In an important piece first published in The Nation and then in The Guardian, Naomi Klein offers powerful reasons for the suicidal apathy with which our world awaits the catastrophic effects of climate change. Her entire essay – and, no doubt, her forthcoming book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate – is well worth a close read. One specific contribution she makes is her implicit use of sensory perspectives:
Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.
But that is increasingly rare in the urbanised, industrialised world. We tend to abandon our homes lightly – for a new job, a new school, a new love. And as we do so, we are severed from whatever knowledge of place we managed to accumulate at the previous stop, as well as from the knowledge amassed by our ancestors (who, at least in my case, migrated repeatedly themselves).
This emphasis of hers on place has appeared in many works of interdisciplinary sensory studies, and especially the remarkable work of Canadian historian Joy Parr in Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003.
Sensory studies is a label for a vast and often fascinating outpouring of creative thinking in the humanities and social sciences that demonstrates how much we depend on non-visual senses of listening, smelling, tasting and touching (as well as the sixth sense) to understand and shape our world. Klein argues that our times have devoted so much faith to making the unpalatable invisible that it has enabled pollution:
Climate pollutants are invisible, and we have stopped believing in what we cannot see. When BP’s Macondo well ruptured in 2010, releasing torrents of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the things we heard from company chief executive Tony Hayward was that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” The statement was widely ridiculed at the time, and rightly so, but Hayward was merely voicing one of our culture’s most cherished beliefs: that what we can’t see won’t hurt us and, indeed, barely exists. . . .
Air is the ultimate unseen, and the greenhouse gases that warm it are our most elusive ghosts. Philosopher David Abram points out that for most of human history, it was precisely this unseen quality that gave the air its power and commanded our respect. “Called Sila, the wind-mind of the world, by the Inuit; Nilch’i, or Holy Wind, by the Navajo; Ruach, or rushing-spirit, by the ancient Hebrews,” the atmosphere was “the most mysterious and sacred dimension of life.”
But in our time “we rarely acknowledge the atmosphere as it swirls between two persons.” Having forgotten the air, Abram writes, we have made it our sewer, “the perfect dump site for the unwanted byproducts of our industries … Even the most opaque, acrid smoke billowing out of the pipes will dissipate and disperse, always and ultimately dissolving into the invisible. It’s gone. Out of sight, out of mind.”
In effect, we must summon all our senses in order to collectively come to our senses, before it is too late.