Media Memory and Climate Change

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being Green’: Climate Change and the Art of Memory

Sebastian Groes

Proleptic Mourning: an introduction to the art of climate change

The topics of the first two ‘Memory Network @ Cheltenham Events’ proved a tad depressing. The first event explored the ineradicable digital traces we leave behind after we die, and the second discussed our increasingly chaotic, uncontrollable world in which memory is less and less useful in predicting our way out of our twenty-first century mess. The third proved no more cheerful. ‘Climate Change and the Art of Memory’ started from the assumption that  climate change threatens humankind with extinction. Unforeseen and large-scale ecological phenomena and changes have been, and are, manifesting themselves  with increasing ferocity. Although some of us will (for now) feel the impact more than others – one might think for instance of those populations who live in Hurricane Valley in the United States or the Philippines – climate change is likely to affect us all.

Connecting climate change to memory is perhaps a counter-intuitive starting point: climate change is all about future catastrophe. But questions about memory proliferate as soon as you start to think about climate change:

What does it mean to live with a shrinking future and an expanding memory?

Why doesn’t the knowledge we are choking the earth not make us remember to behave more sensibly?

Why don’t our imagined memories of stable weather in our youth propel us to reclaim that sense of stability?

Memory Network-member Professor Claire Colebrook (PennState, USA) also pointed to the idea of the Anthropocene (invented by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, in 2002), which suggest there will be a time when mankind has ceased to exist and there will be a distinct geological strata of detritus that mankind has left behind. Works of art have been speculating about the end of the world. Recent  examples in film include Lars von Trier in Melancholia (2011) and other Hollywood (post-)apocalyptic disaster films (including Will Smith’s I Am Legend [Francis Lawrence, 2007] and more recently Matt Damon’s Elysium [Neill Blomkamp, 2013]) The theme is also the subject of  novels such as Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Maggie Gee’s The Flood (2004) and The Ice People (1999), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s triptych Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). All these apocalyptic works generate a form of ‘proleptic mourning’, whereby we already lament our fate and grieve for ourselves as if we were dead already. We project ourselves into an imagined vantage point in the future and look back on the world of humans and the moment of our demise. We become an imagined future memory.

The complexity of this idea is drawn from a rethinking of time and memory over the past two centuries. Before Darwin, memory was driven by two intertwined versions: one was individual, embodied time, which was itself encapsulated by a second, wider framework provided by Biblical time-scales. Both were deeply anthropocentric. At the end of the eighteenth century, mathematical experiments and climatological simulation began to slowly displace this human time, and Darwin’s revolution completed a non- anthropocentric thinking in which climatological time reduced the centrality of humans. Not only time, but memory as well has, as a consequence, been rethought: much more central now are climatological and geological memory, and perhaps cosmic memory, which dwarfs individual, embodied memory part of individualistic anthropocentric thinking. One of the problems for us humans is that we lack the imagination to actually comprehend such vast temporal scales. Will there ever be a climate change novel or film which, through setting alight our imagination and memory, is a pivotal, decisive influence on global public opinion? The question is fraught with a multiplicity of complex problems.

‘Weather Weirding’: winter should be winters, summers should be summers

Summer Image

Winter Image

The Memory Network invited one of the key climate change scientists, Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change and Culture at King’s College London, formerly of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia to their Cheltenham Festival event. Hulme started off by quoting from one of the first climate change reports, from the 1930s, which contained a lot of subjective, anecdotal evidence by elderly people, who always claim that ‘When I was younger ‘the summers were sunnier’ and ‘the winters were colder’, et cetera’. Hulme noted that interpreting the truthfulness of such claims is not always easy; human memories of past weather are often selective and malleable. But, the point is that those sentiments demonstrate the intimate relationship between climate, weather and humans: ‘We absorb the experience of the atmosphere into our own lives and memories. It’s as though the weather provides these structures, these bookends, around which then we navigate, safely, for the rest of our lives. In our imagination, this is how weather should perform. Winter should be winters, summers should be summers. They provide an envelope of stability, of normalcy. Weather acts as a subliminal comfort.’ This is why the idea climate change is so disturbing to us: it unsettles the subliminal structure of comfort. In the popular discourse this is called ‘Weather Weirding’, in which seasons are knocked out of their ‘proper’ sequence; the weather is much more unpredictable than it used to be. Thus climate change is destabilizing the anchors that have come to us via our personal memories. ‘We feel that we cannot make sense of our lives if the weather is all weird.’ Hulme finished his musings with a provocative question: ‘If humans are indeed operating on a scale on this planet that is changing the climate, then are we not able to embrace the novelty that is ensuing and will ensue?’ Rather than fearing the instability that our changing ecology presents, isn’t it also a source of new possibility and imaginative opportunity?

