Usually, I try to get right to the point in these blog posts, but in this case I’d like to take a side trip into the phrase “the winter of our discontent.” Trust me, it relates to climate change.
The phrase comes from the very beginning of Shakespeare’s play Richard III, in which Richard himself sets the theme of the entire play – the denouement of the entire cycle of history plays – by saying:
“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
Richard then goes on to reveal that he does not share this happiness, cannot share it, and intends to destroy it.
I have always felt that interpretations of this have failed to consider one reasonably likely interpretation. Over and over throughout the history cycle, once the rightful king (Richard lII) is deposed, people choose to start wars instead of trying to reestablish peaceful order. As a final result, this produces a Richard III – a war hero with PTSD; a man whose “withered [right] arm” could just as easily be seen as a massively over-developed left arm, which in England then would have made him an especially effective fighter but also made him a sinister (Latin for left-handed), distorted monster to others; a man whose sense of humor is a desperate and failing attempt to overcome these demons. Now let’s re-read: “Now is the winter of our discontent [true, for Shakespeare] made glorious summer by this sun [untrue, for Shakespeare] OF YORK.” Utterly sarcastic, that the son of one of the chief war-makers, a son whose job as king seems to be living it up, should solve the whole problem of disordered war.
By the way, the interpretation goes on all the way to just about the end, as this embodiment of English war destroys or wounds everyone around him, until even the kingship of England is less important to him than simply going on destroying – but with a sense of the absurdity of it all: “A horse [to escape and fight again], a horse, MY KINGDOM [despairing irony] for a horse.” This, perhaps Shakespeare is saying, is the tragic solution to an unnecessary attempt to solve the original problem by deposition of the rightful king – to let those who have made a living from perpetual war destroy each other, and clear the path for a new peacemaker and a reversion to order. Also by the way, Alison Weir estimates iirc that most of the nobility of England was killed in the Wars of the Roses, paving the way for Tudor upstarts to utterly dominate the peerage.
So what does this have to do with climate change?
OK, try this rephrasing of Shakespeare: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by the sun OF MEDIA COVERAGE.” I trust you can hear my sarcasm.
Over the last few months, suddenly the media coverage of the news seems to be taking climate change seriously and producing many hopeful signs, where it rarely did before. We have Years of Living Dangerously on Showtime garnering attention, sustainability being connected to the climate change movement, Bill McKibben being heard with greater attention, a spate of dire reports with notes that mitigation will be far cheaper from the IPCC, a greater focus on solar and wind technology, reports of isolated successes such as Germany’s ability one day to supply 74% of its needs from renewables, and on and on. Where media coverage of climate change science last year, especially, was atrocious winter, now it seems as if hopeful signs of upcoming media-reported technological-fix summer abound.
And yet, if we look at the facts on the ground, things continue to get worse. In yearly average, the rate of CO2 atmospheric growth is steadily going up, with the second largest rate of growth since measurements started in the 1950s. China, now the largest carbon polluter (although not per capita – that’s still the US) promises massive solar investments and actually ramps up coal use to the point of unbelievable air pollution in major cities. In the US, business talks sustainability and solar/wind technological-fix projects abound, but any decrease in US carbon pollution, data suggest, is counterbalanced by business investments that effectively export that pollution abroad. Meanwhile, an el Nino “Kelvin wave” greater even than the one in 1998 that produced a previous spike in global temperatures is probably heralding weather patterns starting around July that give a heavy push to Arctic sea ice and permafrost melt, which in turn would mean more violent weather, warmth, and ocean level rise sooner than now expected.
Above all, the machinery of business and infrastructure, like the machinery of war in Shakespeare’s day, continues to grind on and produce a heavy counter-pressure to any significant change. Businesses and hence nations continue to talk about developing Arctic oil and gas resources. Despite serious questions about fracking’s effects and studies indicating that its improvement over oil and coal in carbon pollution is much more minimal than originally thought, fracking and natural-gas infrastructure continue to proliferate.
No, I’m not a Richard III. But I can recognize the similarities between Shakespeare’s play and this situation. Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer – no, it isn’t.
At this point, inevitably, a reaction to these points says, you can’t just be negative; you have to encourage people in positive efforts. That is true; but it’s just as true that if we do not clearly say that these positive efforts are nowhere near having significant impacts, at the same time as we applaud the positive effort, people suffer “compassion fatigue” – encouraging the next project, and the next, but getting tired of pouring their energies into things and still having little impact on the problem.
But there’s another reason to pair encouragement and honest realism. I don’t have the exact quote from Keynes handy, but many are familiar with his saying, “In the long run, we are all dead.” Few, however, understand what he meant. Here’s my translation: We [economists] set ourselves too easy a task if we say [however truthfully] that in the long run, these troubles will pass, the sun will shine again [and the economy will be back to functioning normally]. In the long run, we are all dead. [In the meanwhile, we will all have unnecessarily suffered, because the economist did not identify a better solution and push the government to implement it.]
In other words, if we all simply say, these efforts are enough, rather than honestly facing the fact that as of yet they aren’t, we will unnecessarily be condemning ourselves and our grandchildren to greater suffering before we are dead, and we will be inevitably condemning our great- and great-great-grandchildren to far greater suffering and death, well before their “long run” arrives.
I do not want a real-world Hellish summer with High Water (Joe Romm’s phrase). I do not want a Silent Spring with few or no species left, even human. But if we are to get to a real Spring of hope, much less minimizing the disastrous impact of climate change, we must tackle how we are failing; we must not set ourselves too easy a task.
Now should the winter of our discontent/Be yet made glorious spring, by toil, by honesty. What do you know, I think it scans.