As Deep a Question as Ever

cross as ginsbergAllen Ginsberg first heard about global warming during the Summer of Love. He spent the bulk of the summer of 1967 not in San Francisco but overseas. In Swinging London, he partied with the Beatles and the Stones. This must have been a heady experience. Ginsberg had charisma but not like these pop stars did. Nor was he as young, as handsome, or as lithe. Ginsberg was a half generation older, balding with horn-rimmed glasses, a rabbi’s thick beard, and still something leftover in his body from the fifties of the sexually-repressed, neurotic New Yorker. Part of Ginsberg’s charm was that he carried these physical attributes unashamedly. Film clips of him at the Human Be-in, held in January in Golden Gate Park, cement a particular image of him as a sixties icon: white kurta, finger-cymbals, ecstatic smile. It’s the image played by David Cross in his turn as Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’ brilliant Dylan meditation, I’m Not There. Here’s my point: by the end of July, he had less reason to smile.

Ginsberg spent most of July attending a gathering in London called the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation. Organized by the “anti-psychiatrist” R. D. Laing and his colleagues, this forum brought together radical writers, artists, social scientists, and political theorists, including Herbert Marcuse; Paul Goodman, the author of Growing Up Absurd; and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who’d spent the previous year stirring up audiences on the topic of Black Power. The US involvement in Vietnam was then almost two years in escalation, urban riots were in progress in Newark and Detroit, and the crowds attending the Congress’s many programs featured a large American contingent. They were drawn, at least partly, by the big-name speakers, but also by the goals Laing and his colleagues had advertised for their event: “to demystify human violence in all its forms” and “to explore new forms of action.”

The cultural moment, however, called for a somewhat different agenda, and the gathering in London became a site for the age-old debate over the nature of revolution. Dissent was surging. New Left activists and members of the self-described “spiritual generation” were coming together in new coalitions. What would be their program for change? Would it be built around love consciousness, or was it about power–claiming it and taking it through militant struggle, “by all means necessary”?

The debate was activated to some degree by Stokely Carmichael in an incendiary speech on the gathering’s second day. Drawing on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Carmichael spoke of institutional racism and called for a politics of racial identity. He told of how he’d dreamed as a child in Trinidad of coming to London to burn it down. On the following Saturday, at the Congress’s marquee event, Carmichael again took the stage as part of a panel that included Laing, Emmett Grogan of the San Francisco Diggers, and Ginsberg. Carmichael dominated, baiting the hippies in attendance without mercy. “People of color” in US cities, in Vietnam, and elsewhere were fighting for their lives, Carmichael said. The “white boys” were only playing at revolution and would soon return to their middle class lives. People could talk all they wanted about “leaving the money wheel,” as Ginsberg put it, but real revolution was no game. This pragmatic message articulated by Carmichael and others won the day at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, and it put representatives of the spiritual generation, Ginsberg among them, on the defensive.

The debate over the nature of revolution was fraught and agonized, and the news about global warming came as an intervention upon it. That news came from Gregory Bateson, a 63-year-old British-born anthropologist and systems theorist then based in Hawaii. Bateson had given a talk on the Congress’s first day, and during the question and answer session, he mentioned “the greenhouse effect.” The phenomenon had been a concern of atmospheric scientists since the late 1950s. More recently it had received a brief mention in Barry Commoner’s first book, Science and Survival, published the previous year. A June article in the journal, Science, had used the term. Bateson’s talk at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, however, may well be the first instance of climate change being discussed before a lay audience.

During the last days of the Congress in London, when Ginsberg made a speech of his own, it was Bateson and the greenhouse effect that was topmost in his mind. Bateson had impressed him, Ginsberg said, by articulating “the scientifical apocalyptic aspect of the anxiety syndrome that we’re suffering from.” Humankind’s large-scale burning of fossil fuels threatened a change in the earth’s climate, a melting of the polar ice caps, and a rising of sea levels worldwide. Comparing “White Power,” “Black Power,” and “Porpoise Power,” Ginsberg speculated that it might be inevitable and indeed, the best possible outcome, for the latter to prevail: “The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling for the continuance of its own life.”

