling on it—on a gold velvet spread—they could soon press their palms against the ceiling. The bed also moved toward the glass wall. The two teen-agers got off, to try to control the motion, and were pinned between the bed’s brass railing and the wall. Boulders went up against the railing, pressed it into their legs, and held them fast. Bob dived into the muck to try to move the boulders, but he failed. The debris flow, entering through windows as well as doors, continued to rise. Escape was still possible for the parents but not for the children. The parents looked at each other and did not stir. Each reached for and held one of the children. Their mother felt suddenly resigned, sure that her son and daughter would die and she and her husband would quickly follow. The house became buried to the eaves. Boulders sat on the roof. Thirteen automobiles were packed around the building, including five in the pool. A din of rocks kept banging against them. The stuck horn of a buried car was blaring. The family in the darkness in their fixed tableau watched one another by the light of a directional signal, endlessly blinking. The house had filled up in six minutes, and the mud stopped rising near the children’s chins.” (p. 137-138)

The full, very lengthy original is available at the New Yorker. I recommend it. It is informative.

58. John Evelyn’s brief piece, free online, describes the bitter, bitter cold of London in 1683-1684, part of the Little Ice Age. Chilling. Evelyn uses the word fuliginous. I feel redeemed.

59. Alan Weisman presents a noteworthy conjecture on Nature retaking our homes after we’ve abandoned them. Not free.

“On the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house—or houses, that is. Cleans them right off the face of the earth. They all go.

If you’re a homeowner, you already knew it was only a matter of time for yours, but you’ve resisted admitting it, even as erosion callously attacked, starting with your savings. Back when they told you what your house would cost, nobody mentioned what you’d also be paying so that nature wouldn’t repossess it long before the bank.”

“Most of all, though, you are beset by what in other contexts is the veritable stuff of life: water. It always wants in.”

“The resin in your cost-conscious choice of a woodchip roof, a waterproof goo of formal- dehyde and phenol polymer, was also applied along the board’s exposed edges, but it fails anyway because moisture enters around the nails. Soon they’re rusting, and their grip begins to loosen. That presently leads not only to interior leaks but to structural mayhem.” (p. 141)

This brought to mind a piece I had read in L.Q. some time ago, postulating about Nature retaking New York City after Man’s departure. I finally found it in Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2011: The Future. It’s by Alan Weisman. There is limited access to the 2005 lengthy original here.

Side-quote: “The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.  —Dipesh Chakrabarty, 2008 (p. 141)

67. Eugene Huzar is prescient in 1855:

“Civilization inevitably runs to its end with a blindfold over its eyes.”

“Do we not see man destroying the forests, piercing the mountains (the Alps)— breaking the isthmus, and upsetting the geological economy of the globe—reducing to the state of steam 550 million metric quintals of charcoal per year? Should this not give us in small terms the approximate idea of what man’s daring might attempt in a few centuries, when science has placed in the hands of man the forces and energies of nature?”

“Know it well—one day the ship of civilization will come crashing against the reef of fatality, a reef so deeply hidden in the forces of nature that man can neither suspect nor avoid it.” (p. 155)

I do use the word prescient from time to time. Regarding the dystopia of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand said, to paraphrase, “I was not trying to predict the future, I was trying to prevent it.” Ms. Rand was prescient, in my opinion.

68. Tsitsi Dangarembga is a native Zimbabwean author. Her extract in L.Q. talks about ecotourism, but my sense from her Wikipedia and New York Times references is that her fictional novels are more about the severe difficulties for black African women to improve their lot.

69. A brief look at a mid-18th century climate skeptic is free online. Equal time to all sides, though I’m not convinced they are convinced.

70. Russell Means, a native American activist now deceased, is more convincing:

“The European materialist tradition of de-spiritualizing the universe is very similar to the mental process that goes into dehumanizing another person.”

“In terms of the despiritualization of the universe, the mental process works so that it be- comes virtuous to destroy the planet. Terms like progress and development are used as cover words here, the way victory and freedom are used to justify butchery in the dehumanization process.” (p. 161)

72. Varlam Shalamov writes about his experiences in Siberian labor camps. Well-expressed. You think you know cold? Siberia is unimaginably COLD in his descriptions.

74. Yuval Noah Harari has an impactful description of Man’s occupation of Australia 45,000 years ago:

“The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon. It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system—indeed, the first time any large terrestrial mammal had managed to cross from Afro-Asia to Australia. Of even greater importance was what the human pioneers did in this new world. The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”

“The settlers of Australia, or more accurately its conquerors, didn’t just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition.

