Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Plague of Climate Change

I just finished Camus's compelling read, The Plague. It's a parable provoked by the Nazi Occupation, but also about general occupation, oppression, and isolation. It's about resistance to incomprehensible evil and what it looks like to be a good person. But, it's striking how well what much of he says fits with climate change, so I'm going to summarize it here by exchanging the words "the plague" with "climate change," "scientist" for "doctor," and "temperature" for "death-rate." I'm also changing "man" to "person" just to equity it up a bit. Consider "pestilence" as "troubles," but I'll leave that as is. Let's see how this goes and if there are lessons to be learned!

The gist: The story follows a doctor, Bernard Rieux, who's an atheist and our narrator. His wife was sent away to recover from an illness before the plague hit. He misses her (a bit), but spends 20 hours a day helping the town. We meet all his varied associates and patients as a walled-off town copes with the sudden spreading of disease that seems as if it will never end. This is an extremely abridged version of a book 272 pages long (Stuart Gilbert translation). Some important characters, all remarkably benevolent seen from Camus's perspective, include a criminal who benefits from the chaos caused by the troubles, a priest trying to guide the masses, and a lover who's desperate to find a way to travel to see his girlfriend despite the new laws forbidding it. There's also a writer unable to find any words and a dear friend that are integral to the story but less vital to this bastardization of it:



PART ONE

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many disasters as wars in history; yet always natural calamities and wars take people equally by surprise. . . . Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped in ourselves. . . .  Climate change isn't a thing made to people's measure . . . it doesn't always pass away. . . . it is people who pass away. . . . How should they have given a thought to anything like climate change, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences. . . .

The scientist knew quite well that it was climate change affecting the town and, needless to say, he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. . . . Throughout the day the scientist was conscious that the slightly dazed feeling which came over him whenever he thought about climate change was growing more pronounced. Finally, he realized what it meant; simply that he was afraid! . . .  That the regulations now in force were inadequate was lamentably clear. . . .

On the day when the global temperature rose another half degree, the scientist read an official pronouncement, remarking, 'So they've got alarmed -- at last.' The document read: Proclaim a state of climate change emergency. Stop allowing any unnecessary activity that creates GHG. Shut down factory farms, stop extracting fossil fuels, initiate combustion-engine travel restrictions, remove all clothes driers, chest freezers, bar fridges, and air-conditioners from homes immediately. . . . 

PART TWO

From now on it can be said that climate change was the concern of all of us. Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible.  . . . duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests. . . . This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares; we were unable to react against the mute appeal of presences, still so near and already so far, which haunted us daylong. In fact, our suffering was twofold; our own to start with, and then the imagined suffering of others. . . .

The first thing that climate change brought to our town was . . . the feeling of exile -- that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire. Sometimes we toyed with our imagination . . . that game of make-believe, for obvious reasons, could not last. Always a moment came when we had to face the fact that no trains were coming in. No cars were moving about. . . . If some were tempted to live in the future, they had seedily to abandon the idea -- anyhow, as soon as could be -- once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it. . . . The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of climate change, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their lives difficult. Thus in the very heart of the epidemic they maintained a saving indifference, which one was tempted to take for composure. Their despair saved them from panic, thus their misfortune had a good side. . . .

They were worried and irritated -- but these are not feelings with which to confront climate change. Their first reaction, for instance, was to abuse the authorities. . . . It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the temperature could not be ignored, that public opinion became alive to the truth. The criminal suggested, 'Anyhow, we'll all be nuts before long, unless I'm much mistaken.' All the scientist was conscious of was a bleak indifference steadily gaining on him. . . . One grows out of pity when it's useless. . . . Nevertheless, many continued hoping that their families would be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any changes in their habits, as yet. . . .

The priest said, 'Too long this world of ours has connived at evil, too long has it counted on the divine mercy, on God's forgiveness. Repentance was enough, people thought; nothing was forbidden. Everyone felt comfortably assured; when the day came they would surely turn from their sins and repent. Pending that day, the easiest course was to surrender all along the line; divine compassion would do the rest. . . . Yes, the hour has come for serious thought. You fondly imagined it was enough to visit God on Sundays, and thus you could make free of your weekdays. . . . Now, at last, you know the hour has struck to bend your thought to first and last things.' He hoped against hope that . . . fellow-citizens would offer up to heaven that one prayer which is truly Christian, a prayer of love. And God would see to the rest. . . .