Ginsberg’s comments were posthumanist gestures of a kind that would soon become more widespread. They strain for a glibness that is familiar, too—a typical mode of heading off unpleasant information. But I think it’s important to pause and appreciate their pathos. The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling, our outsized numbers, our mountains of waste, our brazen and continuous predation of its resources and of each other. Who hasn’t felt what Ginsberg felt at least once in their lives? I daresay many of us feel it at our shoulder all the time, this nagging consciousness as Americans of our utter dependency upon our environment coupled with the recognition of ecological profligacy as a cultural default position. Ginsberg’s emotional response was such that he immediately moved to first principles. This was, he said:

‘To be or not to be?’ which is as deep a question as ever, you know, do you want ‘to be’ or not? I don’t know, sometimes I don’t want to; I don’t give a shit, I’m going to die anyway. Which everybody feels occasionally, from Shakespeare on down to the lowest chimney sweep in Blake.

Ginsberg should be commended for putting it so plainly. Just as importantly, however, he doesn’t entertain the question for long. He bounces back, as from a trampoline. He hastens on as if the answer were self-evident: “So, assuming that we’re willing to suffer more and continue our existence on the planet, on to more pragmatic things.” This is understandable. Half of the mission of the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation was to “explore new forms of action.” Ginsberg knew that the surging youth nation was tiring quickly of platitudes. Their minds were right. Now they needed a program. The one Ginsberg offered in his talk was little different from that which he’d articulated throughout his career: Moral purpose had its endpoint in atonement, in “unitive experience,” and the “friendly extension of self outwards.” To achieve that Ginsberg recommended aesthetic craft, Eastern religious practice, and experimentation in the routines and rituals of “tribal wisdom.” In fact, Ginsberg practiced what he preached and followed up the next month with the production of one of his most anthologized poems, “Wales Visitation.” The poem came, Ginsberg explained later, from a new “ecological perspective” Gregory Bateson had triggered in him.

But I want to stay for a moment with the speed at which Ginsberg bounces back. That’s understandable—it’s the most human thing. Hopelessness isn’t pretty. It’s disturbing. It might be described as rude. We keep up hope for each other’s sake, and if one of us abandons it, they let the rest of us down. It’s as if we have an obligation to hope, especially when hope seems least justified. The calculation is paradoxical and aptly applied, as in Ginsberg’s case, to runaway climate change. Brave and clear-eyed writers wade into this material, reflect on it, summarize it, and share their findings in books. These books usually end on notes of hope. Being otherwise so grim, how could they not?

These are some of the books I’m thinking of: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement; Christian Parenti’s Climate of Chaos–just to name a few. It would be an interesting inquiry to closely read the endings of these books and compare the ways they craft their obligatory notes of hope.

A writer whose mode is more narrative than analytical can more easily disguise the obligation. I’m thinking of George Packer’s The Great Unwinding, winner of the National Book Award. This is a book about the failure of postindustrial capitalism, which also makes it a book about climate change. Packer traces the stories of numerous characters at various levels of society, but he begins and ends with Dean Price, a déclassé North Carolinian entrepreneur driven by ideas and a belief in his own destiny. Hurricane Katrina is a “come to Jesus moment” for him; later he’s persuaded by the concept of “peak oil.” His passion becomes the production and marketing of biodiesels. After suffering the vagaries of economic instability, political dogmatism, unreliable partners, and finally, the Great Recession, he’s reduced to driving around in a rusty old Honda, trying to convince local restaurant owners to sell him their used cooking oil. His new business model includes a funding stream directed to neighborhood schools. Price remains an individualist and an entrepreneur, but his definition of success has evolved. It has become recursive and communal and hinges on a decentralized politics. He’s at odds with the reigning paradigm, but he still has hope. By implication, so should we.

In the way I admire Packer’s nuance and indirection, I admire, too, those writers who stave off the obligatory note of hope until the last possible moment. Annie Proulx’s long novel, Barkskins, tells a tale of the ruthless destruction of North America’s forests through multiple generations of two logging families, one of management and the other of labor. In the book’s final pages, an ecologist, descendant of a 17th-century French peasant woodsman and a Mi’kmaq healer, views in horror a collapsing pit of melting polar ice. She has dedicated her life to repairing the ailing forest, to planting trees and restoring soil, but this sight makes her so dizzy with despair that she wonders whether her efforts are in vain, whether it wasn’t “already too late when the first hominid rose up and stared at the world.” The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling. Proulx then ends her book with a series of nature images, absent the human, and finally of sea swells “lifting … toward the light.”

