Thursday, July 17, 2014

In ancient times

So, let me see. What, according to the "Goings On About Town" section of the New Yorker cover dated May 2, 1964, could I do in New York on the day I was born (Sunday, May 3, 1964)?

Well, I could go to the Village Vanguard to listen to Chet Baker. (Or I could wait a couple of days to catch the Miles Davis Quintet, on Tuesday, May 5.) Or maybe the "stalwart" Sonny Rollins, together with Roland Kirk's "foursome", at the Half Note. Hey, that's not a bad double bill. And Chico Hamilton is playing somewhere called the Gold Bug (85 W 3rd St).

On the other hand, I could always go to the movies. "Dr Strangelove" is playing. So is "From Russia With Love". Or I can be one jump ahead of the crowd by catching "The Pink Panther", which opens this week (although the New Yorker review isn't entirely favourable: "heavy-handed fun").

But what I am really interested in is E B White's unsigned editorial from the magazine, which, thanks to the miracles of the technology of the future, I am able to reproduce below (right-click etc for an enlargeable version). Taking the death of Rachel Carson ("Silent Spring") as his hook, White looks at the mistreatment of the natural world by America's corporations, specifically their use of chemicals, and despairs at its consequences and, more importantly, at the failure of government to do anything serious about it. ("The federal agencies concerned with the problem bicker among themselves" -- surely not!) It is a short, typically understated but brutal piece of writing.

Fifty years on, of course, the natural world may not exactly be thriving, but life hasn't died out (not yet); something was done (though never enough) about widespread unregulated use of chemicals; man, and many of those with whom we share the planet, lived to fight another day. In other words: we got out of that one.

And yet White's editorial continues to hit hard because, if you replaced "America's corporations" with "the countries of the world", and "use of chemicals" with "burning of fossil fuels", you could write much the same essay today.

I'm not sure how it is possible not to see climate change as a very serious threat to life on this planet. (Call me naive, but science, it seems to me, isn't something one can choose to believe or not believe depending on one's financial situation of political persuasion (the Pope may have put Galileo Galilei under house arrest, but the Earth still revolves around the Sun); science operates to demonstrate, as best scientists can with the tools at their disposal, that a thing is or that it isn't.) And yet the current discourse is against change, and the structural obstacles are so immense that the paradigm (or the "facts on the ground") would have to shift dramatically to galvanise the world into action. It is a lot easier to do nothing. My friend Alun thinks that this coming summer in Australia may well do the trick. I hope he's wrong (we have no air conditioning, and if Melbourne is hot, Canberra is usually hotter), but I also, thinking not only of myself, hope he's right.

Where am I going with this? Well, E B White's piece can work as a counter to such overwhelmingly negative thoughts. You can read it, you can reflect on the fact that over the intervening period we managed to put a man on the moon, and you can tell yourself that maybe, just maybe, we will find a way, despite our worst impulses, to get out of this one, too.