Friday, October 14, 2011

Climate Cultures: sensing weather / climate / change

Climate is the statistics of weather. Mean temperatures, global climate models, calculations. The scientific discourse reduces a complex phenomenon to the language of numbers.  Complex climate put into little language boxes. It is amazing that there is only little interest in climate change as part of our actual life world. Remote sensing does not substitute senses of place; statistics do not much tell about how it feels to inhabit places inside a fragile climate envelope. This is where poetic scrutiny, close observing, thick description is needed. If climate change is real, we can't reduce reality to yes or no, skeptic or alarmist; instead, we have to acknowledge the complexity of feelings; the ambivalence of emotions; the simultaneity of sensory experience of weather and the weather report; of climate information and talk about heat waves or cold winters. We have to add lived reality to the abstract scientific reality.
In the current edition of The New Yorker,  there is a poem by W.G. Sebald, which gives an idea of the difference between remote sensing and sensing weather & climate as an integral part of everyday life. The poem is called October Heat Wave.

[In the first verse, the poet arrives in New York City:]

From the flyover
that leads down
to the Holland
Tunnel I saw
the red disc
of the sun
rising over the
promised city.

[Manhattan is heating up, and he finds himself in a hotel room, with the TV on:]

By the early
afternoon the
thermometer
reached eighty-
five & a steel
blue haze
hung about the
shimmering towers

whilst at the White
House Conference
on Climate the
President listened
to experts talking
about converting
green algae into
clean fuel & I lay
(....)

[In the following verses, he dreams of a river, and he pities a crippled tree in the backyard.
In the evening, he attends a reception, having conversation:]

A young woman
came up to me
& said that al-
though on vacation
she had spent
all day at
the office
which unlike

her apartment was
air-conditioned &
as cold as the
morgue. There,
she said, I am
happy like an
opened up oyster
on a bed of ice.


There is no difference in scrutiny between poetry and science. It is amazing that climate has left only few traces in what we call "cultural life", except those opinion enforcing manifestations we are used to. I am looking for more examples of explicit cultural expressions of climate change. Olafur Eliásson's weather installations were another example already discussed here on klimazwiebel.

15 comments:

eduardo said...

Well, Werner
although it may very well have its disadvantages, there is a point in trying to keep science and poetry apart, or science and other cultural activities for that matter (Note that I wrote trying to keep') . Modern science arose in an attempt to by-pass subjectivity, appeal to authority, etc, etc. It is clear that it is a goal impossible to reach, but as a target I think it has been quite beneficial on the long term.
It does not mean that the very same person may have scientific and artistic endowments but mixing both is a loss for both, for science and for the arts

Werner Krauss said...

Eduardo, your comment leaves me amused. Just have another look at your argument why we have to keep poetry, art, or other cultural activities apart from (climate) science:

"Modern science arose in an attempt to by-pass subjectivity, appeal to authority, etc, etc. "

Wow, Eduardo, I am impressed. But don't worry, I think your comment already gives proof that poetry, art or any cultural activity indeed are far away from your science. Good luck in keeping it pure & clean! You are on a good way already!

wflamme said...

"We have to add lived reality to the abstract scientific reality."

Now here's the headline:

"Leding scientists and World Writers Association agree: Climate change causes depressive poetry and loss of rhyme"

wflamme said...

(Sorry: "Leading ...")

Reiner Grundmann said...

Werner,
You say 'it is amazing that there is only little interest in climate change as part of our actual life world.' I would say this isn't surprising at all because we experience weather, and changes in the weather, not climate, and not changes in climate. The way the problem has been framed (as climate=statistics of weather=domain for science) makes it nearly impossible to bring in direct experience, based on our senses. (BTW: The same has been observed with regard to many risk issues, in the wake of Ulrich Beck's famous book: risks are perceived via theories and instruments, not directly).

