Tracking the end of weather as we know it
“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.