Published: Nov 1, 2012
But seriously: Even politicians (East Coast division) are starting to note that these “once-in-a-lifetime” storms are now showing up every two years. I’m not saying it’s global warming at work. I’m just asking: Why does it take millions of people flooded out and tens of thousands marooned for us to talk for five minutes about climate change? A brilliant, infuriating book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, tells the story of deliberate obfuscation and delay.
For a brief, brutal explanation of recent silence, listen to Bill McKibben, who coined the term “global warming” and whose last book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, offers both analysis and hope: “One reason we make so little progress is that we keep waiting for our political leaders to lead. But in this case,’leader’ should be used advisedly. Our two presidential candidates have managed to slog through a summer of campaigning that carried them through the hottest month in U.S. history (July) and across a heartland enduring an epic drought. As they talked, the Arctic melted at a speed that astonished even the most pessimistic climatologists. But it appeared they somehow hadn’t noticed --- it was as if they’d acquired some special weatherproof coating. Mitt Romney talked briefly about climate at the RNC --- it was his laugh line, when he mocked President Obama for trying to ‘slow the rise of the oceans.’ (Slightly less ha-ha today). And the president sat down at the kid’s table after all the debates, telling MTV he was ‘surprised’ it hadn’t come up at the debates. I wasn’t surprised. I would have been shocked if either of them had raised the issue, just as I’ll be shocked if Congress ever --- ever --- breaks its perfect 20-year bipartisan record of accomplishing nothing on the topic. Let’s be entirely clear about what’s going on. Just as the NRA has terrified politicians of talking sensibly about gun laws, so the fossil fuel industry has imposed an effective muzzle on discussions of carbon.”
So where do we look for change? Try the mirror. And then go to Do the Math, McKibben’s campaign to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. It’s a citizens’ crusade. Like in the old days, when we believed that smart people, in large numbers and on the right side of history, had the power to change the world. McKibben and friends will be speaking in 21 cities in November and December. In New York, the date is November 16. If you’re going and want to meet up, let me know. I’m happy to arrange coffee/drinks meetings in other cities, if that appeals. And… thanks.
Most readers know "The Plague," the 1948 masterpiece by Albert Camus, because it was Assigned Reading in school.
If you were taking something like 20th Century Thought, you read it in English.
If you were studying French, you struggled through it in the original.
Either way, the pages are, for you, spoiled by the chalk dust of the classroom.
What you were supposed to get out of it is this: The novel is an allegory, ultimately about the spread of Nazi ideology and a community's reaction to that deadly invasion. It asks: How should people act when faced with a daily threat to life? How can they survive when an arbitrary fate marks some for immediate death, others for a later grave? What do we owe our neighbors? And, in the end, what does it all mean?
The last time I thought about those questions was the week after Katrina. We were spending a few weeks on Nantucket, sharing a house with friends. The days were Algerian, hot and clear. The beach was all ours, which certainly suited our daughter, then in the constantly naked phase. It was great times if you could put the suffering in New Orleans out of mind. I couldn't. So I read "The Plague." And wrote.
Now we have had a giant storm that affects everyone for hundreds of miles. In my city, there's been major damage. But what I've been thinking about is the flooded subway system --- so flooded downtown that the rats have been forced above ground. They breed fast, and they carry diseases, including viruses. Soon, if steps are not taken, we may all have reason to pick up "The Plague" again. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Hint: This time around, substitute "global warming" for "Nazi."
The good news: "The Plague" is a better book than the one they talk about in schools. For one thing, it has a remarkably sympathetic narrator in Dr. Rieux, who is first to notice something amiss --- rats appearing in unlikely places, their bodies twitching and blood spurting from their mouths. Rieux's wife has just gone to a French sanitarium in the hope of a cure for her tuberculosis; confinement is much on his mind.
Oran, Algeria --- the coastal city where Camus lived in 1942, and his setting for his novel --- may overlook water, but its energies are dull and worldly. People worship money and devote all their time to making it. Love flourishes briefly, then dissolves into habit. Government is slow and formal; it is slow to conclude that frothing rats and dying people have any connection.
In short, a thoroughly modern city.
Less good news: "The Plague" isn't exactly fun to read. How could it be --- this is the account of a doctor who spends twenty hours a day watching people die. And yet it's hard to put the novel down, for it describes --- with great precision --- the stages of this kind of disaster. At first, Dr. Rieux notes, people were "worried and irritated." Their first reaction: "to abuse the authorities." (Sound familiar?) Later, we hear that "officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic." (Where have you heard that before?) "The newspapers, needless to say, complied with the instructions given them: optimism at all costs." (That was back when media conspired with government to keep the citizenry docile. No more. Now media competes to see who can terrify us the most.)
The very good news: The book really achieves greatness in the last 50 pages, where Camus spells out the origin of the plague (it's in us, in each and every one of us) and what that means for our lives together. There's great tenderness beneath this savage analysis --- Camus applauds "the passionate indignation we feel when confronted by the anguish all men share."
Camus sees the fight against terror as "never ending." But fighting it is our lot, indeed our glory.
Can anything save us?
Camus praises "human love," but that doesn't seem equal to the cruel challenges of malevolence.
He tries again: "We learn in times of pestilence....there are more things to admire in men than to despise."
That message --- harsh and lyrical, terrible and ennobling --- is worth a hundred bromides from the pundits and politicians who have, over an endless election run-up, crowded the airwaves with solutions that solve nothing.
"The Plague" is 308 pages of pure sanity. And, if we are unlucky, reality.