Thursday, December 3, 2015

As the Seas Rise

Every marriage has its compromises, and one of ours has to do with so-called “disaster” movies. I am drawn to them and Joan (occasionally) endures them. She uses the unappealing expression “disaster porn” derogatorily to qualify this specific peculiarity in my set of otherwise urbane and sophisticated artistic tastes and I keep my peace. I recall the rabbi who married us pointing out when we met him before the wedding that compromise in the context of marriage doesn’t mean meeting each other halfway exactly, but rather requires that each party go a good three-quarters of the way towards the other’s position so as to create a huge swath of middle ground that can easily accommodate inexactitude in terms of just how far one is prepared really to give in to effect the compromise in question. It was good advice. I offer it to my own brides and grooms all the time. I recommend it highly to all my married readers. But why I am drawn to these generally terrible movies…that is the more interesting question to ponder.

Knowing, or at least sensing on some level, that this all has to do with my obsessive reading regarding the Shoah and its horrors, I suppose I like these movies because, oddly, they all have happy endings. In Armageddon (1998), an asteroid the size of Texas threatens to destroy all life on earth, but Bruce Willis—albeit at the cost of his own life—saves the day at the very last minute. In Deep Impact (1998), a comet plunges into the Atlantic and creates a kind of mega-tsunami that devastates life on the Atlantic coasts of North America, South America, Europe, and Africa…but a last-ditch effort to blow up a second comet—one that would finish all the first comet’s survivors—actually is successful and life on earth ends up going on after all. In Independence Day (1996), it’s a fleet of huge, hostile (very hostile!) alien warships that attack earth and threaten to destroy life as we know it, but Randy Quaid, also at the cost of his own life, saves the day by discovering how to destroy the aliens’ spaceships once and for all. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004), it’s the weather—a lot of weather!—that render most of Asia, Europe, and North America uninhabitable. New York turns into an arctic wasteland with a mean temperature daily of -98° F., but eventually the storms abate. Survivors are located. The President returns from his Mexican exile. The effort to rebuild commences. Life goes on.

I could go on too. Contagion (2011) was about deadly viruses only eventually neutralized.  Volcano (1997) was about a volcano that suddenly erupts in downtown Los Angeles and wreaks unimaginable havoc. I even liked Pompeii (2014), which at least spared us the expected treacly ending as all the principals end up engulfed in the pyroclastic flow. But at least the rest of the empire survives! When I force myself to think clearly, I suppose the Shoah connection isn’t all that hard to explain either. What student of Jewish history could not like movies featuring horrific forces that threaten to destroy life as it was known in some specific place (Earth, Pompeii, L.A., etc.), but that in the end are themselves always defeated. There are always survivors. Life always goes on. Indeed, as the credits role, life is always already going on. And it is that weird combination of terrifying and uplifting, of horrific and hopeful, of unspeakable and encouraging that seems to draw me to these movies both as a lover of exciting movies and as a student of Jewish history.

But no one had to pay to see this week’s disaster epic unfold: all anyone had to do was turn on the television or open a newspaper to peruse the reports from Paris—how quickly the phrase “reports from Paris” has come to mean something entirely different than it did two weeks ago!—as the various reports coming out of the Climate Change Conference being held in Le Bourget, a suburb of Paris, from last week through next week were disseminated through the world’s media.

The basic concept is simple. The world, acting in concert, need to find some way effectively to stem greenhouse gas emissions lest we experience—and not in the distant future either but in most of our lifetimes and certainly in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes—horrific things on a terrifying scale: extreme weather, worldwide drought, massive wildfires, disruption of the food supply, the spread of dangerous pathogens, and a rising sea that could eventually submerge many of the world’s greatest cities. To cut back these emissions to a level that the planet could manage to absorb without raising average temperatures would require a gargantuan amount of good will among nations that would be basically unparalleled in the annals of human history. That is unlikely enough, but the fact that the conference is being held under the auspices of the United Nations makes it feel even less likely that anything good will come of it. Nor is the history of efforts to address the problem on the scale necessary to make a difference at all encouraging. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was a promising start, but the United States never signed on (considering that it placed an unfair burden on developed nations and risked seriously harming the U.S. economy) and developing countries like China and India—among the world’s worst greenhouse gas offenders—weren’t included at all. The 2009 Copenhagen Conference devoted to the same issues on the table today led more or less nowhere. And yet, more than 150 nations have stepped up and offered to do at least some of what it’s going to take to save the world from itself. Presumably, more concessions will be wrung out of the willing participants before the conference ends a week from today. Altruism among nations being even rarer than altruism among individuals, it all feels like a huge long shot…and yet if enough nations truly come to believe that the fate of the planet really is hanging in the balance, perhaps the results will be at least enough to make some sort of meaningful difference. Don’t these movies always end up with the world being saved?

