It’s 9.32 am, July 20, 1969: Apollo 11 mission to the moon. One of the crew—it’s not recorded whether it was Armstrong, Aldrin, or Collins—points the Hasselblad camera through the observation window of Command Module Columbia as the earth appears to rise above the rim of the moon, and presses the button.
The photograph the astronaut takes has been seen by almost everyone who has lived since that moment. The image is beautiful, and its effect when it was published was, and has remained, overwhelming. The conspicuous contrast between our living planet and its lifeless moon is buried deep in our collective consciousness.
Human activities on earth do not show up at this distance. Yet this picture is dramatic, irrefutable evidence of our immense and ever-accelerating technological development. Earthrise shows us just how fragile and isolated our civilization really is, and it marks the beginning of the contemporary environmental movement.
While these great events unfolded, I was lost in a lunar landscape myself: the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. I was rescued by a Tuareg nomad on a camel, in a scene that felt like the opening moments of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. He took me to his companions, sat me down on a rock, and went into his hut. He reappeared with an umbrella, a cassette player, and two pieces of wood. He rubbed the sticks together and made a fire. We boiled a pot of water, and we had a nice cup of tea. He warmed the batteries and turned on the cassette player. Bob Dylan sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ I am suddenly in the front row of an extraordinary Dylan concert. I could feel the words—the whole song—taking root in me. He sounded like he was singing to an empty world. I’m surrounded by dignified, graceful people from another age sitting by a fire lit by friction—our first step on the road to becoming an industrial, scientific society. I am looking at the moon as it rises above the edge of the desert. Armstrong and Aldrin are planting an American flag in a lunar crater, their remarkable and extravagant journey made possible by harnessing the explosive power of fire.
Dylan is piling image upon image. The cumulative effect of those images of dead and dying life is overwhelming. He wrote ‘Hard Rain’ during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world went to bed one night in 1962 not knowing if it would wake up the next day. But, as Dylan has stated, this extraordinary song is open to much wider interpretation: ‘it doesn’t really matter where a song comes from. It just matters where it takes you.’ We now know that it is not only nuclear war that might bring about our downfall. Our headlong collision with nature makes us dangerous passengers on planet earth. Climate change alone has the potential to be catastrophic. The technology to wipe out civilization is widely available—not everyone can afford it, but the price is coming down. Cheap transport and consumer goods, warm homes, light at the touch of a switch, clean hot and cold water, are available to more and more people in the modern and modernizing world. And it is mostly powered by fossil fuels. The coal, oil, and gas that drive the modern world contain the carbon that plants inhaled hundreds of millions of years ago. We are returning it to the atmosphere through exhaust pipes and smokestacks; it combines with the carbon released from forests when they are burned to create more agricultural land in poorer countries with rapidly growing populations.
So much of what we do adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—eight billion tons each year—and this pollution is changing the climate. There is more heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere today than for 55 million years, enough to melt all the ice on the planet, submerge many of the world’s principal cities and flood large areas of productive land. A one-metre rise in sea level would displace 20 million people in Bangladesh and India alone. By the middle of the century, man-made warming could trigger irreversible melting of the Greenland ice cap—increasing sea levels by seven metres. We would have to continually redraw the map of the world as coastlines eroded and many of the world’s major cities built near the sea became inundated and damaged by storm surges generated by climate instability.
So much that we saw as steps towards a better life has proved to be steps towards ecological disaster. We are turning back the evolutionary clock, recreating the warmer, less stable atmosphere that existed millions of years ago. Our cultural achievements and our mastery of science have made us forget that ‘human’ is just a word for a species of animal, that we are part of nature and dependent on nature. If the climate changes, all of nature changes.
We still do not really believe we are changing the climate. We feel so small, and the sky seems so big; how could anything we do affect the climate? We are in collective denial, sleepwalking blindly towards a tipping point where bigger and deadlier environmental problems overtake our ability to solve them. But the consensus among scientists that manmade climate change is happening now is overwhelming. Of course all the independent scientists could be wrong and the lobbyists, many funded by US oil companies, could be right. And the earth could be flat.
The morning after I listened to ‘Hard Rain,’ I noticed that the rock I had been sitting on was actually part of a fossilized tree trunk. I was in the middle of a vast, ancient forest. Five times in the past half-billion years, the fossil record shows us, living things have been wiped out over much of the earth. Climate change, perhaps triggered by the impact of an asteroid, is the likely cause of the five great natural extinctions that geologists and paleobiologists have identified. These acts of nature, like the 2004 tsunami that ravaged much of Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005, are part of the cycle of life and death that has defined the planet since the beginning of time. We now face the sixth great extinction, and it will be an entirely human achievement. The combined effects of climate change, acidification of the seas as they soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide, the widespread destruction of forests, wetlands and other natural habitats, are together causing the loss of an estimated 50,000 species a year—an unseen holocaust of biodiversity.
