Words that Matter

Imagining Climate (and) Change

 

By Gisela Heffes

 

the borax

 

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Those of us with little children often read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to them at bedtime. The story points toward the past, because the Lorax is a ruin, with only residues remaining of something that once existed. The narrator character, Once-ler, tells the story of why the Lorax “was lifted away from a land where once upon a timethe grass was still green/and the pond was still wet/and the clouds were still clean/and the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space…” On arriving to this glorious place, the first thing Once-ler saw werethe Truffula Trees,” the “bright-colored tufts of the Truffula Trees. Motivated by greed and the relentless desire to get rich, Once-ler chopped down tree after tree to take off their tops to make Thneeds, despite the warnings of Lorax, a small orange figure whospeaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” The rest of the story is well known: the trees are chopped down until they are gone; the “Brown Bar-ba-loots leave because there's no fruit to eat; the swans can't sing because their throats have been contaminated by smog; the fish can't swim in the lake and the sky turns gray from the pollution of the factories. The bright and colored space populated by Truffula Trees is transformed into a somber and inanimate wasteland. Fortunately, the story ends by telling us about a surviving seed. Perhaps one day the forest will return and, with it, all its living friends.

 

After reading the story again and again to my daughter Sarah and my son Nathaniel, I realized that this is not exactly a book children enjoy. On the contrary, it is a story that fills them with anxiety and uncertainty. Perhaps, if more of a distance existed between the imaginary circumstances of the story and the very real present day, children might perceive this tale as a true fiction, something dystopicalthough also open to a possible utopia—a story produced from the author's imagination, emphasizing the unlessof the story's ending.

 

Just like Once-ler, the Portuguese historian Pero de Magalhães Gandavo was dazzled by a landscapethis time in Brazil. In 1576, he wrote about his visit:This land is the best of all for the life of man: the air is exceptionally healthful, and the soil is extremely fertile; all that is before you is delightful and pleasing to the human eye to a great degree” (1995). A similar impression has been attributed to Alexander von Humboldt, when, in 1804, he referred to the Anáhuac Valley and Mexico City with the well-known phrase: “Traveler: you have reached the region where the air is clearest.” In 1917, Alfonso Reyes used this phrase as an epigraph for his book Visión de Anáhuac (1519), and in 1958, Carlos Fuentes titled his first novel La región más transparente (Where the Air Is Clear): “Fall with me on our moon-scar city, city scratched by sewers, crystal city of vapor and alkali frost, city witness to all we forget, city of carnivorous walls, city of motionless pain, city of immense brevities, city of fixed sun, ashing city of slow fire, city to its neck in water, city of merry lethargy, city of twisted stinks, city rigid between air and worms, city ancient in light, old city cradled among birds of omen, city new upon sculptured dust, city in the true image of gigantic heaven, city of dark varnish and cut stone, city beneath glistening mud, city of entrails and tendons, city of the violated outrage, city of resigned market plazas, city of anxious failures, city tempested by domes, city woven by amnesias, bitch city, hungry city, sumptuous villa, leper city. Here we bide. And what are we going to do about it? Where the air is clear” (1995, 4-5). Without a doubt, the metamorphosis that this space has suffered cannot just be attributed to the changing modes of thinking and conceiving the relationship between man and the natural world, but also to the mechanisms and devices for the continual exploitation and destruction of the environment.

 

When Homero Aridjis, also a Mexican author, published his novel ¿En quien piensas cuando haces el amor? in 1995, he revisited this same trope in order to put forth, in the words of one of his characters, the following itinerary: Before returning home, wander along Gladiolas Street. There is a hill there from which one can observe the twilight over the Anáhuac Valley, a twilight made up of confused lights, dirty colors, dripping shadows and stinking odors” (34). This description demonstrates how, with the passage of time, the reference to a particular space can serve simultaneously as a symbol of environmental decomposition. We could elaborate a geneology for this one point in space and focus on its amplifications and repercussionsrather like a kaleidoscopealthough, unlike the kaleidoscope, where you once saw green, you now see brown, where you once saw forests, you now see concrete, and where you once witnessed a sustainable demographic population, you now see a demographic explosion that can hardly be sustained.

 

In Latin America, an enormous and varied quantity of literary and artistic works register the fragility of our ecosystems. This breakdown is happening everywhere, as global warming and climate change do not distinguish between rural or urban spaces nor among races, ethnic groups or social classes, although it's important to point out that the rich can more easily resist the impact of climate change; they live in communities less pronebut not immuneto disaster (as the recent mudslides in California illustrated). In general, the rich live along tree-lined streets in areas high enough to avoid flooding and in neighborhoods far from the contamination of factories and industrial waste.

 

While we lose species at a dizzying speed; while we deforest our woods, make deserts out of our fertile earth, dynamite our mountains to look for precious minerals; while we suffer from extreme drought, fires, heavy rainfall and floods, and severe snowstorms, literature takes stock of these changes and transforms them into aesthetic objects to propose ethical approaches in explicit or implicit ways. Literature in Latin America has become a sounding board for a problem that has pursued us from the very arrival of the Europeans. Namely, this very land of abundance that Magalhães Gandavo described so well is, at the same time, a land of gold: “… there is much gold in those regions, according to the signs and samples which they found, and if people properly prepared should return thither with all necessary equipment, taking with them experts in this line, they would discover in that land great mines” (182).