For me personally, it’s the image of the sea rising that makes the greatest impact. Perhaps it’s a biblical thing. The trope of the sea rising and the poet’s sense of himself about to drown only to be saved at the very last minute is, after all, a regular feature of biblical imagery. And the prayers that are triggered by the fear of drowning as the water rises are as heartfelt as they should be famous. When, for example, the ancient whose poem became our sixty-ninth psalm wrote “let the deep not swallow me / let the mouth of the pit not close over me / answer me, O Lord,” it’s hard for people who take the dangers of climate change seriously not to empathize, and deeply.  Or consider Jonah’s heartfelt prayer: “You flung me into the depths of the sea / so that its currents surround me / and its waves pass over me…/ I feel the water rising to take my life / the depths slowly encompass me / seaweed swirls around my head / I can see the mountains rising from the floor of the sea / the earth is sealed off from me….”  But Jonah, of course, was saved from death in what would otherwise have been his watery tomb. And, indeed, the story of only almost drowning is a feature of Israelite history written small and large: first Moses almost drowns and is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter unwittingly acting as God’s agent of salvation, and then the entire people Israel itself almost drowns and is only saved because God creates walls of water that enable them to cross the seabed to safety. And, of course, the great exception merely proves the rule—the death of all people in the world but eight in the days of Noah’s flood—by reminding us that the waters rose once and could conceivably rise again. At the end of the story, after all, God’s promise not personally to annihilate humankind again with a flood does not mean that humankind will not be able to accomplish that all by itself!

As always, there are naysayers who insist that the governments of the world are cooking the books to create an atmosphere of world-wide hysteria they will then exploit for their own ends. But, at least as far as I can see, an overwhelming number of scientists, including those do not see any evidence of a significant rise in sea levels in the course of the nineteen centuries that preceded the twentieth, believe that the sea level has been steadily rising since 1900 somewhere between .04 and .1 inches a year. And this phenomenon, they explain as being caused basically by two factors, both triggered by human activity: one-third of the increase is due to the sea itself expanding as it warms, while the other two-thirds has been caused by glaciers and other land-based ice formations (particularly in the Arctic and Greenland) melting. (For more details, click here to read a page of facts produced on the topic by the National Ocean Service. And it also bears noting that the sea ice surrounding Antarctica is growing, not shrinking…but click here to see NASA’s explanation of how that unexpected detail too fits into the larger picture of a warming planet.) Just to put things into even more vivid perspective, scientists have concluded that if just the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland alone were to melt completely, world sea levels would rise about 197 feet. Since about 634 million people live less than thirty feet above sea level, that’s a pretty terrifying statistic. All in all, the prospect of a rising sea is beyond terrifying, and not solely for the 44% of the world’s population that lives within ninety miles of the sea…and I say that not only as someone who lives on an island jutting out into the ocean, but as a member of the global community.

Will something meaningful come out of the Paris conference? It’s hard to say. The Pope is on board, having described a world-wide failure to produce profound change as an act of global suicide. So are more or less all the leaders of the free world. But there are plenty of nay-sayers. Some (although fewer and fewer) doubt the science. But others are opposed for other reasons entirely. In our country, for example, the House of Representatives just this week passed a pair of resolutions that would forbid the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing the rules announced earlier this year by the President to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The argument at home and abroad against committing to profound cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are the same ones levied against Kyoto: the developed world is being asked to shoulder an unfair part of the burden, and the responsibility of the governments of every nation, including our own, is to act on behalf of its citizenry…which means declining to take actions that will harm the national economy.  And yet, this really isn’t a movie. The waters really are rising. The nations of the Pacific Islands—places obscure to most of us like Tuvalu, Tonga, and Kiribati—are already contemplating the possibility of disappearing from the map entirely as the waters cover over their landmass and leave them to exist solely in the realm of history.  Whether the Kiribatians will, like Jonah, be saved in the end by being swallowed up by a giant fish seems, at best, unlikely. But disappear they surely will—or at least their country will—as the waters rise and the world, focused as always on the bottom line, dithers.  Or could the future unfold differently? The answer will be available to us all next week!

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