Tag Archives: global warming

A Few Observations on Standing on Quicksand

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_QuicksandA few thoughts on the drawing I made yesterday morning.

One amoral transactionalist or another in my drawing might try to accumulate sufficient goods — in this case, enough flooring: planks, paving stones, rebar, etc. — to shore up only his patch of quicksand.

As he watched his trading partner and his fellow man sink, he might realize that he has done himself out of the trade that sustained and defined him.

He might also find that he needs the other guy after all, as it’s very hard to lay planks across one area of quicksand without building up another. (The best design would go to the very margins of the whole patch of quicksand, and anchor the floor in terra firma.) He has won only as much land as his transactions to date have secured for him. Once his trading partner sinks, he has made his last acquisition.

Even if their trade observes some rules, it will be short-lived unless they recognize that the patch of quicksand they’re standing on needs shoring up and maintenance. When the pair recognize that they share common ground, and a common future, they have a much better chance of keeping themselves from sinking.

With that recognition, they have already crossed over from amoral transactionalism into some sense of common life or mutual standing. They can start working together, or start coordinating their efforts: they might decide to tax their trade so that they can direct some of the goods toward building a shared foundation.

Do the pair locked in territorial rivalry have any future? One might prevail over the other, raid his stores of goods and make plans to occupy the entire territory. He could even enslave him or coerce him to build a stable platform over the quicksand patch.

It’s a future from which both parties should recoil in horror. At the very least they might understand that, all things being equal and luck being what it is, committing to this course means that one of them will end up dead or suffering under the lash.

And the best the winner of such a contest can hope for is the master’s fate: he will never be truly respected nor have standing as a person (which can only be granted by another person; but he has deprived his rival of that standing). He will have lost even that bitter sense of “we” that he knew in the days of territorial rivalry. Now he can only make the vanquished party hand over his goods, do his bidding, cower in fear or howl in pain.

Neither Here Nor There

I set out for Lake Superior on Saturday, with the intention of spending the better part of this week meeting and interviewing people for a documentary project I’m developing. The day got off to a rocky start: at 4:30AM, United Airlines called and emailed to tell me that my 8AM flight to Chicago would be delayed. I would miss my connection to Hancock unless I hustled and got myself to Chicago on an earlier flight – the 7AM — which I did. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and was at Gate F1A and ready to board the Hancock flight when my phone buzzed. Flights to Hancock were cancelled, due to a blizzard in the Keweenaw — lake effect snow.

The woman at the customer service counter had clearly had a rough morning. Her allergies were making her miserable: all the dust from the heater, she said; she had just turned it on for the first time this winter. She did her best, but when all was said and done my options were limited to waiting out the storm in Chicago (which probably meant the dreary and overpriced airport hotel) or making a dash to Detroit, switching from United to Delta (I never found out exactly how this was to be accomplished, or what it would cost), and trying to catch the evening flight to Marquette. Both sounded expensive, exhausting and damaging to the soul. I told myself that I could probably accomplish everything I’d set out to do on this trip the next time around. So I decided to call it a day, turn around and head back to New York.

The woman behind the counter seemed relieved, and marked my ticket “Carrie Over Carrie Back” [sic]. I moved to a new gate to wait for the next New York flight, and ate an airport sandwich that registered on the receipt as “CEB Tur Goud.” That’s about how it tasted. carrieovercarrie

Now I am here when I expected to be there, here in New York with a strange sense of being absent from the UP. This confusion of presence and absence, here and not there, is not quite the same as missing a place; it’s not like nostalgia and doesn’t involve longing to be elsewhere. It’s more like misplacing myself – a sense of dislocation. I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be here: none of my planning included that possibility. Plans commit us to a time and place. They tell us where we belong, and when. They are ways of making ourselves belong. I simply don’t belong here, at least not until Thursday, when I’d planned to come back. Until then, I am neither here nor there.

I hit on that familiar expression yesterday. It’s a colloquial way of talking about irrelevance, things that are of no account, and though I have plenty to keep me busy until Thursday, I am also seriously exploring this feeling that I am of no account, and will be for a couple days to come.

The expression neither here nor there is, I now understand, a good place to start reflecting on our plans and purposes and how they give us a sense of belonging in the world. It goes way back, and was popular and well-worn even before Shakespeare used it in Othello. That much is clear from the earliest instance cited by the OED: Arthur Golding’s 1583 translation of The Sermons of J. Calvin on Deuteronomie.