This was the cue for one of the writers thinking about climate change in her fiction to present her thoughts: Maggie Gee. Her The Ice People centres not on global warming but instead imagines a freeze.  The novel projects current social constellations and problems into future, showing how the current global power bias in which the white north-west ruled over the poor dark-skinned southeast might actually be reversed by climate change. As the north has become too cold to survive, whites are seeking refuge in the gentle, moderate climate of Africa. The power of Gee’s novel comes not from making ironic pronouncements about geopolitical injustices, however, but it demonstrates the climatological impact on the life of one single man, Saul. It reminds us of what makes human life human: emotions, love, desire, friendship and a duty of care towards fellow (wo)man.

Gletsch Glacier 1900

Gletsch Glacier 2008

Gee stressed that thinking and writing about climate change starts from a personal experience. Writing about the natural world came about very subtly, by growing up in the country side in Dorset, Worcestershire, and Sussex with parents who were fanatical walkers, had no car, and took the young Maggie camping: ‘I remember the glacier at Gletsch, in the Vallée Canton in Switzerland, where we went camping. I was eleven years old when we walked up to Gletsch – a monumental presence – and we clambered onto the boulders at the edge and looked into some of the cracks in the ice: you had dust of a brilliant turquoise colour. It is something I can never, never forget. Now, Gletsch has retreated and is less of that unforgettable presence it was to us.’

Gee noted that, for her, art is memory, a record of human consciousness. ‘My view is that all living things on the planet have their own form of consciousness. But, as far as we know, we’re the only species who record that consciousness. Artists keep a record. From Anglo Saxon riddles and Chaucer to William Blake and Ted Hughes, there is a shining record of how nature in these islands has filled people’s lives with joy and wonder and horror. Shakespeare’s imagery is so vital and so various because he lived among a great wealth of plants and animals and birds.’ Does she feel, then, that artists have a duty to defend the earth and its wonderful array of research and species? For Gee, writing about climate change is not an obligation for writers per se: ‘As soon as you say ‘write about climate change’ it turns into an ought, and novelists and poets don’t want to write about oughts. They want to write about things that move them, and things that are integral to their lives. And that’s why I’ve told you my life story: that’s where this love of, and this desire to observe to, nature comes from.’

The Future Perfect Subjunctive: the Eremozoic Age and Time of Climate Change

Dry Soil Climate changeMelting Ice Climate change

Ecocritic and English Literature Lecturer Greg Garrard continued to speak passionately  about a problem in the current debate about climate change: ‘Climate change has suffered from ‘scientification’: a vast series of complex problems has been reduced to just the scientific questions, and our consciousness has been organized around the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] process, and whether this will lead to a multilaterally negotiated climate agreement. We’ve lost track of the idea that climate change is caused by more than just greenhouse gasses and that its effect will be felt in more than just the global mean temperature, the index of climate sensitivity.’ Our task, according to Garrard, was to talk about how we can broaden climate change from this narrow scientific basis, as well as move away from ‘humancentredness’, which assumes only the fate of human being matters.

Garrard picked up on the idea of ‘proleptic mourning’ and used the film The Age of Stupid (Fanny Armstrong, 2009), to speak about the numerous intellectual contradictions climate change puts to us. The Age of Stupid is set fifty years into the future and looks back on our contemporary world. Garrard: ‘If climate change had a grammatical tense, it would be the future perfect subjective. We’re being asked to look forward in order to look back upon ourselves today with a sense of shame andembarrassment that we didn’t act sooner and more dramatically. This is a mode we see a lot in apocalyptic fictions.’ Garrard went into detail by looking at the ambiguous representation of the child in these fictional responses: ‘When we talk in political terms, children represent the future. Children stand for the future; we want to save the planet for our children. But when it comes to climate change, children have an uncomfortable aspect. Human population growth is one of the biggest contributors to growth in greenhouse gasses, so, on the one hand, we invest our political hopes in children, but it actually might be better to not have any children at all.’ This traditional metaphor has therefore become obsolete, dangerous and should be reconsidered.

