Science and direct observation have led the reasonable majority of Americans to acknowledge that global climate change, including global warming, is taking place is being caused by human activity. Yet, our nation’s democratically-elected government has failed to take any serious action to address the escalating crisis.
The only recent action Barack Obama has taken related to the climate crisis has been to make it worse, making it illegal for American airline companies to cooperate with a system to reduce carbon emissions and radically expanding offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
How is this stark discrepancy, between the knowledge our society has gained and the action our society has neglected to take, possible? This morning, looking in vain for any discussion on the White House web site of the climate negotiations in Qatar, I found an image that’s brought me to one possible explanation: Our nation has constructed a temporal anomaly.
Below, you can see the image I found: A picture from the front of President Obama’s winter holiday greeting cards. It shows a classic wintertime scene at the White House in Washington D.C.: Obama’s dog, Bo, wearing in a scarf to keep warm, romps in the middle of a blizzard of fluffy white snowflakes that have already accumulated to several inches on the ground.
This image isn’t strictly a photograph, though. It’s a picture that’s been created using the imagination of artist Larassa Kabel, who specializes in creating photorealistic images… “photorealistic” referring to an image that looks like a genuine photograph, but isn’t. Bo did play in a snowstorm on the White House lawn once, but that was back in February of 2010, almost three years ago. Since then, there’s been no good snow photo op for the dog and the White House press corps to work with.
Next to the image of Bo in the snow, you see a picture of what Washington D.C. really looks like right now. It’s a photograph, from a live web cam, taken this morning. As with almost all of the northeastern United States, there isn’t a flake of snow. It’s been too warm.
Barack Obama could have chosen to send out a greeting card showing his dog Bo playing on the green grass under leafless trees on the White House lawn, but that’s not what a winter holiday greeting card is supposed to look like. Sending out a greeting card showing what looks like a dull autumn day would offend the sensibility that pervades Americans’ attachment to winter holidays. A winter greeting card isn’t supposed to be an accurate representation of what winter holidays really look like, anyway. They’re supposed to represent a holiday ideal, a kind of mythic time that persists in our minds regardless of what we actually see with our eyes when the winter holidays come around. When we think of winter holidays, we think of snow, even though snow has actually become rare on those holidays, even in our country’s northern states.
I’m beginning to suspect that this isn’t just a phenomenon that applies to the winter holidays. I think that it applies to our perception of the climate during the entire year. Rather than paying attention to what’s happening in real time, we’re living in a kind of mythical time that we’ve collectively constructed, an abstract model of our climate that persists in spite of the fact that it no longer fits the climate that’s actually now around us. We’ve placed visions of what each special day of the year, each month, and each season are supposed to look like, and we hold those visions in our heads as a stubborn schema. When we experience an abnormally early spring, late fall, or hot summer, we think of these experiences as aberrations from how things “really are”. We reflexively defend the integrity of our mythic model of the climate because it represents a sort of rhythm to life that is never supposed to change. Without the confidence that snow falls in December, rather than the rains that have come to predominate, we would feel unhinged.
The unfortunate reality is that we are unhinged. The foundational experience of our seasons has slipped out of alignment.
If we’re going to deal with that dangerous reality, we need to break the frame of the old climate that has now shifted into myth. Human beings aren’t purely rational creatures. In order to take concerted action, we need to feel the need, not just come to abstract logical conclusions. For that reason, to enable strong climate action, we need leaders, political and cultural, who are willing to show us artistic images of our new reality. We need holiday greeting cards without snowflakes. We need holiday family portaits taken outside in which no one wears any coats. We need sequels to A Year Without A Santa Claus and Frosty The Snowman, in which we really do have a year without a winter, and in which Frosty remains a puddle.
We need art that shows the threatening truth that we’re now living with, without pulling any punches. Maybe, after when this art begins to create a sense of mythic urgency to accompany the rational data of climate change that science has already provided us, we’ll begin to see Congress and the White House take action.
Photographer James Balog has created one such piece of artwork. Its a documentary film called Chasing Ice, showing the reality of glacial melting in places around the world, but in the temporally bent form of time lapse photography. It’s showing in movie theaters around the country this month.