There are, of course, those who say they perceive the climate changing but how can we be sure they have direct experience (and not secondary experience, on the basis of what they think the science tells them, namely that we already witness such changes).

Hannah said...

Werner, are you familiar with this guy's work and the university? http://tasml.parsons.edu/?p=584 and http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/12/arts/12iht-translife12.html?_r=4&ref=arts he collaborated with Eliasson on "Feelings are facts" (a sentence of pure genius btw :o) I love the oyster on ice metaphor in the poem. Reminds me of more than 20 years ago when I lived on a small Caribbean island. I had formed a rather unlikely friendship (he was about 80 years old and I was 15 years old at the time) but somehow we made perfect sense to each other, possibly because he had lost his daughter and I had just lost my best friend. In any event I would pop by his office after school from time to time. Before he retired he had been an important man and he still had the office to show for it :o) oak panels, leather chairs and hunting pictures and equipped with a very impressive air condition system. His office was frankly freezing. I would sit on the chair feeling exactly like an opened oyster on a bed of ice. Come to think of it he had bizarrely managed to create his own little arctic climate envelope in the middle of the Caribbean...his office was not the only thing that operated on a different temperature to that of the rest of the island...so did his car and his house.

Werner Krauss said...

@ Hannah #7
thanks for your comment. I had to think about the ice metaphor, too. The office is "as cold as the morgue" - the morgue is, as far as I know as a second language speaker, the place where dead bodies are kept before they are buried, right? And an "opened up oyster on a bed of ice" actually is not happy but dead. Frozen feelings; "the frozen (wo)man syndrome", as Charles Bukowski once called this state of mind. This interpretation fits maybe well to your story, as it is a story of loss. Correct me if I am wrong.

In my understanding, the poem expresses the view of the European poet who sees his admired New York through the climate change lens. Nothing is innocent anymore; not the October temperatures nor the defoliated tree with the electric light bulbs in the backyard (a verse I didn't copy and paste); and something is frozen in the last verse. It's a poem about the air-conditioned human condition.

(Thanks for the link. No, haven't heard about it yet. Sounds interesting).

Werner Krauss said...

@Reiner #5

Reiner, did you ever hear of climate change as a social fact in our daily life? As far as I can see, there is no mention of climate change as a scientific construct in my post, so your comment is kind of pointless.

Werner Krauss said...

@Reiner #5

I had to think further about my above assumption of climate change as a social fact. I googled and got offered help by - you, Reiner, together with Nico Stehr. I found this quote here on the European branch of breakthrough:

"(...)Grundmann and Stehr propose to look carefully at how we frame climate change socially (...). Defending this social constructivist approach (...), the authors note that defining climate change as a social construction

'... is not to diminish its importance, relevance, or reality. It simply means that sociologists study the process whereby something (like anthropogenic climate change) is transformed from a conjecture into an accepted fact.'"
[This is from your and Nico|s answer to Lever/Tracy].

My suggestion is to extend or expand this approach to a kind of "cultural poetics of climate change". I understand this as an ethnographic approach to the social reality of climate change. Sebald's poem indeed gives an insight into climate change as part of the life world. It is a description through the many layers of human experience. As weather has a reality for each human being outside the (science based) TV weather report, climate change exists outside the narrow confines of the scientific / political realm. This "social" existence of climate change is still largely unknown territory.

This is where the poet or the artist comes in. They are as exact as the scientist. Eliasson's installations serve as a laboratory of human experience. They do not reduce weather / climate to their political dimension; instead, they open it up to a new understanding of what weather / climate are.

Sebald, on the other hand, is a close observer of himself in the environment, here of New York. He describes with scrutiny emotions as facts.