Garrard also unpicked the idea of the Anthropocene, and moved on to an idea of biologist E. O. Wilson, who talks about the history of the planet not in geological, but in zoological ages. According to Wilson, the Eremozoic Age will begin at the end of the twenty-first century when extinction rates approach those of earlier spasms and catastrophes. Wilson draws attention to the fact that humans are causing a loss of biodiversity. This sharpen the human condition: ‘There’s a poetic justice about mankind’s arrogance. The future will be lonelier. The Eremozoic is the age of loneliness. And we realize a new irony: although the Anthropone and the Eremozoic place humans at the centre of the world, we cannot be under any illusion that we’re in control of the processes that we’re causing. As the philosopher John Gray has suggested, our technological progress and our moral progress never really keep pace because technological progress is cumulative whereas every generation needs to learn morality all over again – we don’t inherit morality.’

Garrard again meditated on the temporal complexities of climate change in relationship to the limitedness of the human imagination. ‘A gas like methane is recycled by the atmosphere in a decade. CO2 lasts about 150 years.  But CFCs could last in the atmosphere for three or four thousand years. One the one hand, we have this incredibly compressed time-scale of our ordinary daily lives and, on the other one, we have this incredibly distended one, which none of us are equipped to imagine.’ Climate change is asking too much of our imagination, unless we have the right kind of artistry to create works that somehow manage bridge this divide and also have a major impact on the popular imagination.

Riffing on Milan Kundera’s postmodern masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Garrard ended with a paradox he calls ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being Green’: ‘The more human beings there are, the more cumulatively our effect as a species becomes. When you think of the numbers – 7 billion, 9 billion, 12 billion – the mass of it! There’s this terrifying weight of human numbers, and the apocalypse feels unavoidable. But then there’s another side to it: the more of us there are, the less I, as an individual, matter. Milan Kundera thinks about this in relationship to Beethoven, who felt the weight of human existence; it became his burden. Kundera says that our problem today is not weight but lightness, and insubstantiality. We’re not sure we matter. Climate change is unbearably light: we know that as a species our impact is enormous, but precisely because it’s based on the exponential increase in our numbers, it also dilutes our agency to the point where it’s supposed to matter whether I switch the lights on or off. That is the most dislocating effect of climates change; it’s the contradiction of scales.’

Exchanges Memory and Climate Change

The Anthropocene and the Archive

Claire Colebrook (Pennsylvania State University, USA)


In the light of potentially cataclysmic events attributable to climate change, what does the idea that human species may become extinct in the near future mean? And what are the effects on human memory?

It is a commonplace in the humanities to acknowledge that the emergence of geological time in the nineteenth century had profound effects on literary form, and the sense of the deep time of the human and inhuman past.  Perhaps this shift is most notable in the framing and range of the novel: if early novels mark a contraction from the epic time of early modern literature to the life story of individuals, with Jane Austen’s novels occurring within the architectural and moral framework of the family estate, then late nineteenth-century novels start to mark a past that cannot be brought to presence but seems to inflect human time nevertheless.  Both in Thomas Hardy and George Eliot the individual and the family are marked by forces from a time and life beyond the frame of individual experience.  And it is perhaps even more of a commonplace to note that for high modernism history becomes a nightmare from which we cannot awake (as though the past invaded an unwilling consciousness that is not the master of its own domain).  And to add one more commonplace: it was Fredric Jameson (1991) who argued that postmodernism was marked by a loss of history; the past is reduced to so many images and motifs dislodged from any meaningful (or human historical) sense of time.  The sense of human emergence opens a problem not only of literary but also of ethical range: to what extent does an inherited but unlived and unliveable past require working through?  To take but one example: Australian Aborigines insofar as they recognise themselves as Aboriginal live their identity in terms of a spiritual past that was directly related to the land; when Aboriginal children were stolen from their families in order to be assimilated into white Australian culture their past, and their land – and therefore the very locus of their identity – was stolen (Frow 1998).  Such a past cannot simply be returned; nor can it be erased.  It lives on as a memory that is at once lost and indelible.

Literature and the imagination do not simply consume scientific information, as though one might add facts to an repository of data; the very nature of the fact – whose fact, and how it is inscribed, and the nature of the archivealters what it means to live in time.  Because the Darwinian past was inscribed in an inhuman archive of rocks and fossils human time was suddenly not its own; but this might also require us to qualify ‘human time.’ The Australian Aboriginal people already lived a time that was inscribed in the earth, an earth that was neither simply object, nor property but that harboured a memory.  The Aboriginal ‘dreaming,’ was and is quite unlike the modernist ‘nightmare’ of history: the spiritual past that is lived in the Aboriginal landscape does not break in and interrupt human time. The very identity of Indigenous Australia is composed from a memory of the earth. Much (but still not enough) work has already been completed on the ways in which non-Western, and specifically Australian Aboriginal, senses of the earth as an archive beyond human history might compose a memory and ethics of the future.  If there is a time and archive beyond the human, then both the past and the future raise questions of the relations humans bear to their own time, and to a time not their ownTo put this more simply: is the ethics of human time simply concerned with how ‘we’ manage the planet for future human generations, or is there some debt to time beyond the human?  I would suggest that the geological proposal of the Anthropocene – that human life will be readable as having an impact – opens a question of the archive that Western liberal and communitarian ethical models cannot answer.