Numerous comments at an online reader’s site expressed an objection to the abstract character of this ending. They loved the book but found the last few paragraphs puzzling. To my mind, Proulx’s gesture was obvious. The polar ice experience that she gave her last character forced her, as Ginsberg was forced, back to first principles. To answer as deep a question as ever—and to answer it in the hopeful way that is called for–she takes recourse in the moon and the tides. If the move smacks just a bit of desperation, given the centuries-long parade of destruction that Proulx has led her readers through, it’s a desperation well-earned.

Still, there’s a formalist, maybe even a kneejerk quality to all this. What would happen if we simply refused to heed the obligation to hope? What if we took on the unpleasantness that would follow? When the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter series want to protect something valuable, they put some scary monster in front of it as a guard. What if the hopelessness we dare not for a moment entertain was one of those monsters protecting something of value to us now? After witnessing the melting polar ice, Proulx’s ecologist reaches out to a former lover for encouragement. He offers none, saying, “Some broken things can’t be fixed.” I have a feeling Proulx might have preferred to end here, or that maybe I misread her ending as hopeful. It reminds me of the ending of Manchester by the Sea when the character played by Casey Affleck admits to his failure to conquer his grief. How un-American! The movie was bracing; it was a bummer; it hurt. It does not bounce back; it “stays with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway has advised. This may be the sort of thing we need.

The Environmental Imagination in Six Songs

In his book, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh charges the modern novel as incapable of dealing with a problem the scale of climate change. But what about songs? An argument might be made that songs have surpassed long-form fiction or even movies as the West’s primary genre, which is to say, the form in which the cultural imaginary is developed and explored.

joniSongs, of course, are limited. They can handle some topics better than others. If you sat down to write a song about, say, a bad love experience, you would find yourself on very comfortable terrain. Writing a song about the effects of suburban landscape on the psyche might prove to be rockier ground. Songs are often crushed under the weight of self-importance, and ecological concerns are heavy topics, to be sure. You would certainly be on safe ground using the phrase “bad love” in a song about bad love; if you were writing about your ecological consciousness, you might want to avoid that term. In 1971, Marvin Gayle famously released a song about “the ecology,” but he didn’t use the word ecology or any form of the word in the song. In fact, he barely used the term in the title, tucking it inside parentheses, and gave the song its official and more palatable title, “Mercy Mercy Me.”

Limits are for stretching. Given that, and given that the song is perhaps our primary and certainly most democratic genre, what are some of the other songs that have expressed and developed our ecological imagination? Here are six that came to mind, three from the period of the emergence of what historians call modern environmentalism, three of a more recent vintage.

  1. “Dolphin’s Smile.” The Byrds, (January, 1968).

This song from The Notorious Byrd Brothers is not The Byrds’s finest hour. It’s a throwaway tune on a good but not historically significant record. I include it here because it addresses one of the several sub-contexts from which the ecological imagination would emerge: the dolphin mystique.

Formerly mysterious, only recently held in captivity, dolphins were perceived as beautiful, graceful, playful animals whose upturned grins made them appear to be continuously happy. Familiar during this period were news reports of dolphins who sought out human beings for special friendship or for aimless frolic or who rescued someone drowning at sea. John C. Lilly published popular books and articles about teaching dolphins to communicate; meanwhile, in the popular TV program Flipper, a dolphin was a loyal and intelligent friend. Karen Pryor, a pioneer in dolphin training at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, was one of the first to appreciate the appeal of dolphins to the public and to the numerous young people who volunteered at the park as aides and trainers. Dolphins were “floating hobbits,” she said, “like aliens from space” who had descended to earth and loved us. They were as smart as we were, or maybe even smarter, since they were not at war with each other and hadn’t manufactured any atomic bomb. How nice it would be to live like the dolphins! This is what “Dolphin’s Smile” asks us to do. The song celebrates dolphins as care-free, socially-evolved creatures whose smiles–tranquil, sunlit, “free from fear”–suggested a kind of non-stop high.

The less romantic chuckled. That wasn’t a smile on the dolphin’s face that was anthropomorphic projection onto the physiognomy of a foreign species. As for the media reports–what about all the instances when dolphins did not help humans in distress, when they may even have added to that distress, thus eliminating any source for a news story? Still, components of the ecological imagination are present in the dolphin mystique: the acknowledgement of a continuum between humans and other species, between culture and nature; the notion that animals are intelligent and might have something to teach us about living on the earth and with each other, something we very much need to learn.

  1. “Big Yellow Taxi.” Joni Mitchell, (April, 1970).