“The first human footprint on a sandy Australian beach was immediately washed away by the waves. Yet when the invaders advanced inland, they left behind a different footprint, one that would never be expunged. As they pushed on, they encountered a strange universe of unknown creatures that included a 450-pound, six-foot kangaroo, and a marsupial lion, as massive as a modern tiger, that was the continent’s largest predator. Koalas far too big to be cuddly and cute rustled in the trees, and flightless birds twice the size of ostriches sprinted on the plains. Dragon-like lizards and snakes seven feet long slithered through the undergrowth. The giant diprotodon, a two-and-a-half-ton wombat, roamed the forests. Except for the birds and reptiles, all these animals were marsupials— like kangaroos, they gave birth to tiny, helpless, fetus-like young that they then nurtured with milk in abdominal pouches.”

“Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing a hundred pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct.”

“Was it all the fault of Homo sapiens?”

“The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s hard to imagine that sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead of the chills.”

“The Maori, New Zealand’s first sapiens colonizers, reached the islands about eight hundred years ago. Within a couple of centuries, the majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 percent of all bird species. Were the Australian extinction an isolated event, we could grant humans the benefit of the doubt. But the historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.” (p. 172-173)

Mr. Harari has some intriguing thoughts on the dominance of Homo Sapiens. A summary is here.

75. Caroline Henderson writes of the Oklahoma dust bowl in the 1930s. “This wind-driven dust, fine as the finest flour, penetrates wherever air can go.” (p. 174)

77. Celebrated author Gabriel García Márquez writes of stifling drought in 1958 Caracas, Venezuela:

“In the silence of the sweltering night all that could be heard was the sound of the street sweepers performing an extraordinary service: first in the streets, and then inside the buildings, they collected the corpses of the animals that had died of thirst.” (p. 178)

78. Leonardo da Vinci notes how to represent a deluge. Free.

79. Finally, French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour concludes Evacuation and Voices in Time with a superb 2017 piece on modern awareness of climate change.  He makes numerous assertions, always a minefield to tread, in my opinion: “Let us suppose…” “Suppose that other…” “We have to assume…” “…we must assume that…” All in the first 7 short paragraphs. He juxtaposes the avant-garde, who “have grasped the increasingly endangered status of the formerly more or less stable relations that the earth maintained with humans…” against the elitists: “…perhaps less enlightened but with significant means and important interests, and above all with extreme attentiveness to the security of their immense fortunes and to the durability of their well-being, had, each and every one of them, heard this threat, this warning.”

“…we must suppose that they drew two consequences from the warning, which resulted in the election of the Tweeter-in-Chief to the White House. “First, yes, we shall have to pay dearly for this upheaval, but the others are going to pay for what is broken, certainly not we ourselves. And secondly, as for this less and less debatable truth about the new climatic regime, we are going to deny its very existence!”

[WELL! I’m all for calling a spade…, or if the shoe fits…–JH]

“These two decisions would make it possible to connect three phenomena: what since the 1980s has been called “deregulation” or the “dismantling of the welfare state”; what since the 2000s is known as “climate-change denial”; and above all, what for the last forty years has been a dizzying extension of inequalities.”

“The reactions on one side led to reactions on the other—both sides reacting to another much more radical reaction, that of the earth, which had stopped absorbing blows and was striking back with increasing violence.”

“We understand nothing about the terrifying growth in inequalities or about the “wave of populism” or the “migration crisis” if we do not understand that these are three different responses, basically comprehensible if not effective, to the powerful reaction of the earth to what globalization has done to it.”

“In the absence of flagrant evidence, the effects themselves are quite visible. At the moment, the most edifying of these effects is the epistemological delirium that has taken hold of the public stage since the election of Donald Trump.”

“To become convinced of this, it suffices to observe on a daily basis the chaos that has reigned at the White House since Trump’s arrival.”

“The Oval Office has become a real zoo.”

“Ordinary people already had a general tendency to be skeptical; now they have been incited, thanks to billions of dollars invested in disinformation, to be skeptical about one massive fact—the mutation of the climate.” (All p. 180-183)

What does he really think?

What do you think?

This interminable summary of CLIMATE will soon conclude with Pt. 6, comments on the final full essays at the back of the issue.  I promise.

To be continued…

The standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered, printed on high quality paper throughout, with richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and 221 pages up to a page or two of addenda at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
3. Per the L.Q. website:
“Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
4. I encourage all to subscribe to this fine publication. It is a rich supplement to anyone’s reading.


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