Scientific debate, rather than consensus, still surrounds the concept of the Anthropocene: the idea put forward by geologists that there will be a time, after the end of humans, when the planet will bear the scars of a species having created such impact on the planet that their existence will be discernible as a distinct geological strata. Even though consensus is gathering around this notion, there is at least one sense in which the very possibility of such an event alters almost everything. Does such a definitive inscription impress upon us a need to embark on geo-engineering in order to save our species, or does the delimitation of the human as a geological strata open the idea of considering life and existence beyond life as we know it?  Perhaps the anthropocene will force us to recognise what we have not yet acknowledged as the implication of the Darwinian past: if humans had an emergence in time, and if their milieu is inscribed with a past not their own, then what happens to the ‘we’ or ‘us’ of the species?  If we then try and think about what we owe to a future, who is the ‘we’ for whom we would like to adapt and survive?

Perhaps what Daniel Dennett has referred to ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’ – the idea that in evolutionary theory design does not necessarily need a designer – is more dangerous than even Dennett wants to suggest.  Perhaps we have not simply lost a designer and meaning of life; perhaps life is not simply human, and perhaps the human no longer knows that space of its own time.  In addition to the ‘dangerous idea’ of the contingency of human life, there is the additional danger of the inhumanity of life and time.   From Darwinian time onwards, humans were no longer coterminous with ‘life’ simply defined in anthropocentric terms; there has been– and there will be – a time when life and the planet exist in the absence of humans, and there could be a thought of history and creation that did not have ‘man’ at the beginning or centre.

In some respects, the conception of time and life after Darwinism still allows for a sense of life’s grandeur.  Even if humans were not the origin of life, there might still be an imagined historical trajectory in which they were an end: life begins humbly, without consciousness, but gains increasing complexity, ascending ever more wondrously towards human existence and self-awareness. Many Darwinians, today, when they are most vociferously Darwinian, seem to assume this grand order of increasing complexity and awareness: both Dennett and Richard Dawkins have tried to demonstrate the redundancy of religion and have offered instead a counter-imaginary of ennobling reason and reflection. Darwinists like Dawkins frequently claim that scientific and evolutionary thought are more wondrous and ennobling than any ‘divine watchmaker’ or great designer could be.  Such theological notions may have had their purpose once, but we can now see, by way of evolutionary science, the greater truth of Darwinian evolution. Evolving towards Enlightened secularism we can claim creation as our own discovery and not God’s plan. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, recent events might suggest that a more significant blow can de dealt to Anthropocentric narcissism than mere de-centredness: not only are humans not present at the origin of life, there will also be a time when humans cease to exist. More importantly still, this non-existence of humans, this predicted mass extinction event, will be precipitated by the same reasoning ‘man’ who disburdened himself of the myths of religion; it is the same technologically astute species that supposedly had the wherewithal to free itself from the theological imaginary that reduced the planet to a resource for human development, and is now confronted with the prospect of either self-erasure or further geo-engineering.   The attachment we bear to our own kind and our own archive may very well be parochial, for there is no intrinsic reason as to why we should feel preliminary mourning for the loss of human life, memory and memorials.  Yet, our present is, indeed, dominated by proto-melancholia.  We play out the loss of the past – in one disaster epic after another the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the New York Public Library, Trafalgar Square – appear as dead objects, deprived of the memorialising beings who inscribed such objects as aids to recollection.  (I refer here to films such as The Planet of the Apes, The Day After Tomorrow or 28 Weeks Later, where ‘we’ humans witness the world as if there were no humans left to recognise and read human monuments)