Mitchell famously missed Woodstock but then wrote the song about it. “Big Yellow Taxi,” which precedes the song “Woodstock” on the album, Ladies of the Canyon, is about the garden, too. It’s the common declensionist narrative: once we lived in paradise, but we lapsed and paved it over. There’s an implicit shout out to Rachel Carson in the verse about DDT, but what most marks this song, in terms of the emerging ecological imagination, is the sanguinity of its mood. The singer is fun-loving, playful, a little goofy. The songs ends with a laugh. Yes, human beings have a tendency to destroy the good that they have, but if the listener is tempted to feel bad about that, the song’s third verse undercuts the temptation. The taxi in question is the one that took the singer’s “old man” away. Presumably, Graham Nash had to go play a gig with his new singing group, and darn it, if she doesn’t miss him, too.

It wasn’t as if Mitchell was afraid of taking on serious topics—far from it. She wasn’t afraid to preach. “We’ve got to get back to the garden,” she sings in “Woodstock,” but neither in that song nor in “Big Yellow Taxi” is there the notion that we aren’t capable of regaining paradise in some form or another, or in any case, doing better than we’re doing now. Both “Dolphin’s Smile” and “Big Yellow Taxi” are lacking in the agony over environmental destruction that would mark many songs to come. Neither evoke the prospect of apocalypse; neither are the least bit resigned to some eventual collapse into dystopia. Whether they learn from dolphins, travelers along the road, or just good common sense, human beings are redeemable.

  1. “Out in the Country.” Three Dog Night, (August, 1970).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that two songs from this list, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Out in the Country,” were released in 1970, a seminal year in the history of American environmentalism. The first Earth Day was celebrated that year. It’s the year Nixon signed the bill that created the EPA. But again, given the times, the 5-month gap between the two releases is noteworthy. Every month marks a further deterioration in the hope associated with Sixties-era activism, every month an increase in disillusionment. “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang in a song released in December of 1970. He was singing in reference to a band he used to play in, but he might as well have been speaking of the era in general.


So note the difference in mood between “Out in the Country” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” The former is mournful, elegiac, a mood gorgeously stated in the keyboard figure that introduces the song. Paul Williams was one of the great pop songwriters of his time, and he captures the cultural moment with precision. The city is deteriorating; it’s polluted, full of smog; overcrowded, politically fraught. When the state of the city gets to be too much of a downer, the singer heads out to the country for some peace. Note, too, that a degree of resignation has set in. The singer is going to the country “before the breathing air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time.” There’s no question but that the air will become unbreathable and the sun will be blotted out by the smog or perhaps some nuclear winter. Some form of nature therapy has been a part of American thinking at least since the transcendentalists. But this near-hopeless resignation, this retreat to private solutions, mark a particular turn in the times. We once thought we might figure out a way to be like the dolphins. That seems like forever ago.

A few years later, the film Soylent Green would depict the city when there is no country left to retreat to. Rather, when life becomes unlivable, you can purchase a comfortable suicide. You’ll get a comfortable seat in an auditorium and be shown, during your last few moments, beautiful images of a nature that’s gone. The character played by Edward G. Robinson (in his last film) buys one such suicide, and his eyes fill with tears, remembering the way the world used to be. He might have been a small child back in 1970 when the Three Dog Night song came out. Now its chorus has proved true. The breathing air is gone, and the sun has just about disappeared behind a carbon blanket that retains the sun’s heat but renders it nigh invisible.

  1. “Dirty Harry.” Gorillaz, (2001).

A lot of time has passed since “Out in the Country” and Soylent Green. Resignation to environmental collapse has reached a degree of density and mannerism in the works of expressive culture. Dystopian visions have been detailed and refined. The Mad Max films (1979, 1981, 1985) have provided an enduring iconography: people living in the desert, the failure of infrastructure made visible. Nothing new is being made; nothing is being replaced; all innovation is innovation of scavenging, maintenance, and repair. In short, it’s a patched-together world of souped-up hard terrain vehicles and make-do weaponry. Generations have arisen who have no memory of the world before the collapse. Some of them have formed a band called Gorillaz. (Gorillaz is a virtual band consisting of animated figures who appear in videos online.) They are cute and cool purveyors of post-apocalyptic chic, with pug noses and bad teeth. Their eyes glow with the chemicals they’ve ingested, deliberately or otherwise. They make music together when they aren’t battling some enemy tribe. They’re damn good!

