October 18, 2013

On the Book Shelf

Currently I'm reading an Italian novel by Fabio Volo (in English translation, of course). He's a European sensation, this guy Volo, whose easygoing writing style reminds me of Nick Hornby's books.  Fabio is a radio personality, a film maker, an actor, and a lady's man.  I don't guess he's having much fun in Roma, right? 

This novel is called "One More Day," and it's kind of an extended thought experiment.  A young Italian guy living in Rome, Giacomo, with a ho-hum job, takes the tram to work every day.  His schedule is the same as a young woman's who also takes the same tram almost every day.  He becomes obsessed with her.  He finds her a thing of matchless grace and beauty.  Uncharacteristically, he finds he is too shy ever to speak to her or to make much in the way of eye contact.  This goes on for a long time.  Finally, one day she asks him if he would like to get off the tram and have a cup of coffee with her.

So he does.  They talk and it develops that the next day she is flying to New York to take a new, dream job.  She is having a party that very night, in fact, and she (her name is Michela) invites Giacomo to come.  He makes up an excuse and begs off (his diffidence still in place).  The next day, however, he goes to the airport to spy on her departure.  Giacomo sees Michela in the company of a young man and figures she must be attached (this proves to be wrong; it is her brother).  Naturally, at some point Giacomo travels to New York to find her, and it is at that point that the "thought experiment" about relationships begins.

I like simple human tales like "One More Day."  I needed a break from the doomsday stuff, frankly, having just finished a couple of books by Clive Hamilton, the Australian economist/natural philosopher, including "Requiem For A Species."  This book, as the title hints, explores the reasons that humans never did anything about global warming.  Why the outbreaks of Denialism, the obstinance, the venality that blocked any effective response?  If, 30 years ago, we had simply reacted rationally, as a species, it is probable that the global warming crisis could have been averted without significant pain.  Indeed, it is likely that the overall quality of life would have been much better at this point.

A "reaction," of course, would have meant a comprehensive response involving Draconian population control, a powering down in energy usage, a massive retreat from consumer materialism, a "de-Americanization" of the world's economies, and a shift to ecological rhythms and limits in the way we live.  But it would have been fine.  It would have been nice. I would actually prefer it if the Pacific Ocean were not filled with a Texas-sized slurry of degrading plastic.

That's not what we did, of course.  We went the other way, although we began talking a great deal about what we weren't doing.  We substituted "concern" for action, and that's still mostly where we are. 

As far as the "Requiem" is concerned, I'm not completely convinced of explanations, where human psychology is concerned, that involve "many reasons."  I don't think humans really process decisions that way.   The adage that a decision is simply the last thing we were thinking when we got tired of the problem makes the most sense to me.

I think that human beings are simply naturally fatalistic.  While modern industrial civilization, the artifact of human ingenuity, has now produced our own extinction event, we each had a personal extinction event that predated this one.  We call it death.  When we read that we must do something now to avoid a sea level rise of 20 feet in the year 2100, for example, unconsciously we do a quick calculation and move on to the...Fabio Volo novel.

Eventually, the threat of near-term extinction will match up, or be congruent with, the timeline we associate with a human life.  We may well be there now, but the vagaries of climate science give us enough wiggle room to avoid thinking that way in conclusive terms.  Maybe I will get through my life and experience only these "super storms" that the mass media now write about, timorously suggesting that maybe this is connected to climate change, before the news outlet is inundated with vicious, corporate-sponsored Denialist troll attacks.   The weather has always varied!

It's what makes this trudge toward oblivion darkly humorous, in a sad, George Carlin way.  Our extinction is hiding in plain sight.  It's the weather, for crying out loud.  But as I say, maybe that's all I will ever see, and with luck, it's all my daughter's generation will ever see.  Strangeness in the weather, as the Arctic ice disappears, and Greenland melts, and the oceans acidify, the meridional flow of the jet streams brings us odd climate events like annual 100-year floods and searing droughts - but we get through it okay.  The wheels don't completely come off. 

As a selfish Homo sapiens, another ape not half so smart as he thought he was (and definitely Too Smart For His Own Good), I would gladly take that.  Let me read about Italian romances in peace, and may my daughter have the same luxury.  That's all I really ask at this point.

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