McEwan on climate: at war with ourselves

by Bryan Walker on January 23, 2011

Readers of Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, which I reviewed here last year, will be interested in a short video on the Guardian website in which McEwan talks with Matt Ridley about the book. A little ironic that it should be Ridley, who vigorously aligns with deniers, but his views thankfully do not figure in the clip.

It opens with a discussion in general terms on the work of the novelist by comparison with the work of the scientist, during which McEwan speaks of literature as an investigation of human nature. He then traverses the difficulties of writing a novel about climate change, concerned as it is with hard science and also touching on virtue which carries dangers of preaching for the novelist.  However Solar was sparked when McEwan was invited to attend a Nobel Laureates’ conference on global sustainability. He thought of a character who “lived in his own shadow” as a consequence of Nobel prize-winning work done 20 or 30 years earlier, and saw this as a possible way into a novel which had climate change “as its background noise”.

There follows a fascinating short reflection on the Copenhagen conference which he relates to the novel. It’s why I decided on this post. My transcription follows:

“When the climate change conference in Copenhagen happened, by the time it ended I thought, well, crucial aspects of human nature have been demonstrated for us.  Possibly for the first time in diplomatic history and in international politics rationality in the form of science had summoned every last country on earth to one place. That’s one side of our nature, and on the other side everything that happened as soon as they got there. Not only did God send a blizzard descending on those queuing up to get into a building to discuss global warming, but also very soon there was all kinds of short term thinking, cabals.  Obama, rather disgracefully I think, came and played things up to the American networks, the Chinese were devious beyond belief, the Europeans sulked in their tents, and the whole thing ended in farce and great disappointment.  And I thought with no real pleasure that the whole spirit of my novel and of Michael Beard was at Copenhagen. I mean I’m trying to really render a sympathetic account of us in the west as privileged consumers unable really to ever pause in our delicious lives and trying to relate this a little to Michael Beard’s gluttony.”

The clip finishes with McEwan reading a memorably comic extract from Solar chronicling Michael Beard succumbing yet again to his appetites after perfunctory token resistance.

The years are rolling by and climate change, in spite of its obvious seriousness and urgency, remains largely extraneous to the central business of our societies. It becomes increasingly apparent that the reasons for delay in tackling the issue lie deep in aspects of human nature against which plain rationality struggles to prevail.  As McEwan’s “privileged consumers unable really to ever pause in our delicious lives” we are finding it extremely difficult as societies to stand apart from what we know and enjoy long enough to appraise and heed the danger.  There are many useful analyses of how this avoidance operates. Gareth’s recent post on George Marshall provides one good example. However McEwan’s “rationality in the form of science” does, as he says, represent one side of our nature. It remains our best hope in the battle with ourselves.

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