 

The natural world of the Americas, that is, the cornucopia of the “New World,is catalogued and measured, studied, examined, and analyzed in terms of its potential for exploiting its resources: the gold to get rich, the pure air to get well and live fully, the fertile earth to work and cultivate, and the natural beauty to please the eyes and senses. The promise for the future, however, is based on the negation of that other world, as another historian, in this case, Shawn William Miller, has formulated:the so-called ‘New World,’ once removed from the perspective of Columbus’ astonishing landfall, is seen more accurately as just another old world” (An Environmental History of Latin America, 2007, 8-9). This promise for the future, however, is supported by a vision that denies that other old world in order to establish a model that erases the previous one, creating the groundwork for the construction of a system based on its own economic, social and cultural necessities.

 

Literature registers our stories. It moves along the concept of Vor-Sheinoranticipatory illumination, as German philosopher Ernst Bloch suggested (The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, 1988). For Bloch, literature and art contain anticipatory illuminationabout what has not yet happened, and thus writers and artists allow the latent and potential materials that surround them to assume their own form. How then does literature think about the future of the species? How can it conceive a temporality under siege by imaginaries that dispute about the final prognostication or outcome in regards to the small planet we live in? While the present is opening itself more and more to speculation, Latin American literature and art have already been reporting for centuries the slow looting that has decimated human and non-human populations, species, forests, rivers and mountains. From Simón Bolívar's warning in 1829 about the exploitation of the forests, in which he declared that we are experiencing excessive harvesting of wood, dyes, quinine, and other substances, especially in the forests belonging to the state, with disastrous consequences” to the appearance, more than a century and a half later, of José Emilio Pacheco's book of poems Álbum de zoología (1985), these foreshadowings have existed. The poems not only point out the disastrous consequences of climate change in his country, but also denounce the exploitation of animals and the extinction of various species in the name of a devastating progress. His poem “Ballenas” [“Whales”] tells us of the disappearance of this marine mammal: “Suena en la noche triste / de las profundidades / su elegía y despedida / porque el mar / fue despoblado de ballenas” (1993, 24) (Through the sad night of the deep / resounds / their elegy and farewell / because the sea / has been dispossessed of its whales (25) And continues, towards the end, “… todo el mar se vuelve / un mar de sangre / mientras las llevan al destazadero / para hacerlas lipstic / jabón aceite / alimento de perros” (26) “…And all the sea becomes / a sea of blood / as they are towed to the factory ship / to make lipstick / soap oil / and dog food (27) (translation by Margaret Sayers Peden). The poem seems to be asking; in the name of what are we emptying ourselves? How can we define ourselves as humanity? Hasn't it become necessary to reevaluate the project of modernity? And, finally, what is progress?

 

Like Pacheco, the Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda also narrates the massacre and extinction of the marine mammals on the other end of the continent, in the extreme south. Mundo del fin del mundo (1989), one of his best-known novels, refers to this catastrophe or "ecological disaster" in the "Gulf of Sorrows," where every spring people used to watch "the mating of the pilot whales (100-1). This magnificent spectacle, nevertheless, has ended because of the "boat factories" that sweep up the ocean, turning it into "a dark cauldron of dead waters” (101-2). The discourse of abundance and cornucopia is posed against that of scarcity and shortages. The earlier spectacle has become invalid because it does not correspond to reality.

 

However, not all the narratives opt for elegy. During the 19th century andwith some exceptionsuntil the 1950s, Latin American literature has incorporated the role of climate as protagonist, although not necessarily as climate change caused by humans. From Argentine writer Domingo F. Sarmiento's novel Facundo in 1845 to María (1867) by Colombias Jorge Isaacs, Os Sertões (1902), by Brazilian Euclides da Cunha, La vorágine by Eustasio Rivera (1924), Don Segundo Sombra (1926) by Ricardo Güiraldes and Doña Bárbara (1929) by Rómulo Gallegos, among many others, all feature a ubiquitous and constant role of climate and narrate how its varied characteristics influence not only the personalities of the novels characters, but also the cultural and economic aspects of reality depicted in these tales. More recent climate change, however, consists of the acceleration of these effects, because it is a problem of scale: both in terms of size and frequency.

 

If literature captures processes in the makingin statu nascendi—it also moves them forward, playing a role in their formation that goes beyond mere representations. According to Antonia Mehnert, the author of Climate Change Fictions, culture texts not only create a narrative but also mediate and shape our own reality (3). Climate change is a phenomenon without precedent, hard to pin down and to grasp, whether because it is a slow violence, as Princetons Rob Nixon defines it, or whether because it is an entity of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions—a hyperobject—that it becomes inconceivable, as Rice Universitys Tim Morton theorizes. Literature, cultural texts and art examine the social and ethical implications of this unprecedented crisis, but also propose concrete interventions in the current debate about environmental policies, tackling the material risks faced by society as a whole and seeking to mold our conceptions about these changes. In short, imagine climate (and) change. Because it is in the imagination that one also finds the key to innovate, communicate, visualize and transform: the last seed, as it were, of Dr. Seuss' Truffula Trees. And at the end of the day it will all depend on the “unless” that is waiting for us at The Loraxs conclusion.

 

Gisela Heffes is a fiction writer and an Associate Professor of Latin American Literature and Culture at Rice University.