In the Bibliothèque nationale de France, on the banks of the Seine, are the Globes de Coronelli† Two gigantic spheres, each with a diameter of four meters. One, midnight blue, represents the sky, the other the earth. They are somewhat tucked away, in a dark corner next to the cafeteria. But thanks to the lighting and the special mise-en-scene they have managed to keep their original magic.
The globes were made in Paris between 1681 and 1683 by the famous Italian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli and were intended for the glory of Louis XIV. They are among the most beautiful in the genre, with refined paintings and bright colours. The idea at the time was to place them in the Château de Versailles, but that didn’t happen.
After centuries of wandering past royal and then republican palaces, the globes ended up somewhere in storage. They were unearthed, restored and shown to the public again in 2005 during a sensational exhibition at the Grand Palais. Having lived in Paris for just a year, I was struck by the craftsmanship, but also by the strange combination of imperiousness and curiosity expressed in the images on the Earth globe.
The late seventeenth century: colonization is in full swing, explorers are scouring the world’s seas. Off the Brazilian coast, Coronelli has French ships engage in battle with Dutch ones. Eurocentrism is so blatant that it almost takes on something naive-innocent again. The world as your personal pleasure garden.
The notion of responsibility, that there are consequences, is missing. Later there was the White Man’s Burden, and the staunch belief that there was an ideal of Enlightenment hidden beneath it. Europe had a mission civilatrice, for themselves and for the world. The world exhibitions from the second half of the nineteenth century can be seen as the showcase of that ideal, and the 1900 in Paris is the pinnacle of it. The Grand Palais was built for this occasion – a glass temple of Reason and Progress.
The workers’ question was hotly debated, but the idea of progress lacked a notion of consequence. Namely what this meant for humanity itself. Because all those stamping machines, smoking chimneys and automobiles incensed by the Italian Futurists came with a price: the ever-faster warming of the earth.
Here and there a lost scientist made the connection, but it was only the Club of Rome (1972) that managed to bring the issue to the attention of a large audience. Despite this, greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2 and methane increase year after year. And that had consequences for the rise in sea levels and the overall stability of the climate. It means that what we used to label as ‘nature’ is no longer the stable background of our existence.
Also read: Fifty years after the Club of Rome, we are still on a collision course
The New Climate Regime
According to the world-famous thinker Bruno Latour, it is therefore inappropriate to talk about ‘the climate crisis’. After all, the word ‘crisis’ implies that it is something transient, he told me when I visited him in his Paris apartment during the darkest days of the lockdown. According to Latour, we change our world, from a world that evolves and infinitely grows to a world that ‘splices in’ – becoming aware of its limitations. He summarizes this as the New Climate Regime. In this, every decision of any weight is inescapable in proportion to the climate.
We have entered a new geological epoch it has often been said in recent years, the Anthropocene. You can also put it more unkindly: humans have become an ‘extinction event’. Of thousands of species, and perhaps eventually of his own kind, who can tell? There is also a tragic dimension, because the event is in a sense behind us.
Since what is called the ‘Great Acceleration’ (the period from 1945 to the present), so many greenhouse gases have been released that something irreversible has happened. A bit like a love affair that breaks down on that slip that came a long time ago and that turns out to be unforgivable. But our relationship with the Earth will continue as long as we’re there as a species, so the question is no longer whether the Earth will warm, but how much, and whether the effects will be somewhat manageable.
It doesn’t look good.
At the same time, the term ‘humanity’ is somewhat misleading here. Because who is the subject of the Anthropocene? After all, it is not thanks to the people of Mongolia or the Gambia that we will soon have to raise the dikes here. It is western, industrialized people who are responsible for the bulk of the emissions, and by no means everyone within that category.
Nor is it ‘humanity’ who bears the consequences for its consequences, at least not to an equal extent. In a cruel twist of fate, the hardest blows fall precisely in the part of the world that emits the least greenhouse gases: desert areas, low-lying archipelagos, vulnerable wetlands. But in the end it’s our turn.
Just do it
In NRC Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argued earlier this year that we can make the global economy carbon neutral for just 2 percent of annual global GDP. He and his team had pored over complex reports and academic studies, “surrounded by a cloud of numbers.” “We can squabble endlessly over the numbers and tinker with the models,” Harari wrote. “The essential message is that it takes only a few percent of the world’s annual income to prevent the apocalypse.”
Just a matter of doing it.
But if it’s all so simple on paper, why is it always so complicated in real life?
That’s because Harari’s “humanity” is problematic as well. He thus ignores the political dimension, the fact that humanity is divided in itself. In terms of interests, but also in terms of ideas.
The individual man is also divided within himself. In mid-March, temperatures at both the North and South Poles suddenly skyrocketed to record highs. In the news, it was mainly about the blow that the actor Will Smith handed out to the presenter who insulted his wife during the Oscar ceremony. †This is the way the world ends† tweeted British climate activist George Monbiot frustrated. He has a point. At the same time: how much climate misery can a person tolerate?
It is not thanks to the people of Mongolia or the Gambia that we will soon have to raise the dikes here
The invasion of Ukraine shows what a group of people can do when threatened. In the face of an acute existential threat, existing conflicts within Ukrainian society have been set aside and there is great unity to defeat the Russians. Isn’t the problem with climate change simply that change is happening too slowly? That we know it’s a problem, but don’t feel it right away? The threat is existential, but not acute. That goes a single storm, a hot summer or a flash flood really don’t change.
The image of the proverbial frog in a pan of cold water on the fire comes to mind. Yet that does not do justice to reality, because more and more people do see the danger. And politicians are also acting, such as the European Green Deal.
At the same time, there is a gap between Prime Minister Rutte’s ‘action, action, action’ (at the Climate Summit in Glasgow last November) and the decision of German Chancellor Scholz to spend an extra EUR 100 billion on German defense in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Apparently one existential danger is not the other, at least not yet.
But whoever is in charge, in a liberal democracy or in a hypothetical eco-dictatorship, in all cases it is a race against time. Whether you think we can’t work it out within capitalism and have to radically change our production methods, or whether you rely on a technological Deus Ex Machina that will descend from the sky, a ‘fix’, that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. can take away.
According to Bruno Latour, we are on the eve of a Copernican turn in our thinking, as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. How do we imagine that? What does that mean for the organization of our politics? What stories do we tell? And in what way? As a columnist, I’ll be exploring these questions starting this month, trying to uncover the dilemmas that lie behind them.
Which notions and ideas need to be overhauled? In any case, that is Coronelli’s image of a planet that submissively submits to our drive to conquer and exploit. Just as the peoples colonized by Europe finally revolted and threw off their yoke, so now the earth is striking back. Naive innocence is not only misplaced now; she is life threatening.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 2 April 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 2, 2022