Sunday, November 08, 2015

Fulcrum of the Future Continued

A few more notes on Friday's news, of President Obama's decision to deny the Keystone pipeline passage through America, which I feel might be a major moment, a fulcrum of the future...

Activist organizations claimed credit for the decision with accustomed quickness, and only a few in my in-box took the opportunity to ask for money, though they couldn't resist asking for "your signature" so they could ask for money in the future.

But according to the New York Times, they might deserve some of that credit:

Both sides of the debate saw the Keystone rejection as a major symbolic step, a sign that the president was willing to risk angering a bipartisan majority of lawmakers in the pursuit of his environmental agenda. And both supporters and critics of Mr. Obama saw the surprisingly powerful influence of environmental activists in the decision.

“Once the grass-roots movement on the Keystone pipeline mobilized, it changed what it meant to the president,” said Douglas G. Brinkley, a historian at Rice University who writes about presidential environmental legacies. “It went from a routine infrastructure project to the symbol of an era.”

The announcement and its meaning had me thinking about two books.  One of them actually arrived in the mail on Friday--my copy of Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth.  It's a one volume version (with about a fifth of the pages edited out) of his Science in Washington trilogy, Forty Days of Rains, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting which is about a cast of characters-- including a President of the US-- as the climate crisis hits.

It's a domestic comedy (in the classic sense of comedy, ending with marriages), a political thriller, near-future science fiction, and much more.  But the climate crisis is the center of its world and environment.  

Published 2004 to 2007 about an unspecified near future, it is now a mixture of history, contemporary and science fiction (as the author says in the new introduction.)  Read today, it "predicts" events and situations similar to some that have already happened.  At least one of them is eerie: a "perfect storm" called Sandy that ravages the East Coast.

But what seemed most science fictional about it was positing a young President who is guided by science and sets America on a new course to not only addressing the causes and effects of the climate crisis, but to a better future.

That fictional President is not very much like Barack Obama.  But Obama's announcement on Friday was the first time I really felt this element of the fiction could be more than wishful fantasy.  Before, reading Sixty Days and Counting in particular was like watching The West Wing during the Bush years--it was an alternative reality.  Now, it seems a little closer to maybe coming true.

The other book I thought of when I heard President Obama say these words:

"And three weeks from now, I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris, where we’ve got to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can."

He's used a variation of that expression before: the one planet or the only planet we've got.  It reminded me of where I first heard that sentiment expressed that way, with plenty to back it up: as the title of the Paul Shepard Reader published by Sierra Books in 1996 as The Only World We've Got.

Paul Shepard remains the unsung hero of our environmental understanding, and any depth it has acquired in the past twenty years.  The breadth and depth of his work is astonishing still.  But from the beginning, as a pioneer of ecology in the 60s, he insisted on the vital importance of humanity and human institutions understanding that they exist in the context of the natural world, and the human heritage of many thousands of years embedded in that world, and formed by it, by relationships with animals and landscape that are embedded in the human being.

His work is echoed and amplified and built on in so many places, unacknowledged.  Even in Green Earth--in a very early chapter, in the ruminations of a scientist named Frank Vanderwal.  Though he is partly inspired by the primatologist Frans de Waal, one of the paragraphs of his ruminations about the persistent influences of human origins could have come directly from Paul Shepard.

Most of  Shepard's books are still in print, though ironically not this one (nor another of his best, The Sacred Paw.)  But he as well as Kim Stanley Robinson are among those who share in this moment, especially if it is seen someday as a kind of turning point, towards a better future for the only world we've got.

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