Climate change: JKB's got the wrong dystopia (II)

Roger Mayes says Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road" is of greater relevance than Orwell's "1984"

Once again John Kane-Berman has produced an entertaining article around the subject of climate change. Once again it sidesteps a confrontation with the science involved, choosing rather to waffle around the imagined opinions of fictional characters created by twentieth century British writer, George Orwell.

In his latest piece Mr Kane-Berman imagines what characters in Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four might have made of the current issue of climate change. It does, as I say, make for an entertaining read, and could well be considered as a basis for a question in a matric paper on English literature. But I am not convinced that Mr Kane-Berman’s main purpose was to entertain.

I initially considered writing a similar piece imagining what the main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel “The Road” might have had to say. For those unfamiliar with McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, it envisages a future where just about everything has been destroyed other than mankind itself.

The cause of this apocalypse is never specified, but from the description of the devastation, environmental destruction is probably the prime suspect. The story describes in gruesome detail what the two main characters – “the man” and “the boy” – have to do in order to survive. If our current lockdown is making you feel depressed, then rather leave reading “The Road” until some other time.

But then I realised that treating climate change as some kind of exercise in literary make believe was, intentionally or otherwise, trivializing an issue of vital importance, and that joining in such an activity would be merely dancing to Mr Kane-Berman’s tune.

On re-reading Mr Kane-Berman’s article I was struck by the last few paragraphs. In them he mentions “periods of global warming and ice ages in days long gone by”, and speaks of events and circumstances of the time “before anyone started burning much fossil fuel”. Two things occurred to me.

Firstly, the earth’s climate is a hugely complex system, and there can be many influences which might cause it to settle in a particular state, or to undergo change. One of the very significant differences between our current situation and the “days long gone by” is that in those high and far off times there were no scientists monitoring and analysing the climate in minute detail in order to explain any changes taking place.

Today such scientists are spread across the world, and have at their disposal measuring equipment and analytical tools of truly astonishing precision and sophistication. And, unlike what Mr Kane-Berman would like to believe, their findings are all pointing in one direction.

Secondly, I find it interesting that Mr Kane-Berman accepts as established fact that the conditions extant in “days long gone by” are known in detail. Upon what does he base this belief? Presumably upon the conclusions which scientists have arrived at by examining the indirect evidence of the geological and fossil record. I find it strange indeed that Mr Kane-Berman is happy to accept these scientific conclusions as fact, but not the conclusions reached by contemporary scientists using direct observation of our current environment.

Cherry-picking ones examples from fictional literature is an entertaining and harmless pastime. Cherry-picking which scientific conclusions one wants to believe whilst ignoring others can only lead to muddled thinking and erroneous conclusions.