Bob Dylan again. I just made coffee and turned on the radio. It’s a BBC programme, Desert Island Discs. Each week a celebrity is invited to choose the eight records he or she would take if cast away on a desert island. Today’s guest is a man with a quiet, warm, restrained voice, and he’s saying he could have chosen eight Bob Dylan records for his island. Sue Lawley, the presenter, plays ‘Just Like A Woman,’ then asks her guest about climate change.
He turns out to be Professor Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor and the man who unexpectedly announced that climate change is the most serious problem facing the world today. He reminds us that the 1990s was the hottest decade on record, and that this was predicted by climate change scientists; that the hot summer of 2003 was the biggest natural disaster in Central Europe, causing an estimated 30,000 people to die prematurely, and that statistical analyses indicate that half the severity of that event could be attributed to climate change. He points out that there will be many impacts as the earth warms.
‘But are these facts?’ asks Lawley. ‘Are there scientists who will dispute this, or are you telling us this is irrefutable?’
‘The facts are CO2 levels are 40% higher than any record going back one million years at least. The fact is global temperatures are rising around the world. The fact is we are losing ice from land masses around the world. All of these are facts. In terms of future impacts, there is an enormous amount of discussion. But the science is telling us what the risks are. The technologies that are being developed are going to be there to deal with the problem. The final question is: is there the political will around the world to actually invest in this technology?’
Governments need to lead and they need to be led. The cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries in 2005 was a stunning triumph for the mass movement of concerned individuals and UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown who brokered the deal. But without corresponding action to halt climate change, people in those countries will be plunged into even more desperate straits. And children alive now in the modern and modernizing world will grow up in an increasingly insecure environment as our society slides back into poverty. Climate change is handcuffed to poverty. If we don’t start cooling the planet your children’s families will be impoverished, culture will be impoverished and nature will be impoverished.
Global cooling doesn’t attract much support from the world of celebrities. Don’t expect huge concerts with pop stars demanding the audience insulate their homes, buy food at the nearest farmers’ market, travel by bike and public transport whenever possible and stop wasting energy. It doesn’t rhyme. But if we care about poverty and nature and future generations that’s what we have to do for starters. Actually the new low-carbon culture is not bad. Food from farmers’ markets tastes better, cycling feels great, and insulation means your home will be warmed at a lower cost and will stay cooler in summer. Planting trees to absorb the carbon you produce in this changeover period is not the perfect solution, but if you can afford to fly to foreign countries for holidays you can afford to pay your own carbon tax.
What is needed now is a ‘majority movement’ to support a range of practical measures that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Humanity will have to put aside the deep divisions it has maintained for thousands and thousands of years and take practical steps to solve this problem. The prize will be to deflect military spending, currently one trillion dollars of global taxpayers’ money a year, to pay to reinvent the modern world so that it is compatible with nature. This would require a coalition of those in the peace movement, environmentalists, those who support the campaign against poverty—and the silent majority. They have to find their voice. Unless they do, a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
There have been many mass movements, relatively small groups of people campaigning on a wide range of issues, but humanity has never acted collectively. Nothing less will do. If we are to solve our problems we need a new spirit of human co-operation. There is a lovely Buddhist story that illustrates this point better than 1,000 photographs. There was a bush covered in fruit that attracted a lot of birds. They were regularly caught by a birdcatcher throwing a net over them. Other birds seeing this said, ‘Look, if we all flew up together at the same time we could lift the net up and escape.’ So they did this and all went well until one day one of the birds complained he was putting in more effort than the rest. They all began to argue and while they were still arguing the birdcatcher caught them all.
Environmental destruction and poverty are problems affecting a deeply divided world. As we have seen, it costs a trillion dollars a year to defend the national boundaries the human race created.
The finger-pointing protest movement of the 60s may have had its place, but this time round the finger points at all of us in the modern world: individuals, governments and companies. We will all have to take a lot of small steps. We have become used to wasting energy; our homes and cities leak heat and light. Governments will have to work together and take a ‘giant leap for mankind,’ not just act in the interests of their own constituency. They have to set the agenda that will transform our outdated carbon-polluting technology and develop new transport systems, new technologies to generate electricity without carbon emissions, and an internationally agreed legal framework for businesses, so they can plan for the future knowing their investments in low-carbon technologies will be worthwhile.
