I sometimes look at a sunset and see so much pollution, but it makes the sunset look so much more beautiful.
As I write this, I’m riding on a bus from Montreal to Toronto, observing a sunset. It is deeply beautiful, with purples and yellows, and clouds lit up with bands of crimson. And yet, at the same time I feel uneasy – are not the colours of this sunset to some extent the product of man made pollution? A quick internet search reveals that to get deeply red sunsets, “you need aerosols”, and
In an atmosphere with no junk at anytime, you’ll never get a sunset that would make someone with normal color vision say, ‘Wow that’s red!'” says Craig Bohren, professor emeritus of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. “It is certainly true that the ‘pollution’ results in redder sunsets. (Scientific American)
So if we’re looking at a red sunset, we’re looking at the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. However, just because we know this, doesn’t mean all of a sudden sunsets will stop feeling beautiful. We might feel a tinge guilty about enjoying a sunset, but basically we will still appreciate the beauty.
Now think of another example. Imagine if you are standing on a rooftop in occupied Palestine, and looking out at lights in the distance. The lights are beautiful to you, and you say so out loud. Oops, those lights belong to the Israeli settlement next door, perhaps the settlement that stole land belonging to your friend’s village, or even your friend’s family. Imagine you are told a story of crimes carried out by people of that settlement against your friends village, or against his or her friends, or even against them.
What just happened? Your experience of beauty was interrupted in a jarring, unexpected manner. What at first you saw as pretty twinkly lights, you now see as signs of oppression. And not signs in the symbolic sense, but literal pieces of the infrastructure of occupation that dispossess the land’s native people and installs a foreign group as privileged and dominant status residents. Do those things appear beautiful any longer? Probably not, because your emotional reaction towards them is mediated by your solidarity with your friend. You feel resentment churning in your gut, you break your silence by exclaiming “fuck the occupation”, you imagine a new ideal of beauty for the foreground – one of a darkness under the moon punctuated by the lights of farm houses. You turn and take the stairs back down again, head buzzing with ideas of how to fight the occupation, how to delegitimize Israel’s ongoing colonial actions in the eyes of the citizens of empires who support them.
So what about those aerosols, why didn’t the same thing happen to your experience of sunsets when you found they were largely coloured by man made pollution? For starters, you don’t really understand what aerosols are (particles of liquids or solids suspended in a gas), what causes them (burning things, mostly), or, and most importantly, what their effects are (too broad to summarize, includes increasing cloud cover and increasing reflectivity of clouds, also can contribute to lung diseases in mammals). There is no simple story to tell about aerosols, no simple way to understand how to get rid of them, or even if we would want to get rid of them. Your aunt wasn’t murdered by aerosols, they didn’t steal your cousins car or put your best friend from kindergarten in jail. So why shouldn’t you find the sunset beautiful?
I’ll give a reason. Your tendency to have strong emotional reactions to morally abhorrent ills which harm you or your friends directly makes it very difficult to act on dangers which threaten us all. If people were highly motivated by the changes to the physical world which were the visible signs of manmade interference which threatens to upset precarious environmental balances, balances on which our habitat depends, then it wouldn’t be so impossible to act on climate change. Climate change is perhaps the purest example of the motivational gap between abstraction and narrative – climate change will harm far more people, and with equal or not worse intensity than the zionists, but because it isn’t possible to tell a compelling story about it, and because we can’t vilify climate change as an actor needing to comply to some moral standard, we focus instead most of our efforts elsewhere. I often explain the problem of liberal reformism with the phrase “no one dies on a barricade for incremental progress”, meaning people will struggle and sacrifice for redemptive stories, for dreams of the last revolution, but not (or at least not to the same degree) for incremental improvements to their well being.
I’m not saying any of this to put down people with commitments to Palestinian liberation. I feel able to write in this way about that national liberation struggle precisely because I am so committed to it myself, and by “committed” I mean not only arguing with people on the internet about it, but more importantly belonging to two anti-apartheid organizations, and making ongoing visits to Palestine to see my friends there and stay engaged with the ongoing and constantly transforming situation there.
Rather than put down the Palestinian struggle, rather than put down the role of narrative and solidarity in political engagement, I instead advocate the need for stories in all social justice struggles. The Palestinians are not too focusses on narrative, and they are absolutely not lacking in sober rationality. It’s the other way around – to confront climate change (and also aerosol pollution) we need a compelling narrative that explains what is going on in terms of winners and losers, criminals and martyrs, defeats and victories, and – and this is really important – any visual manifestation of climate change needs to fit into the story just like those lights on settlement houses.
Because man made threats to the stability of the environment, to the perdurance of our human habitat, is nothing other than a Nakba brewing all over the world. And the guilty are all those who fail to see it and make it seen.