In conversation with the scientist about his desperation to find a means of travel, the lover classified the people whom he had approached in various categories. Those who said there can be no exception to the travel ban, the lover called the sticklers. Besides these there were the consolers, who assured him that the present state of things couldn't possibly last. . . . Then there were the very-important-persons who asked the lover to leave a brief note of his case and informed him they would decide on it in due course. . . . the red-tape-merchants who made him fill up a form and promptly interred it in a file; overworked officials who raised their arms to heaven; and, finally, the traditionalists -- these were by far the greatest number -- who referred the lover to another office. . . . The really remarkable thing, and the lover was greatly struck by this, was the way in which, in the very midst of catastrophe, offices could go on functioning serenely, and take initiatives of no immediate relevance, and often unknown to the highest authority, purely and simply because they had been created originally for this purpose. . . . Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. . . .

[At times, people ventured out to the marketplace.] Daily, round about eleven, you see a sort of dress parade of youths who make you realize the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity. As the catastrophe moves forward, morals too will broaden, and we may see again the Saturnalia of Milan, men and women dancing round the graves. . . . People, moreover, spend very freely -- a mood of reckless extravagance is setting in. In the early days, when they thought this a minor tumult, religion held its ground. But, once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thought to pleasure. . . .

[As the death toll rose, they created teams of workers to clean and bury the dead.] However, it is not the narrator's intention to ascribe to these sanitary groups more importance than their due. Doubtless today many of our fellow-citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exaggerating the services they rendered. But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing over-importance to praiseworthy action one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worst side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness. . . . There was only one recourse: to fight climate change. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical. . . .

People like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic. . . . This will render to the truth its due . . . to heroism the secondary place which rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness. . . . And, as it so happens, what has yet to be recorded before coming to the culmination, during the period when climate change was gathering all its forces to fling them at the town and lay it waste, is the long, heartrendingly monotonous struggle put up by some obstinate people like the lover to recover their lost happiness, and to balk at climate change of that part of themselves which they were ready to defend in the last ditch. . . . Courage? I know now that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn't capable of a great emotion, well, he leaves me cold. He's incapable of suffering for a long time or being happy for a long time. Which means that he's incapable of anything really worth while. . . . I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy and I've learnt it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves. There's no question of heroism in the lover trying to get to his love. It's a matter of common decency. . . . I don't know what common decency means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job. . . .

PART THREE

Thus week by week the prisoners of climate change [the world] put up what fight they could. Some even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free people and had the power of choice. But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, at 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, climate change had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of GHG awareness and the emotions shared by all. . . . Some, to cheer themselves up in despondent moments, fell to picturing the lot of those others less free than themselves. 'Anyhow there's some worse off than I' was a remark that voiced the only solace to be had in those days. . . .

In the prisons, the warders died in the same proportion as the prisoners. . . . Perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned in the prison. Attempts made by the authorities to redress this levelling-out by some sort of hierarchy -- the idea was to confer a decoration on warders who died in the exercise of their duties -- came to nothing. . . . On moonlight nights . . . the silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great people, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faced, conjured up a sorry semblance of what humanity had been. . . .

Then coffins became scarcer. . . . At the cemetery they were emptied out and the iron-grey corpses deposited . . . The naked, somewhat contorted bodies were slid off into the pit almost side by side, then covered with a layer of quicklime and another of earth. . . . The empty coffins were rushed back to the hospital. . . . And though, to start with, the morale of the population was shaken by this summary procedure -- for the desire to have a 'proper funeral' is more widespread than is generally believed -- as time went on, fortunately enough, the food problem became more urgent, and the thoughts of our townsfolk were diverted to more instant needs. So much energy was expended on filling up forms, hunting found for supplies and queueing up, that people had no time to think of the manner in which others were dying around them and they themselves would die one day. Thus the growing complications of our everyday life, which might have bene an affliction, proved to be a blessing in disguise. . . .

The recruiting of people for 'rough work' became much easier. From now on, indeed, poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear. . . . The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. . . . In short, at these moments, memory played its part, but their imagination failed them. . . . it had lost fleshly substance, and they no longer saw it in memory's mirror. . . . Even shadows can waste away, losing the faint hues of life that memory may give. . . . In this respect they had adapted themselves to the very condition of the new laws, all the more potent for its mediocrity. None of us was capable any longer of an exalted emotion; all had trite, monotonous feelings. . . . The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence. . . . The habit of despair is worse than despair itself. . . .

Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. . . . Climate change had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments. . . . And they caught themselves thinking, 'A good thing if I starve to death and have done with it! But, really, they were asleep already; this whole period was, for them, no more than a long night's slumber. . . . They lost every trace of a critical spirit, while gaining an air of sang-froid. You could see, for instance, even the most intelligent amongst them, making a show like all the rest of studying the newspapers or IPCC reports in the hope apparently of finding some reason to believe the worst would shortly end. . . . Climate change had levelled out discrimination. This could be seen by the way nobody troubled about the quality of the clothes or food they bought. Everything was taken as it came. . . .