The climate crisis is a problem so huge, complicated and fundamentally implicated in Western lifestyles that most politicians see little to be gained from engaging with it at all. But global warming is a more serious threat to democracy than the Cold War and a much more difficult problem to solve. You knew where the enemy was during the Cold War. Now we are the enemy. If civilization is severely damaged by an environmental cataclysm, democracy will be an early victim, as societies revert to the survival of the fittest. (New Orleans’ rapid collapse into anarchy after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina was a vivid reminder of what can happen to a city in the richest country on earth.) Elected politicians are prepared to go to great lengths to install and support new democratic governments in countries around the world, but do little to deal with this real threat to world security. The atomic bomb may not be used again, but man-made climate change is happening now. Humankind is unleashing a phenomenon whose nature, scale, and consequences are unprecedented.
Problems, however severe, present many opportunities. If climate change is to be checked, scientists will have to create new low-carbon technologies, but many who could play a key role are funded by governments to invent weapons of mass destruction for the military, or are employed by industry to research and develop new consumer goods.
When leading business figures are asked what they see as the most pressing problem facing business in the future, they agree that it is climate change. You would imagine that the captains of industry would want to prove that capitalism plus technology can address our problems. Some do, and these are the companies to support and invest in. But most only pay lip service to the problem; they cut down on waste, but they don’t cut down on double-talk. The CEO of one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers makes impressive speeches about sustainability while his company engages in a battle to sell us more environmentally destructive SUVs.
While some business leaders are slowly responding to climate change, religious leaders have hardly acknowledged the problem. They have a record of concern for people living in poverty, but not for an issue that is likely to disproportionately harm vulnerable people in poor countries and lead to migrations on a biblical scale, resulting in uncountable deaths.
Philanthropists and foundations currently provide very little support to help solve the climate crisis. As an issue, climate change received just over a third of 1% of all foundation grants in 2000. The positive achievements of their funding are likely to be overwhelmed by climate change.
History is partly a record of fallen civilizations. Most societies that have perished have done so through neglect and self-delusion; they have failed to rise to the challenges they faced. If we care about the world, about people living in miserable poverty now and about future generations, we should be mobilizing resources to develop sustainable technologies with the singleminded determination seen when countries prepare for world war. The Cuban Missile Crisis reminded us not only that individuals are mortal, but that society itself is mortal, that choosing well or badly among policies and possibilities determines what becomes of us.
On the heath, Lear asks Gloucester how he sees the world. Gloucester, who is blind, answers: ‘I see it feelingly.’ Why don’t we feel the world enough to save it? What prevents us from collaborating in a global effort to solve the climate crisis? Is it because the consequences are unimaginable? If so, we need artists of every discipline to use their skills to cast light on our failure of perception and bring the uncertain future alive in our imaginations. Only symbolic language can bear the strain of a threat on the scale posed by climate change.
The expression ‘a snowball’s chance in hell’ comes to mind when you consider the likelihood of human beings working together to reverse global warming and making poverty—not just African poverty—history. Like all great projects it requires a large measure of tactical optimism. It may already be too late to halt global warming. It may be too difficult or too expensive, but life for me is made more interesting by responding to the challenge, of both the ‘invironmental’ crisis which has produced a world where human beings are deeply divided by nationalism and sectarian beliefs, and the environmental crisis.
I had the idea to illustrate ‘Hard Rain’ as I listened to Dylan in the desert. In an interview in 1965 he said, ‘The words came fast—very fast… Line after line, trying to capture the feeling of nothingness.’ Well, the pictures came slowly. What made this photo essay possible, at least in the beginning before I got assignments, was a discovery a friend and I made one evening. We realized that no one ever checked air tickets as you leave an airplane. All we had to do to fly a long way from London was buy a cheap ticket to the first destination, usually Paris or Amsterdam. When the plane landed, we waited until all the new passengers were on board, and we took an empty seat. We got off a lot further away: New Delhi, Bangkok, Nairobi. Bootleg travel: it was wrong, and all I can say in mitigation is that it provided the environmental movement with some fundraising images it might not have otherwise had. (Don’t try it now. Since the first hijacking, airlines check the passengers at each stop.)
I feel bad about stowing away on jumbo jets; I feel worse about the CO2 pollution I’m responsible for, but I used the opportunity those trips gave me to photograph people trying to exist at the sharp end of the environmental debate. I never knew when a line of ‘Hard Rain’ would appear before me: a man carrying his wife to safety during a flood in Bangladesh, my god-daughter surrounded by bubbles showing me how high she could jump on her trampoline, a man whose family was too poor to cremate him being eaten by dogs behind the Taj Mahal.
Dylan’s instinctive awareness of the capacities of symbolic language in ‘Hard Rain’ is turned to brilliant use. He describes ‘Hard Rain’ as ‘a song of desperation,’ ‘a song of terror.’ This is a book of desperation. I have seen Dylan’s words in the viewfinder of my camera and in photographs taken by my friends. With their help, it should not take quite so much imagination for us to understand the future scientists are predicting.
Turn the pages and see feelingly.