We’ve been sheltered from the weather, but now it’s all change
Opinion: How strange it is that global warming has become an issue that divides right and left
Every now and then I like to remind myself that my mother was born into a house without electricity. More arresting still, my maternal grandfather came into the world more than a decade before the end of the 19th century. The point of this solipsistic family reminiscence is to emphasise how close we are to the era before modern comforts. It was not, for those earlier generations, so easy to shut themselves away from filthy weather and its nasty consequences.
A great many people have suffered a great deal of discomfort during the current extreme weather. There have been electrical blackouts. There has been serious flooding. Various tragedies, large and small, have been playing themselves out over the past month. None of this should be downplayed.
It is, nonetheless, worth pondering the extent to which we have relied upon a fragile cocoon, thrown up to shut ourselves off from unforgiving nature. Few biblical scholars or historians of distant antiquity argue that Jesus Christ was really born on December 25th. The Christmas celebrations coincide with the winter solstice because earlier, less protected generations genuinely savoured a celebration on the shortest day of the year. Winter killed. Elderly and fragile family members were thrown into mortal peril by lowered temperatures and pounding precipitation. “Making it through the winter” was an achievement worth celebrating. Once the days began lengthening, our forbears were able to look forward to a gradual softening of conditions. Always at home to apocalyptic thinking, William Blake addressed the perils of the season in his great poem To Winter . “He withers all in silence, and in his hand/ Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life,” wrote the eccentric cockney prophet.
Of course, not everybody is sheltered from the bitter seasonal shifts. The homeless face appalling hazard. The housed poor have with their own wretched challenges. But, for most of us, changing seasons are little more than decorations to a largely comfortable life. Snow sometimes makes the buses late. Rain clogs up the streets. Turn up the heating and put on a heavier pair of socks.
In recent decades, the rise of digital pseudo-environments has allowed an even more profound retreat into deceptive isolation. Nobody really lives his or her life on Twitter or exists wholly in virtual worlds. Our nasty vulgar bodies still demand that food be shovelled in and that water be swilled down the gullet. But we need not even pick up the phone to communicate (or look at) friends and family out there in their own customised cocoons. Nature is something that happens to stranded polar bears, hibernating bats and those who have slipped away from the protections of modern society. Until relatively recently, we could fool ourselves into thinking we lived in a post-nature society. That condition seemed likely to continue. Our greatest danger stemmed, surely, from our own suicidal inventions. When nuclear annihilation still seemed imminent, who would bother worrying about a spot of rain or the odd impolite hurricane?
That school of blinkered complacency goes some way towards explaining why so many people found it so easy to ignore the undeniable threat of climate change. A century or so ago, relatively insignificant alterations in the weather led to increased business for the undertakers. Now, we have allowed ourselves the luxury of treating looming disaster as a manifestation of political ideology. How strange it is that “global warming” – an unfortunate phrase that allows idiots to treat icy blasts as evidence that some feeble plot is afoot between climatologists and unreconstructed Marxists – has become an issue that divides the left from the right.
Maybe, we should not be so surprised. Economic hardnuts have always sought to rationalise any apparent brake on financial rapaciousness into
a liberal conspiracy. A few hundred years ago, the barons dismissed the campaign against slavery in that fashion. The rise of women in the workplace and campaigns for workers’ rights were also seen as irresponsible diversions.
The fact that rising sea levels and increasing manifestations of extreme weather will actually cost everybody precious money may go some way towards altering those dangerously deranged attitudes. The news that changes in climate now, for the first time in several generations, actually causes serious inconvenience for middle- class western homeowners will, one would hope, shake us out of our idiotic complacency. It’s late. But it’s not yet too late.
Then again, that might be a vain hope. The art of being human has always involved a degree of blinkered thinking. How else could we cope with the certainty of death, the awareness of other people’s suffering and the threat of economic ruin?
Buy a boat and look forward to the summer. Last year’s was positively balmy. Was it not?