Words of the Year: Locavore and Klimakatastrophe

Photo by Ng Swan Ti

The Words of the Year.

The December issue of FEED, the journal of the Union of Concerned Scientists that’s devoted to ethically challenging aspects of food production and agriculture, noted that “locavore” — a person who seeks out locally produced foods, generally from within a hundred mile radius of his or her home — is the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year. Reuters has reported that The Society of the German Language has chosen “klimakatastrophe” as the word that it feels “has captured the spirit or dominated the headlines and public discussion of the year.”

In the science section of The New York Times Andrew Revkin wrote about scientists groping for potent new words to draw attention to climate change. He took up the story again in a post he titled “Are Words Worthless in The Climate Fight” on his Times blog, Dot.Earth. He writes about people being so overwhelmed by the immensity of the looming disasters that they’re stunned into inaction and denial. He quotes an e-mail he received from Tom Lowe, a researcher with the Centre for Risk and Community Safety in Melbourne, Australia:

“A common reaction to this stand-off is for risk communicators to shout louder, to try and shake some sense into people. This is what I see happening with the climate change message. The public are on the receiving end of an increasingly distraught alarm call. The methods used to grab attention are so striking that people are reaching a state of denial. This is partly because the problem is perceived as being so big that people feel unable to do anything about it, partly because the changes associated with impact reduction are unacceptable and/or unviable to many people and partly because this ‘overselling’ of climate change attracts strong criticism from a vocal and disproportionately publicized few.

“Meanwhile, the public holds the story of climate change in its mind in much the same way as folklore, fairy tales or historical events are retained in the memory. When asked about climate change (research has found), people describe an apocalypse, devastating scenes of flood, disease and drought in a far and distant land. Are they concerned? Hell yes! Is there anything they can do about it? Definitely. Are the going to do something about it? Maybe.

“It is this dislocation that concerns me; as long as the language of chaos continues, it seems the public are faced with a threat which looms so large that it is beyond our focus.”

Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc (1823) by Ingres. Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Enduring Value of Fine Details

Today Al Gore and the UNIPCC receive their Nobel Peace Prizes at an Awards Ceremony in Oslo. Gore then travels to Bali where world leaders are meeting in this week’s sessions of a United Nations hosted conference aimed at finding solutions to halting the damaging effects of climate change. He’s suggested the levying of taxes on CO2 emissions and the creation of a global emissions trading market. “The problem is CO2 is completely invisible to the economy. The economists call it an externality which means ‘forget about it’ and yet what we’re forgetting about is posing a great unprecedented threat to the future of our civilization. More money is allocated by markets in one hour than by all governments in the world in one year.”

He’s joined the San Francisco venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made early investments in Google and Amazon.com and Netscape, to become involved with their investments in clean tech and alternative energy. But he believes that the great gains are being made at a much smaller scale. Reuters reported yesterday that Gore “was optimistic that a growing “people-power” movement would push the world’s leaders to take action to stop global warming.The former U.S. vice president likened the campaign to the ban-the-bomb movement of past decades….Gore pointed to an international grassroots nuclear-freeze movement which helped push U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to sign arms controls deals in the late 1980s, and said the climate campaign was even broader.”

The telling of the people’s stories alongside the accounts of the glamorously urgent meetings and deals being struck between world leaders, and the chronicles of catastrophes is crucial. New Yorker correspondent Adam Gopnik wrote Paris to the Moon, an account of the last five years of the twentieth century as viewed from Paris, where he lived with his wife and their two small children. “Princesses died and prime ministers fell and intellectuals argued, gravely about genuinely grave questions, but I have left most of that writing out of this book,” he wrote. “…I looked for the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths passed by, I hope some significant small ones got caught. If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger.”

The lingering power of observations of everyday life is noted in a New York Times story on the re-opening of the galleries of 19th century European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The story starts with Ingres, and with one look at his portraits you understand the appeal of 19th-century art to modern eyes. This isn’t an art about kings and saints, salvation and damnation. It’s about ordinary comforts and secular exultations, and about people whom, even when they are different from us, we could imagine being.

Jacques-Louis Leblanc and his wife Françoise, seen in paired 1823 Ingres portraits, had aristocratic connections without being nobles themselves. They had money, at least some of it new. He is dressed in what could be a business suit. Her attire is more elaborate, but not excessively so. Neither handsome nor homely, they offer us confident but noncommital smiles. Their glamour is strictly haut-bourgeois, developed and earned, not a birthright. In an upscale but unglitzy Manhattan restaurant they would blend right in.

Holland Cotter. The New York Times. December 7, 2007.

Award Winning Environmental Journalist, Sarah Lewis

“I have become increasingly concerned about climate change and sustainability over the years,” says John Bristow, a selfemployed psychologist who lives on the Brighton and Hove border. “Particularly in the last five years, and it’s a kind of hell. It leads to despair. What can I do? There is such a sense of powerlessness.”

With ever-increasing references in the media to climate chaos, catastrophic tipping points and irreversible climate change, who can blame him?

The language of climate change is not just that of unusual weather patterns, it is a glimpse into the future, not 100 years from now but a much more immediate time when, worryingly, we might actually be here to see it. As the language we use becomes ever more doom-laden and panic stricken, so too our hopes begin to fade.

And it was from this feeling of powerlessness that John discovered the Transition Town project. “I thought, ‘my goodness, this is exactly what is needed,’” he says.

Transition Towns are a rapidly growing network of places – towns, cities, villages, even a forest in one instance – which have decided they cannot wait for governments to take action on peak oil – the moment oil production peaks and goes into irreversible decline – or climate change, but nor can people do it alone.

The idea is that through workshops, meetings and education, the whole community can be gathered together to work towards a gradual reduction in fossil fuel dependence, based on a 12-step programme developed by permaculture and sustainability teacher Rob Hopkins.

Sarah Lewis. “What Future Brighton?” Rocks Magazine. August 13, 2007

Sarah Lewis won the EDF Energy London and South Environmental Journalist of the Year award. She writes the Going Green column for the Argus in Brighton and Hove in the UK and publishes her own magazine, Rocks, in both print and online formats. She writes about life itself, with a wry comic sensibility and a great eye for detail. Some of those details happen to be ‘green’. Much environmental writing in newspapers and magazines is self-consciously and self-referentially ‘green’, as if greenness were the main subject rather than life. There may be occasionally cuteness but little fully developed joy and wit in this writing. Sarah Lewis writes, in traditional newspaper columns and a quirky local magazine, fully-developed social portraits where ‘greenness’ is just another aspect of life, in proportion with life itself.

She catches the significantly small truths that Adam Gopnik writes about, that are more likely to linger than the sensational headlines. And she anchors her subjects in their world so that a vivid picture of the community of Brighton and Hove begins to form as you read the stories. The broad spectrum of life is included. In a recent column for the Argus she touches on the thorny issue of popluation growth. “The current global population of 6.6 billion people is predicted to rocket to a staggering 9.7 billion in the next 40 years, putting an unprecedented stress on our natural resources. Yet while we are all busy changing our light bulbs and campaigning to ban plastic bags, there is a conspicuous silence hanging around the topic of sustainable family planning.” Rocks magazine profiles a famous local drag queen, a spiritual ‘university’ that includes courses for men to help them get in touch with their inner eco-ist, and the problem of accumulating rubbish.