The Outline: We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin
paleolithic man crouches in the bushes, waiting for something to catch his attention. The tiniest movement kick-starts the bloodlust, that hard-wired desire to just fucking get it. He flings a projectile in its direction, an arrow or a spear maybe — weapons that create just the right amount of distance between his own body and that of his prey. This is important. If his aim is true, if the animal drops lifelessly to the ground, he will have accomplished two things: one, dinner. Two, and perhaps more important, he will have won.
Human history, or so conventional wisdom goes, is a story of violent, merciless competition. We have come to embrace the idea that a succession of one thing defeating another literally is history, whether that’s between species, political leaders, or conflicting ideologies. In our inherited notion of human history, our caveman — and he is always a man — comes home from a hard day on the plains with a wildebeest or a deer slung over his shoulder. His adoring cavewife and cavekids tuck into the prize around the campfire, as the winner recounts the tale of his courage and heroism. Just as significant as the prize, that hard-won carcass of meat, is the story. The drama. Many stories, told in chronological order, are what we call history (perhaps why, in German, the word for story and history are identical: Geschichte.)
This muddle of history and heroism has given us theories of Great Men, and a truly incomprehensible number of World War II documentaries, and also goes some way to explaining our current and insufficient appraisal of climate change. Capitalism, or so wrote Marx back in 1844, supposedly alienates us from four different things: from ourselves, from each other, from the products of our labor, and from nature. We develop an adversarial relationship with each. “Nature”(a constructed, slippery category that shifts over time) can, or even must, be tamed: capricious rivers are diverted, genomes are edited, crude oil is transformed into fuel.
The unpredictability brought on by climate change should, in theory, disrupt this thinking. The catastrophic repercussions of human activity, like melting glaciers and collapsing ecosystems, tell us that “nature” was never really “mastered” after all. Yet the same story persists: humans will win. We must. We always win. Not long ago, I saw a poster in central London, presumably put there by some university department, that said something like “Don’t worry. We’re on it” — the ‘it’ being the solution to climate change. The sheer hubris of some of the techno-fixes being bandied about with varying levels of seriousness, like sending a mirror the size of Greenland into space or pumping clouds of sulphur dioxide into the air, border on the dystopian. Conferences may have replaced the campfire, but the principle is basically the same: it’s the story, the legend, that matters.