This is Golding’s translation of Calvin’s 92nd sermon, on “the law of the tithe” as it’s presented in Deuteronomy 14.24-29 — a passage which is itself already about being displaced and absent, about being “far” from the place where “God shall choose to set his name” (as the King James version has it). Tithes of money are offerings “if the way be too long for thee…or if the place be too far from thee.” Seeing that God has dealt so generously with us, Calvin writes,

what an unthankfulnesse is it for me to despise him that sheweth himself so liberall towardes me? True it is that our so dooing is neither here nor there (as they say,) in respect of God: the seruice that we do him doth neither amend him nor appaire him: but he giueth vs the poor among vs, to bee succored at our handes, to the ende that none of vs should so glutte himself by cramming his owne bellie, as to despise others that are in necessitie, but that we shoulde bee well advised to make an offering vnto God of the thinges that he hath put into our handes, and that the same might become holy by that meanes. Not that wee should paye it as a ransoume to God; but that the acknowledgement which we make vnto him in having compassion upon our poore needy brethren, is as though our Lord should allow of our eating and drinking, saying thus: Now is all lawful for you, I lyke well of it, I giue it vnto you; and that is because ye honor me in dooing almesdeedes to such as are in pouertie.

It’s a wonderful and complicated passage about making things “holy” and honoring the bounty and plenty of the world by sharing it and making an offering of it – the sort of thing we’d expect to find Lewis Hyde writing about in The Gift. Louis CK, a very different kind of Louis, makes roughly the same point Calvin makes here in a profanity-laced routine called “If God Came Back.” It all starts with the question why Christians don’t seem to believe they have to look after the creation:


This morning, sitting here in New York, and feeling as if I belong elsewhere, it seems downright uncanny that I was thinking about precisely this routine just minutes before my flight to Hancock was cancelled on Saturday. An exhibit called “Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” – currently running at Chicago O’Hare in Terminal 2 – brought it to mind. Huge photographs of glaciers by James Balog had been hung on the wall and a sign instructed travelers to “teach your children about landscapes their children will never know.” That sentence alone left me aghast — I had plenty of time to contemplate it, sitting there at the gate — and it made me wonder what purpose could justify the things we do every day, all the running back and forth, the going here and there. We hardly ever give it a second thought.

Is This A Serious Conversation?

Is this a serious conversation? Is he discussing this question in earnest and giving you second-personal authority, or is he simply going to decide what to believe and do it unilaterally? If the latter, then not only will there be nothing reciprocal about his choice, but also there will be nothing genuinely reciprocal about the conversation; it will not be serious. He will have no particular need to determine what you are going to do, say, by listening carefully, because his choice will be unilateral. If he is an egoistic non-cooperator, he will not cooperate whatever you say or do. He has nothing at stake in the conversation and need give you no authority in it, either to answer the theoretical question of what (to believe) you will do, or to answer the practical question of what to do himself. No genuine co-deliberation, either theoretical or practical, will occur.

I found my way back to this discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Darwall’s Second Person Standpoint after reading this morning that a group of leading NGOs had walked out of the Warsaw climate talks. “Talks like these amount to nothing if countries refuse to come to them and negotiate in good faith or worse, try to drag the process backwards,” said the World Wildlife Fund’s Sam Smith. There are complaints that corporate sponsors compromised and undermined the talks from the get-go. But the conversation about what to do — and who should do what — was already at an impasse. There were a few fine speeches, but the time for fine speeches has long ago passed.

Some people — Suzanne Goldberg calls them “experts familiar… with the politics of climate change” in The Guardian today — seem to think that new research by Richard Heede will help “break the deadlock.” This seems like the sort of thing only experts and journalists who interview them can believe: that a piece of research is what’s needed to make an unserious conversation serious.

As The Guardian headline has it, Heede has identified ninety companies that have “caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions” since the start of the industrial era. His list includes state-run companies and coal producers from around the world as well as big oil companies from the developed world. The idea, or at least the hope, is that Heede’s comprehensive, historical accounting of fossil-fuel producers will change the dynamics of the conversation, which has tended to pit developed against emerging economies, rich countries against poor, and so on.

It’s hard for me to imagine that Heede’s findings will really bring about anything like what Darwall calls “genuine co-deliberation” or translate to new cooperation. These talks are a game of dodge ball.

Al Gore is quoted here as saying that Heede’s list places “a clear obligation” on companies “historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere.” But what exactly does that obligation entail? “To be part of the solution,” says Gore. And how are these companies to be held to that obligation? Gore does not say; but without binding agreements and a whole new set of rules I am not sure we will get anything but the usual greenwashing rhetoric, more corporate funded climate denial and more inaction.

And even if we somehow do manage to hold fossil-fuel producing companies historically responsible, or (as Michael Mann suggests) fingerprint the sources of future emissions, we will need to hold ourselves and all fossil-fuel consumers responsible as well. That’s where the conversation gets really serious — when we start talking about historical responsibility as shared responsibility. Are we ready to start enumerating the obligations we all have on this score and figuring out how we are going to meet them? It seems very few people in Warsaw or anywhere this week really want to have that conversation.