Weather in Fiction, and Sometimes as Fiction

From an article in The New Yorker about weather in human culture going from symbolic to scientific to almost non-existent to, finally, a combination (or collision) of symbolic and scientific:

Our earliest stories about the weather concerned beginnings and endings. What emerged from the cold and darkness of the void will return to it; waters that receded at the origin of the world will rise at its end. It is easy, in grim climatological times, to be drawn to the far pole of these visions. Weather has long been a handmaiden of the apocalypse, and the end of the world is so often presaged or effected by extreme climate shifts—floods, fires, freezing cold—that eschatology sometimes seems like a particularly dark branch of meteorology. Today, it is, if anything, even more difficult to imagine an end of the world that is not driven by a change in the weather. We speak of a “nuclear winter,” of the firestorms and the radical temperature drop that would follow an asteroid strike, of global climate change nudging planetary temperatures out of the range of the habitable.

But apocalyptic stories are ultimately escapist fantasies, even if no one escapes. End-times narratives offer the terrible resolution of ultimate destruction. Partial destruction, displacement, hunger, want, weakness, loss, need—these are more difficult stories. That is all the more reason we should be glad writers are beginning to tell them: to help us imagine not dying this way but living this way. To weather something is, after all, to survive.

On the climate-change front, I think very few people understand the difference between climate and weather, and that using the latter to highlight changes in the former is ultimately unproductive, as I previously wrote here and here. The aforementioned article couldn’t be better timed; it comes, of course, in the midst of the COP21 United Nations summit on climate change—which we all know will solve nothing. There’s actually a button to “follow the conference day after day” on their site—which couldn’t be more aptly designated, since I assume (not going to be reading the site, thankyouverymuch) that the whole thing is something of a Kafka-esque nightmare. But back to the point: climate change is the weakest argument against the destructive force of industrial capitalism, because it’s incomprehensible on human scales, it’s difficult to prove (and what is provable isn’t entirely motivating), and it puts all the blame on the people who have the least to do with causing the problem. Meanwhile, there are more urgent crises, like oil spills and pipelines, earthquakes in Oklahoma, 90% of the large fish in the ocean being gone, etc.

Your Life Isn’t a Story

In 1944 a group of psychologists made an animation consisting of geometric shapes and showed it to people who overwhelmingly (and consistently, with corroboration) imbued it with all kinds of story-telling elements (protagonists and antagonists, plot, drama, suspense, etc.). You can watch the animation for yourself—and read an article about the study—here. Best line from the article: “There is no better illustration of the pitfalls of a good story than economics.”

Most people probably think of their own lives as stories (we even have “chapters”), perhaps in part because even the worst stories have coherence, while even the best stories have simplicity. Even defenders of religious texts point out that their great asset resides in their didactic and compelling stories. How else could a deity communicate?

I don’t think there’s much danger in assigning meaning to events in one’s life by fitting them into a narrative. In fact, absent an external, universal “truth,” making meaning for one’s self while on this one, primary, material earth is not only admirable but necessary. (Note that just because it’s necessary doesn’t exactly make it easy.) But the danger begins once someone places others in their story, and is then somehow able to make that story come true. This yarn-weaving writ large is how all grand political, industrial, and economic projects take shape—and all such projects demand the belief that at some level a human life (or millions of them) is expendable for the sake of the fulfillment of the story. Never mind non-human life or habitat, which is exchanged for even the basest, most insidious stories, in the tradition of Gilgamesh (the foundational text of agriculture/industry-based cultures) and including such hits as Manifest Destiny and the American Dream.

All the evidence I’ve seen and read suggests that our lives are not stories, and that time and free will are illusions anyway, so plot and action are kind of disqualified from the outset. (I would say “I’d love to be proven wrong on this,” but honestly it does not bother me.) That still leaves suspense, irony, and characters though, which is more than enough for a good scene or two.


“There are some problems that don’t have non-radical solutions.”  —or— “There is no non-radical outcome to climate change.”  – Naomi Klein, from her talk last night at the LBJ at The University of Texas, an update on a previous quote from Bob Jensen: “Some problems don’t have solutions.”