We can step outside the question of whether or not there will be geological consensus regarding the Anthropocene epoch, and look at the ways in which the very posing of the possibility of the Anthropocene opens up formal literary problems. By literary I do not just refer to books, or even to human or organic communicative systems. Think of what the Anthropocene proposes: we are now able to establish scientifically that there were epochs of planetary existence prior to humans, and prior to conditions that would have enabled life as we know it. From a capacity in the present – a capacity to read certain marks – we can posit a time beyond our own existence. That same capacity is able to imagine, again from the present, a time when we will be readable – when the human species will have inscribed itself as a distinct geological strata. On the one hand, this highly imaginative idea opens traditionally ‘humanist’ or humanities questions to inhuman temporalities: today, ‘our’ questions of climate change can no longer be those of our climate. Given that there will be an end how does this allow us to read ourselves today? How would we imagine ourselves as if viewed from a position beyond the humanly inscribed archive? In many ways these questions are being posed outside traditional domains of humanist criticism – both in a popular culture that is increasingly mourning the earth’s end in advance (in films as sublime as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) and as lamentable as Nick Everhart’s 2012 (2008)), and in the questions posed by the hard sciences (questions ranging from the Anthropocene epoch to problems of dark matter and anti-matter).

It might seem at first that such ‘big’ questions should either reinforce a strong division of labour, for we can no longer write novels or screenplays about anti-matter in the way that we might have incorporated scientific facts into everyday life, or should annihilate our petty human concerns for our archives and memories. I can recall several documentaries and bio-pics on the life of Turing, Darwin, Freud, Einstein (and others) all demonstrating a profound nexus between scientific invention and a profoundly human imagination. Darwinism, far from de-centering human perception, indicated the capacity for humans to look at the earth with wonder and discern its magnificence. I could very easily be wrong, but I would bet that there could be a future equivalent to the portrayal of Einstein in Insignificance (1985), Freud and Jung in A Dangerous Method (2011) or of Darwin in Creation (2009) that will be able the non-scientific public to weave the notion of anti-matter into some personal dynamic.  And this should alert us to the broader problem of reading, register and anticipated memory: we imagine, now, that there will be a time when we are no longer here to read the marks we have made on the earth.  And yet that utterly inhuman thought is inevitably reduced to how we live the inhuman: far from prompting us to abandon the sense of species privilege, the sense of deep and inhuman time opened by the anthropocene has shored up projects for geo-engineering.  If we can mark the world on a geological scale, we can also rewrite our geological future.   It might seem that once the Anthropocene epoch is posed as a possibility of reading and proleptic mourning, that we have lost human scale altogether. How can we argue for questions of human or environmental justice when life as such, and all we have known and inscribed, is at stake?  In this sense, the Anthropocene, is the bio-political concept par excellence: reading the past geologically allows us to delimit the human species as a single planetary event, and one that requires planetary intervention.

I would suggest though that it is only with the posing of inhuman time that we can begin to read the smallest and most local of events. If we allow ourselves to absorb the impact of a time beyond humans, and possibly beyond life, we might be open to two radical thoughts of the human archive. First, we might imagine human texts, not as expressions of a single, intending expressive individual whose thoughts can be conveyed through time, but as having emerged from events that have a complexity beyond individual persons. Local archives would open out, not to some already known context, but to a limitless horizon that included what we now refer to as climate, but so much more. It’s clear that novels as different as McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Maggie Gee’s The Flood (2004) are at once highly human, personal and psychological, at the same time as the psyche described is – like the earth’s strata – a register for geological events. We start to imagine and mourn the human-friendly climate always through the nearest of objects. But this is not unique to twenty-first century fiction. How might we read earlier texts with a sense that they are expressions of a force of life beyond ecology, if the senses of time, life and light were intimations of time beyond humans?  I have already suggested that the individual and familial time-frames of the novel came under pressure with the increasing sense of geological time in the late nineteenth century.  My colleague, Sebastian Groes, reminded me of this very disjunction between the time of the person, and a wider past that in its very fossilization seems to regard ‘us’:

By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. (Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873)

Once we think outside the time of life, of personal life, we are confronted with stratigraphy, in which the time of life unites everything from Trilobytes to Macbeth, and then sets this within a time without eyes.  The time that is ‘out of joint’ in Hamlet might not just be a sense of a broken polity, but also a sense that the time of the polity – the time of human interaction and management – occurs within a time of perpetual cosmic displacement, in which human intentionality and sense is but one force among others in the layering of history and memory. Second, and finally, we might then imagine our own present, our-own self-archiving as if it were already being read by non-humans, beyond our own existence. Every text is a time capsule and a time machine, containing the present, but sending the present into a future that the present cannot control.


Frow, John. 1998. ‘A Politics of Stolen Time.’ Australian Humanities Review. 9: Feb, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duram: Duke University Press.