To come back to your above comment,Reiner: you said that climate change is the statistics of weather, and that it is in the domain of science; outside of cience, we cannot experience it. In Sebald's poem, climate change indeed exists only like a kind of "ghost"; it is on TV, in the defoliated tree, in the heat, in the conversation with the woman, in the imagery and metaphors the woman uses. It's of a very fluid, transparent nature, almost non-existent. Thus, Sebald gives here a microscopic description of "the process whereby something (like anthropogenic climate change) is transformed from a conjecture into an accepted fact" (Grundmann / Stehr). (Maybe 'accepted' doesn't fit the purpose here; 'fact' alone is better.) At least, he identifies climate change in language, in media, in things, in people, in metaphors.

Emotions are facts. The artist or poet does not replace science. Instead, they expand and identify the web of reality, which is much more complex than questions discussed currently in the climate debate. They add more (or different) reality. Climate change is here not the hurricanes, the polar bear, storm surges or other emblems of the climate change iconography. It adds another, more subtle form of its existence.

We should not always immediately ask for the "purpose" of such observations, as our eager colleagues from sociology or climate science do. Most scientists actually simply try to identify and understand climate (change); the usefulness is the political part which often hinders exact observation. And exact observation and description is, of course, the basis of any good science and poetry.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Yes, Werner, we emphasize the social construction of climate change. However, you want to open a different inquiry, and I have difficulty understanding what it is.
Is it based on the emotions? Do you want to explore what art has to offer? Do you see art in contrast to science?

Reiner Grundmann said...

Werner,
why do you think Sebald is talking about climate change? October Heatwave is about weather.

Emotions are a fact, agreed. But they are a fact for the person who experiences emotions. The problem is that they are not 'agreed upon facts' because they are subjective and so different. Your analogy to Stehr/Grundmann's argument about social construction of agreed facts does not convince me.

Werner Krauss said...

Reiner,

sorry for the misuse of your and Nico Stehr's approach. Obviously, my analogy didn't work.

As an anthropologist, I am interested in different forms of representation of climate change. Art is one of them.

Here is why I think Sebald indeed talks about climate change in his poem:

"whilst at the White
House Conference
on Climate the
President listened
to experts talking
about converting
green algae into
clean fuel..."

Hannah said...

Werner, Reiner, I have had another think about the poem in general and the "not happy oyster" in particular. I will aim to break it down a bit.
1. I guess, when I wrote my comment I had just recognised a feeling without analysing why the metaphor gave me that association. That is what good poems or literature often does...make us go: "Ah, I recognise that, this just says it much more concise than I could ever hope to do". Werner, you may be on to something with your analysis but I think that in this context what is more interesting is what you normally associate with an open oyster, things such as: vulnerable, exposed (its shell has been broken), apprehensive, as in waiting to be devoured, :o) all springs to mind.

2. There is a saying that "two is a coincidence and three is a pattern." In many ways the human brain relies on patterns in order to make sense of the world. We note patterns and react accordingly without necessarily asking why that pattern exists but we note it instinctively when a pattern is broken and find it confusing and perhaps unsettling because we know that there must be some explanation, it might be a very mundane one but it is still a reason so we aim to find and understand that reason/explanation.

3. In August I had a friend that I use to work with over for dinner. It was so cold that we sat in front of the fireplace in my kitchen and eat Gravad Lax. In the beginning of October I had the same friend and her husband over for a delayed birthday dinner (his birthday is on the 16 September and mine is on 17 September). We sat outside in my garden in London, until almost 1 in the morning, eating Osso buco bianco at a candle lit table and discussing how neither he nor I could remember sitting outside that time of year before. London was experiencing a heat wave in October which went against (for whatever reason) the usual pattern as we remembered it: Outside in August and inside in October. So how we thought of celebrating our birthday in London had in a way changed. Hopefully this, read together with 1. and 2. above this makes sense in terms of the poem.

4. What we also discuss when we discuss climate change (no matter if you believe in AGW, CAGW or reject the whole thing altogether) is what the world is, what it should be, how we behave and how we ought to behave etc etc so if you think of the coffee houses during the Enlightenment (H/T "Menth") or how much religion has impacted on art then it is a bit odd that it hasn't been explored more.