This is a step beyond resignation. Not knowing the old world, these kids don’t mourn it. Unaware of the old myths, they live the new ones. David Byrne hinted at the new skills necessary in “Life During Wartime.” Gorillaz have perfected these skills and then some. The singer in Byrne’s song didn’t have any records to play, but Gorillaz found some records and instruments in the ruins; they jerry-rigged some amps and a record player. This is the world we live in, the song says. It’s a world where the survivors are the ones who never falter in their vigilance. Because no one never falters, “we don’t have a chance.” It’s not a world where dancing makes sense anymore, and yet the singer can’t help it: “All I do is dance.” The younger sand urchins love it. They look on and learn. Resignation here is not privatist, as in “Out in the Country,” but social. The implication is: we are tough and flexible. We will find a way to survive.

  1. “The River in Reverse.” Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, (2006).

This is the title song from an underrated record about the politics of climate change. The song admits to a sobering truth: we don’t have to imagine Mad Max scenarios anymore. Those scenarios are coming true. They are coming true in the experience of weather events once deemed unprecedented and abnormal. They are occurring mostly and most regularly in a broad swath around the planet corresponding, more or less, to the equator. In this swath are clustered nations of the “undeveloped” world. The people of color who live in these nations have been suffering the consequences of empire for generations. The latest of these consequences now comes in the form of climate change. These people are the ones both least responsible for the carbon particles in the atmosphere and most victimized by their effects. Scholars and researchers call this the global south. If we were to look for something equivalent to this dynamic in the continental United States, we would immediately point to New Orleans and Katrina, which is the setting for Costello’s and Toussaint’s record.

An environmental historian recently described to me the basic situation as he perceives it. First, there is a way of thinking that favors modernization, control, growth, and development. This thinking represents all the components of industrial capitalism from its beginnings to the present day, an economic order based on the profligate exploitation of resources, both organic and non-organic, both human and non-human. Second, there is an alternative way of thinking that has been around just as long. This way counsels humility, austerity, and economic restraint. This way advocates for egalitarian social arrangements and respects the living world in all its forms. In an American context, this way follows Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Alice Hamilton, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and more. The problem is that this way of thinking is a tiny, weak rivulet in the cultural imaginary, and the other way of thinking is a pounding, gushing river. When Costello asks, “What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?,” this is the river he means.

  1. “Don’t Carry It All.” The Decembrists, (2011).

This is the opening song on the Decembrists’ biggest album, The King is Dead. Most of the chatter about this record was about the band streamlining their sound, about songwriter Colin Meloy turning his attention away from English folk music and turning instead to American roots. There was a lot of talk about how this record sounded like REM, about how it was as if Peter Buck had become, for this record, a virtual member of the band. I saw the whole record as one about the ecological imagination, and where it is today.

Much came together to give me this impression. The band is from Portland, Oregon, first of all. It was recorded it out in the country, and the cover features a line of evergreens, king is deadtypical of the Pacific Northwest. Behind this line of trees, the sky is yellow, suggesting a fundamentally altered climate. The record’s title and the band’s name appear in the middle of this sky in the shape of a dominating sun. Nature imagery dominates the songs; several of them seem to be exploring a near-future, after the existing economic orders have collapsed. The king is dead. The river has not reversed, but it has dried up completely, in both a literal and a metaphorical way. Big-hearted former Portlanders—real people, not animated–are finding new ways to live. Their politics have become radically decentralized, with all the tedium and challenge that brings. While certainly no paradise, it is a way of life in which people are less alienated, one might say, from the material world that sustains them.

Did I take my interpretation a bit far? Maybe–but not too far! Good songs are ones that can bear a plurality (but not an infinity) of interpretations. Listen to “Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water,” “This is Why We Fight.” Listen to the opening song, which to my mind, lays out this basic theme. Changes are occurring now, and bigger changes are coming. It feels overwhelming; it’s a lot to carry on a pair of shoulders. Yes, we are, each of us, responsible (and certainly Americans a lot more than others). At the same time, we are not–not any one of us–in control. Even if we could act collectively, that collective wouldn’t be in control. That reality is a lot to bear. But when the agony of ecological consciousness gets too heavy, don’t escape it in the direction of denial or resignation. Rather, carry it, keep carrying it, but don’t carry it all. The desperate desire to do some world saving can be a species of hubris all its own. Therefore, the song offers, if not hope, heart. I take from this song the same slim but substantial comfort that I take from Arne Naess’s reminder that, when it comes to environmental activism, “the front is long.” You can’t do everything. Do what you can.