Saturday, December 22, 2012

The sense of an ending--a Carbon Based original

    It's December 22, the snow is falling, and I'm basking in relief that Mayan apocalypse fizzled.   A 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar ended yesterday -- December 21, 2012.  Some New Age thinkers claimed that this date heralded a major spiritual transformation, the beginning of a new era, or the end of the earth in a collision with a planet or a black hole.

    Historians of Mayan culture scoffed at these internet-stoked rumors and theories, doubting that any authentic sources supported such a gaudy Hollywood interpretation. Astronomers were derisive about talk of black holes or planetary collisions. 

    These party poopers didn't stop hundreds of credulous souls from flocking to Merida in the Yucatan, near the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, and to Tikal in Guatemala. The photos look festive.

    There were casualties. In Sergeyev Posad, a village near Moscow, police blamed a retiree's suicidal leap from her apartment window on her Mayan-based fears. And Chinese authorities arrested around 1,000 members of the Church of the Almighty God for spreading tales about the supposed end times.

    Not for the first time, a calendar served as a screen for some people to project their fears of mortality.  The projection plays into our hardwired narrative bias -- we love stories with a beginning, middle and end.  The Mayan curtain rings down with a bang, and the story's ridiculous falsity didn't make it any less satisfying.

    By coincidence, last night I went to the documentary Chasing Ice, director Jeff Orlowski's chronicle of one photographer's attempt to grapple with a single aspect of a real catastrophe.  It's also one that doesn't lend itself readily to a simple narrative.

    The project began in 2005: The National Geographic sent photographer James Balog to document the impacts of climate change in Iceland.  Dubious about climate change before this trip, he saw enough to change his mind and to give him a mission:  He founded the Extreme Ice Survey to systematically photograph the disappearance of a number of Arctic glaciers using an array of time-lapse cameras.  His goal was to provide visual evidence to the world of the reality of climate change. 

    He surely succeeds. We witness two large calving events, in which a large chunk of the glacier face breaks off and floats away.   In Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland, we see moulins with melt water coursing away, and time-lapse sequences showing vast ice fields dwindling and slipping away.

    Another satisfaction to Orlowski's documentary lies in the courage and persistence of Balog and his crew.  They wrangle their cameras into the best position for their shots, or deal with technical failures in the harsh polar landscape.   They even have to redesign and replace the timing mechanism for many dozens of cameras, which costs them months of work.

    Balog rightly describes the images the Survey has collected as beautiful and horrifying. Of course, the visual evidence probably resonates most with those who already believe in climate change. It's unclear whether it will convince any denialists.  A YouTube video showed one self-described Fox News viewer declaring that she now believed in global warming as she left a showing of Chasing Ice, shaken by what she saw. But it's unclear whether the change of heart has lasted, and whether many others will follow her.  Certainly the most recently polling data shows that a sizeable minority of Americans continue to believe that climate change is a fraud, or at worst an overhyped issue.

    Climate change believers who aren't scientists probably exceed the numbers of those who believed in the Mayan apocalypse. Even so, along with evolution and reproductive health, climatology has been plunged into the cauldron where conservatives boil the science they hate.

    We suffer from cultural insanity when a New Age trifle like the Mayan apocalypse can command hours of airtime, while the screaming emergency created by greenhouse gas emissions scarcely rates a fraction of the sustained focus that it needs. As Balog points out, as a result of our own greenhouse gas emissions, we are approaching the end of a relatively benign and hospitable period for human habitation.  The stormy, wet, unstable future we are creating will contain threats whose contours are just coming into view.

    With his narrow focus, Balog attempts to counter the tide of denial and the unshapely vastness of climate change as a whole.  A dying glacier has a definite end point, and our love of story is mobilized when watching its death throes.  Struggling with climate change will be the work of centuries, and it will probably take forms we don't anticipate. It won't be a story with a satisfying arc, or even an ending.

A Mayan zodiac circle, shot by theilr, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

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