Right, my pattern in commenting on blogs is that I tend to do it while at work, when I need a break, so better get back................... :o)

Werner Krauss said...

Hannah, I really appreciate that you take a break from work once in a while!

Oyster on ice, graved lax, Osso buco bianco - I just realized that the combination of climate / weather / food fits perfectly on a blog called klimazwiebel (climate onion)! Never thought about that before.

Dennis Bray said...

I am looking for more examples of explicit cultural expressions of climate change. –

Werner have you never heard of evolutionary anthropology or perhaps read any anthropology dealing with how groups adapt to their environment. I know this is old school but ...

COMMENTS ON WERNER’S COMMENTS

[In the first verse, the poet arrives in New York City: HOW DO WE KNOW HE IS ARRIVING, MAYBE HE LIVES UNDER THE FLYOVER AND WENT OUT FOR AN EVENING STROLL. SUNBECTIVE INTERPRETATION MIGHT WORK WELL IF SO INCLINED BUT OFFERS ANWERS SIMPLY FROM IMAGINATION]

From the flyover
that leads down
to the Holland
Tunnel I saw
the red disc
of the sun
rising over the
promised city.

[Manhattan is heating up, and he finds himself in a hotel room, with the TV on: MANHATTEN HOTEL – AGAIN – HOW DO YOU KNOW, AREN’T YOU SIMPLY RELYING ON “WHAT YOU THINK”? ODD TO THE ASSOCIATION OF STEEL BLUE (COLD) AND THE 85 DEGREES (WARM)]

By the early
afternoon the
thermometer
reached eighty-
five & a steel
blue haze
hung about the
shimmering towers

whilst at the White
House Conference
on Climate the
President listened
to experts talking
about converting
green algae into
clean fuel & I lay
(....)

[In the following verses, he dreams of a river, and he pities a crippled tree in the backyard. {RIVER? MAYBE HE IS LAYING ON A BED OF ICE ENJOYING THE AFTERNOON WITH AN OYSTER. HOW DO YOU KNOW HE ATTENDED THE RECEPTION, THE POEM SIMPLY STATES THERE WAS ONE]
In the evening, he attends a reception, having conversation:] [HMMMM OYSTER ON A BED OF ICE – THAT IS THE WAY THEY ARE TYPICALLY SERVED TO BR EATEN. I DOUBT THE OYSTER WOULD BE HAPPY ABOUT THE PROSPECT. PERHAPS SOMEONE SHOULD RESEARCH THE FEELINGS OF OYSTERS AS THEY LAY ON A BED OF ICE

A young woman
came up to me
& said that al-
though on vacation
she had spent
all day at
the office
which unlike

her apartment was
air-conditioned &
as cold as the
morgue. There,
she said, I am
happy like an
opened up oyster
on a bed of ice.

ARE MY INTERPRETATIONS ANY LESS CORRECT THAN YOUR? IF SO, ON WHAT BASIS COULD SUCH A CLAIM BE MADE
In ‘The Campaign to re-brand the social scientist – The public re-construction of a diverse discipline’ http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2011/08/the-campaign-to-re-brand-the-social-scientist-the-public-re-construction-of-a-diverse-discipline/
“Indeed, the nearest thing to an iconic social scientist, in the UK at least, is the current star, or rather the butt, of a successful BBC comedy radio show. This particular image is of a hopelessly inept girl, who enthusiastically sums up every problem with jargonistic flourish, but is utterly ineffectual when it comes to understanding real people. One could equally imagine a rather drippy, politically correct man in a similar role
A comments concerning the article:
“As long as social scientists see themselves as the critic and conscience of society, and not as research workers who are interested in finding out how social phenomena actually work (in the sense of cause-and-effect) then the “poor” image of the social sciences will persist. I agree with Bennie Berkeley in that post-modernism has ruined social sciences”

Anyway, I feel much better having read the poem.