PART FOUR

There was nothing to do but mark time. . . . The scientist knew that, over a period whose end he could not glimpse, his task was no longer to predict, but to describe, to register, and then condemn -- that was his present function. . . . But the most dangerous effect of the exhaustion steadily gaining on all engaged did not consist in their relative indifference to outside events and the feelings of others, but in the slackness and supineness which they allowed to invade their personal lives. . . . They were led to break, oftener and oftener, the rules of hygiene. . . .

We have no police nowadays; no crimes past or present, no more criminals -- only condemned people hoping for the most capricious of pardons; and amongst these are the police themselves. [Yet some], who have an instinctive craving for human contacts, can't bring themselves to yield to it, because of the mistrust that keeps them apart. . . . To the criminal, however, fear seems to him more bearable under theses conditions than it was when he had to bear its burden alone. In this respect he's wrong, and this makes him harder to understand than other people. Still, after all, that's why he is worth a greater effort to understand. . . .

[Although it is illegal for the lover to find a means to drive away, the scientist encouraged his efforts.] Perhaps because I, too, would like to do my bit for happiness. . . . [When, almost able to secure a vehicle, the lover declined, and he told the scientist], if he went away, he would feel ashamed of himself, and that would embarrass his relations with the woman he loved.

Showing more animation, the scientist told him that was sheer nonsense; there was nothing shameful in preferring happiness.

'Certainly,' the lover replied, 'But it may be shameful to be happy by oneself.' . . .

[The scientist replied], 'Stay with us if you want to. For nothing in the world is it worth turning one's back on what one loves. Yet that is what I'm doing -- though why  I do not know. That's how it is,' he added wearily,' and there's nothing to be done about it. So let's recognize the fact, and draw conclusions. . . . A man can't cure and know at the same time. So let's cure as quickly as we can. That's the more urgent job.' . . . .

[After recently watching the slow death of a child from heat, hunger, and infection, the scientist and priest stopped at a toy shop window. The scientist said], 'Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.'

'I understand,' the priest said in a low voice. 'That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.'

'No, Father. I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture. . . . What I hate is death and disease -- as you well know. And whether you wish it or not, we're allies, facing them and fighting them together.' The scientist took hold of the priest's hand. 'So you see' -- but he refrained from meeting the priest's eyes -- 'God Himself can't part us now.' . . .

Most people had replaced normal religious practice by more or less extravagant superstitions. . . . As a result copies of predictions attributed to soothsayers or saints of the Catholic Church circulated freely from hand to hand. The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze. . . . Indeed the one thing these prophecies had in common was that, ultimately, all were reassuring. Unfortunately, though, climate change was not. Thus superstition had usurped the place of religion and science.

[The priest told the scientist], there was no doubt as to the existence of Good and Evil and, as a rule, it was easy to see the difference between them. The difficulty began when we looked into the nature of Evil, and amongst things evil he included human suffering. Thus we had apparently needful pain, and apparently needless pain. . . . It is right that a libertine should be struck down, we see no reason for a child's suffering. And, truth to tell, nothing was more important on earth than a child's suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to account for it. In other manifestations of life God made things easy for us and, thus far, our religion had no merit. But, in this respect, He put us, so to speak, with our backs to the wall. . . . For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment's human suffering? . . .  god had vouchsafed to His creatures an ordeal such that they must acquire and practise the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing. . . . The sufferings of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger. . . . We should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in our power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite. . . .

Meanwhile the authorities had another cause for anxiety in the difficulty of maintaining the food-supply. Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops. . . .  Thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, climate change had exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in people's hearts. . . .

Nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity. For really to think about someone means thinking about that person every minute of the day, without letting one's thoughts be diverted. . . . That's why life is difficult to live. . . . They're forgotten, and they know it. . . . Even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I've been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all caused climate change, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone. . . . Each of us has evil within us. . . . We must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we take from the world in the way that it deprives others. . . . And it needs tremendous will-power, a never-ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. . . . That's why everybody in the world today looks so tired. . . .

PART FIVE

For some of them, they had become allergic to hope in any form. . . . How hard it must be to live only with what one knows and what one remembers, cut off from what one hopes for! . . . And the scientist realized the bleak sterility of a life without illusions. . . . For the moment, he wished to behave like all those others round him who believed, or made believe, that climate change can come and go without changing anything in people's hearts or lives. . . .

The scientist resolved to compile this chronicle . . . to bear witness in favour of those stricken people . . . and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in people than to despise. . . . He knew what the crowds did not know but could have learned form books: that climate change never disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years . . . and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of people, it sent them forth to die in a happy city. 

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