Track­ing the end of weather as we know it

Toronto Star - - OPINION - hmallick@thes­

“I’ve al­ways kind of hated films about cli­mate change,” says Naomi Klein as she be­gins nar­rat­ing This Chang

es Ev­ery­thing, Avi Lewis’s doc­u­men­tary on the grow­ing lo­cal push­back against cli­mate-chang­ing pol­lu­tion. “Is it re­ally pos­si­ble to be bored by the end of the world?”

No. Maybe. Here in the West, we’re fas­ci­nated by cli­mate’s most ob­vi­ous man­i­fes­ta­tion, which is weather. We talk about it, dress for it, de­sign our homes and transit (badly though) to suit it. Who knew the Weather Chan­nel, mocked at its birth, would be­come such a pres­ence in our lives?

If we’re bored by the end of the world — so much so that Klein and Lewis have to ginger us up about it — we were bored by the be­gin­ning too. At one time, hu­mans hardly no­ticed the sky was blue.

Weather­land, his­to­rian Alexan­dra Harris’s study of weather as viewed by English writ­ers and artists over the past 1,000 years, is be­ing pub­lished just as the com­ing end of weather as we know it is be­ing painted by Klein and Lewis. It’s an eerie co­in­ci­dence. When it comes to global warm­ing, T.S. Eliot is as usual the most dire of po­ets: “The end of all our ex­plor­ing/Will be to ar­rive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

Ac­cord­ing to Harris’s mag­is­te­rial book, the An­gloSax­ons knew two kinds of weather: a warm smoky in­doors (chim­neys not in­vented) and a frozen out­doors that they de­scribed to death. There was no sky, writes Harris. Stuck work­ing out­side with your feet frozen to the point of break­ing off, why would you look up?

In 11th-cen­tury cal­en­dars, no­body painted blue skies. They were sim­ply flat blocks left un­filled. The seren­ity I have felt while cross-coun­try skiing in Jan­uary on a clear day out West is a rel­a­tively re­cent emo­tion in hu­man history, cre­ated by com­fort, leisure and a feel­ing of se­cu­rity be­neath a big sky and a mapped hori­zon.

A few cen­turies ago, this would have been an im­pos­si­ble con­cept. Weather would have been “im­ma­te­rial,” as Harris says, not linked to things one could touch or un­der­stand. But now it’s in­her­ent. For in­stance, now we as­so­ciate clouds and minds, so much so that car­toon thought bub­bles are cloud-shaped and the Twit­ter logo is a bird in a blue sky.

Harris romps through cen­turies of busy hu­mans not notic­ing much be­yond mud. In the 14th cen­tury, Chaucer looked for­ward to spring with its pil­grim­ages and hu­man folly but didn’t men­tion rain, though it must have rained buck­ets. Shake­speare’s weather was gen­er­ally pretty foul be­cause thun­der is dra­mat­i­cally help­ful.

As Harris tells it, in the 1690s writ­ers got around to de­scrib­ing hail (“Ye Hail­stones near as big as Wal­nutts”) and we skip ahead to 1730 when the great poet James Thom­son fi­nally no­ticed “breezes.”

The um­brella was in­vented. Then came the Ro­man­tic po­ets and it was weather weather weather, and land­scape, in­vok­ing end­less feel­ing. Now we can’t shut up about it. Wide­spread va­ca­tion­ing is a new in­ven­tion that re­lies on good weather. Then came tan­ning. Then ended the tan.

Canada is a win­ter coun­try but Toronto sum­mers are be­com­ing un­bear­ably hot. Ex­treme weather is in.

Weather has ex­isted far longer than we hu­mans have. What pains me is how brief was the span of hu­man think­ing about it, from non-ex­is­tent to ap­pre­ci­a­tion and now to ap­pre­hen­sion. By mak­ing cap­i­tal­ism the en­emy of cli­mate, Klein says, we ru­ined ev­ery­thing. Klein spent six years study­ing what she calls “a 400year-old fan­tasy that we could make na­ture our ma­chine” and the dream failed.

In This Changes Ev­ery­thing, a mother in a grey Chi­nese city asks her tiny daugh­ter: “Have you ever seen a star in the sky?” “No,” says the child. “What about a blue sky?” “I’ve seen one that’s a lit­tle blue.” “What about clouds?” “No.” Harris says blue skies with real per­son­al­i­ties didn’t show up un­til 17th-cen­tury land­scape paint­ing. It took us un­der 400 years to go from notic­ing the blue to killing the blue. As she puts it, “un­less decisive ac­tion is taken very soon, the next gen­er­a­tion will see the last of the weather we know. We will have writ­ten our own end­ing to the history of life in a tem­per­ate cli­mate that has en­dured for about 11,500 years,” but which we never re­ally no­ticed till re­cently.

Lewis and Klein’s epi­taph is just as sad. We made na­ture our ma­chine, and then we broke the mech­a­nism for­ever.

Heather Mallick

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