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Cross-grain thinking, 3: ASP’s Report on Climate Security

[ by Charles Cameron -- as Dylan sang, a change in the weather is known to be extreme ]
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People sit at a flooded table in Piazza San Marco, Venice -- photo: Luigi Costantini / AP

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Right at the top of Part I of the recent three-part Report on Climate Security from the American Security Project, we read this paragraph:

Climate change is real: we see its impacts every day, around the world. A melting Arctic, unprecedented droughts across the world, extreme examples of flooding, and uncontrollable wildfires are all examples of the changing climate.

That’s right, that’s right and important, that’s right, important and timely.

But you know, at heart I’m a poet. And although I’m concerned about the issues the report addresses, I can’t help thinking of climate and weather, atmosphere and wind, in a manner that crisscrosses the “interior” vs “exterior” divide.

If you lean to the scientific more than the poetic, you might want to consider what I’m talking about as an instatiation of the insight Gregory Bateson expressed in the title of his seminal book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity.

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Let me lean to the poetry-side for a paragraph or so, then we’ll come back to security issues the report raises.

I probably caught this particular “weather and weather” disease from Dylan Thomas’ great and celebrated poem, A Process in the Weather of the Heart:

A process in the weather of the heart
Turns damp to dry; the golden shot
Storms in the freezing tomb.
A weather in the quarter of the veins
Turns night to day; blood in their suns
Lights up the living worm.

Writing about this poem in his Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas, William York Tindall notes “Thomas’ obsessive concern with the natural process that, linking man and world, inner and outer, turns upon the axis of life and death” and specifies that “applying ‘weather,’ a word for outer climate, to inner climate joins two worlds.”

Thomas is concerned in that extraordinary poem to join, likewise, life with death, night with day, womb with tomb, seeing eye with blind bone and more – or not so much to join them as to see them as inseparable, as parts of the single unfolding that is the world.

There is much more to the poem than the central obsessive theme of the “process in the weather of the heart” with which the poem opens and the “process in the weather of the world” with which it closes. It is their conjunction, their inseparability which interests me here – the poet’s perception that there is no inner without the outer, no outer without the inner – that in each there is weather, which Tyndall also calls climate, that weather is in both…

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Back to meteorology and national security..

Look, I’m not exactly an enemy of thinking about climate change and national — or global — security. I admire ASP for today’s piece by Catherine Foley, Climate Change: The Missing Link in Tackling the Mali Crisis. We need more considerations of that kind, they’re rare and extremely valuable.

Mecca is one of the hottest cities in the world, and the Kaaba the central pivot around which all Islam revolves — potentially a double hot-spot. What are the implications of climate change for the Saudis, for Mecca, for Islam?

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When I think about weather, I think about storms in the world, storms in the heart and mind, almost in the same breath. Specifically, when I think of global warming, I can’t help but see the problem as being one of double-awareness – rising temperatures and rising tempers, rising sea-levels and rising levels of anxiety and / or denial, the climate of meteorology and the climate of opinion…

Seen from my bifocal perspective, the report is notably focused on externals. Take another sentence from the brief bullet points on the first page;

The climate influences people’s everyday lives, from what they eat to where they live.

We eat food, food that can be weighed and measured, and analyzed for its nutrient elements and health properties. We live in cities, towns and villages, in houses, or developments, which can located on maps…

With my bifocals on, it would be more accurate, more encompassing to say:

The climate influences people’s everyday lives, from what they eat to how they feel, and from where they live to what they think and how they behave.

Because in my view, the situation is as much about “mind change” as it is “climate change” — in my view, the “fulcrum that can move the world” is to be found in the geography of mind and heart.

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Okay, let’s back up a bit.

The “first page” I quoted is the first page of the First Part of the Report, but there’s also an Introduction, and I want to pick up the thread there now, because the Introduction is written with human thought — specifically “honest dialogue” — in mind, and opens with what seems at first glance like one of those obvious truths that serve as the jumping off points for more detailed considerations:

The American Security Project is organized around the belief that honest, public discussion of national security requires open, non-biased, non-partisan discourse about the dangers and opportunities of the 21st Century.

There’s just one problem here, though — a single paragraph later, we read:

Climate change poses a clear and present danger to the United States

I’d give my assent happily enough to either of these two propositions, if they weren’t both talking about the same situation. Because when someone sees a “clear and present” hungry tiger coming at them and doesn’t take rapid action to avoid being eaten, it’s not “open” and “unbiased” — it’s “in denial”.

Which in turn means there’s a swathe of the population that may not be willing to hear “open, non-biased, non-partisan discourse” nor able to contribute to it. “I don’t believe my eyes, they’re deceiving me with all this hogwash about tigers”…

And those people have loved ones, bring foods to community pot-lucks, and teach class, and vote…

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Some time ago, I was working on a transposition of the Gospel narratives of Luke and John into the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with Britain playing the part of Rome and so forth, and adding some commentary along the way. Here’s a slightly revised version of my comment on John 3.8:

There is one particular word that John uses which has what we today might call a triple (rather than a double) meaning. When Christ in this verse says, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of Spirit,” it is the Greek word pneuma that can be translated both as wind and spirit. It also means breath.

Christ is saying here that those who are born of spirit are like the wind, like breath, and like inspiration: each of which can be noticed but not predicted, because each moves of its own accord — yet in the Greek these are not three separate concepts as they are for us today. As CS Lewis says in another context, we must always remember “that the various senses we take out of an ancient word by analysis existed in it as a unity.”

In telling us this, St John is saying at one and the same time that nobody knows where the first breath comes from or when the last breath will leave us, nobody knows how to forecast exactly which path a hurricane will take, and nobody knows how to make an assembly line for inspiration – if we did, Beethoven could have written another three symphonies as great as his Ninth to order, stat!

One of the reasons we don’t know how the heart and mind work is that we’ve separated “meteorological” weather from “the weather of the heart” — and there’s a storm brewing, inextricably, on both fronts.

If the ASP report is anything to judge by, we’re only looking at one of them.

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Oh, and here by way of confirmation is an old friend from my Oxford days, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, quoted in a piece for the November issue of Shambhala Sun:

No matter where we are in the world, there is a need for enlightened society, wherever natural disasters hit. In this case, “natural disaster” refers to aggression, passion, and ignorance. These kinds of natural disasters occur in the minds of people.

Trungpa’s sense of “natural disaster”, I humbly submit to the folks at the American Security Project, either needs to run like a woof through the warp of their report on climate change — which it doesn’t — or it deserves a fourth section of its own.

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