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20 March 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:38pm

The tragedy of climate change

To contend with the climate crisis, humanity must look to the dramas of ancient Greece.

By Jennifer Wallace

Tragedies on the stage take place over a limited period of time. The protagonist is presented with a dilemma. He (it is usually a he) makes a choice. Terrible consequences rapidly ensue. As soon as Macbeth kills King Duncan, he is damned – his drunken porter turns his castle into hell, and unnatural signs of turmoil, such as horses eating each other, follow that same night. So swift is the action in the Scottish play that Macbeth and his wife want to speed up time, doing the deed “quickly”, feeling the “future in the instant” or willing to “jump the life to come”. The play hurtles towards its conclusion as the prophecies of the three witches come to pass, with devastating neatness.

But the tragedy of environmental disaster unfolds along a much more extended timescale. The bleaching of the coral reefs, the shrinking of the Arctic polar ice, the extreme droughts and floods taking place worldwide, are symptoms and portents of decisions already taken whose full consequences have not yet been felt.

There is a time lag between carbon emissions and temperature rises: the one-degree increase in the global average temperature is a result of carbon emissions released 40 years ago, while the levels of carbon in the atmosphere right now – about 412 parts per million (ppm) and rising – are enough to cause two degrees of warming by the middle of the century. If we continue at the current rate of increase in emissions – 2 ppm each year – we will reach 471 ppm by 2050, which translates to about three degrees of temperature rise decades later.

This trajectory is also complicated by the so-called climate-change feedback loop. Once the Earth is warmed by more than 2˚C, the capacity of plants to absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis will be affected and they will start to puff the gas out instead of taking it in (the carbon feedback loop), causing temperatures to rise further. At between 3˚C and 4˚C, and the Arctic tundra will thaw and emit methane (the Siberian methane feedback), increasing temperatures further. This is known as “runaway climate change”, when the consequences of global warming become the causes of more warming. The planet becomes its own dirty polluter, and the linear progression of cause and effect is inverted, speeded up and stretched beyond the capacity of exact prediction.

The tragic narrative of climate change is much lengthier than tragic plots in the theatre, and stretches the connections between cause and consequence, transgression and punishment. It resembles Prometheus, nailed to his rock in Aeschylus’s play, knowing that centuries in the future his defiance will ensure the toppling of his enemy, Zeus. At first, Prometheus Bound appears to be about an unchanging situation, the implacable opposition between Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to man, and Zeus, chief of the immortals, who has chained his opponent to a rock in retaliation. Yet the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus is not static, nor is it fated to last forever; Prometheus can foresee change decades, centuries, even millennia ahead. He knows the secret cause of Zeus’s overthrow from prophetic signs he can detect in the here and now, but is reluctant to divulge it. So the immovable fate of Zeus and Prometheus turns out to be based upon Prometheus’s will, and upon the brinkmanship between the two.

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In the superhuman world of Aeschylus’s play, decisions taken in the present will have repercussions which continue to be felt centuries down the line. The Greeks believed that each generation of gods usurped the previous one. The result was a world that was unstable and subject to change, conquest and destruction. It was a question of distinguishing between two types of time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was the long-term passage of time, the “three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours” as the “crawling glaciers pierce with the spears/Of their moon-freezing crystals”, according to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820). Kairos, on the other hand, was the timely moment, the point of crisis, the event rather than the trend. Those climate-change deniers who deliberately confuse weather events (a sudden cold spell) with long-term climate change (a steady rise in global temperature year on year) would do well to think about this difference between kairos and chronos.

The US philosopher Stephen Gardiner wrote in 2011 that our lack of action to tackle climate change is dependent upon a “perfect storm” of ethical blindspots. We cannot see the direct connection between the past, present and future, or between individual behaviour and global consequences. Climate change is not our problem, we tell ourselves. It is for future generations to worry about. But if we view climate change not only as a scientific or even a philosophical challenge but also as a tragic narrative that can be read and interpreted in the same way as an Aeschylean or Shakespearean play, then we might think about time, fate and individual responsibility differently.    

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Tragic plots revolve around the moment when the hero makes the wrong choice, or what Aristotle calls the “hamartia”. Macbeth kills the king; Oedipus murders his father; Prometheus steals fire from the gods. Fate plays a part in determining these decisions but each man also has free will and voluntarily enters into his chosen course of action. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, written some time in the 5th century BC, Agamemnon willingly puts his head into the “yoke of necessity”, uniting free will and destiny. Prometheus revels in his free will and capacity for defiance. These tragic narratives forge the connections between the individual and the world, between the small choices we each make and the huge, inevitable consequences they unleash.

But what difference does it make to “read” the climate crisis as a tragedy? Just because we might think differently about fate and individual responsibility, will that mean that we will alter our behaviour? This is a question that has been posed throughout the centuries in tragic drama. “Pathei mathos” (“We learn through suffering”), the chorus sing, more in hope than expectation, in Oresteia. The purpose of tragedies might seem to be to teach us something but what that something is, and how they do it, is far from clear. It might even be that, paradoxically, what tragedies teach us that some things cannot be taught, that there is nothing to be learned. Does it help us to know that temperature rise is inevitable, given the fact that the carbon has already been emitted into the atmosphere?

Prometheus is adamant that knowledge is power. Nailed to his rock and visited by other characters, he is determined to show them their future too, even if in the short term the revelations cause them pain and anxiety. Getting a long-term perspective on the world and telling stories so that the past, present and future become connected in a continuous trajectory allows Prometheus to gain some form of control over events.

One effect of environmental catastrophe is that it prevents, or even concludes, theoretical thinking altogether. As the US environmentalist Bill McKibben has said, we have reached the end of nature. There is no natural world, no untouched wilderness, beyond human influence or control. It is to register this fact – that the globe itself has been transformed by human activity – that atmospheric scientists have coined a term for the new geological epoch in which we now find ourselves: the Anthropocene. Philosophical thought becomes difficult in this environment partly because of the lack of any external referent or measure. As philosophers might say, the objective has become subjective; there is nothing “outside the text” of human narrative. But theoretical thinking is also difficult for the more practical reason that human civilisation as we know it is threatened. The irony is that while nature is irrevocably shaped by human activity, the natural consequences in the form of sea-level rise, storms and droughts will overwhelm us. We have reached the end of nature, but nature will end us. The term Anthropocene has come to signify not only the impact of humans upon the Earth but also the extinction of civilisation, its culture, art and philosophy. How can we think ourselves out of life?

According to the writer and former soldier Roy Scranton, the solution lies in his 2015 book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. With the time lag of carbon emissions and temperature rise and the prospect of runaway climate change, we are already living a doomed existence. Humans as a species will die out. What we have to do is to meditate upon our death. “We can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear,” he writes. The effect is to treat existence as a tragedy to which we are stoically resigned.

Nevertheless, there exists an alternative way to think about climate crisis, contained within the tragic plot of Prometheus Bound. Aeschylus does not shy away from confronting the weakening power of human agency in the face of the vast inhuman forces of time, place and destiny. But still he stresses that fate depends on individual choices, decisions, deeds and consequences, and that each of us must continue to act and accept culpability. He leaves room in his dramatic vision of the world for contingency, for resistance and responsibility. Progress is dependent upon each character’s knowledge and acknowledgement of the vagaries of self-deception or engagement.

We are not “free” to detach ourselves, but rather remain vitally attached, through tragic witness, to those “crawling glaciers”, to those signs of the past, present and future and to our own capacity for action. 

Jennifer Wallace is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge, and the author of Tragedy Since 9/11: Reading a World Out of Joint (Bloomsbury, 2019)