Who Will Build the Ark?

The Utopian Imperative in an Age of Catastrophe

My talk tonight is rather like the famous courtroom scene in Orson Welles’ ‘Lady from Shanghai.’ In this 1947 film – a noir allegory about proletarian virtue in the embrace of ruling-class decadence - Welles plays a leftwing sailor named Michael O’Hara, who rolls in the hay with femme fatale Rita Hayward, then is framed for murder by her husband, Arthur Bannister (played by Everett Sloan). Bannister, the most celebrated criminal lawyer in America, convinces O’Hara to appoint him as his defense, all the better to ensure his rival’s conviction and execution. At the turning point in the trial, decried by the prosecution as “yet another of the great Bannister’s famous tricks,’ Bannister the attorney calls Bannister the aggrieved husband to the witness stand and interrogates himself in rapid schizoid volleys to the mirth of the jury.

In the spirit of ‘Lady from Shanghai,’ I’ve organized this talk as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable.

In the first half of the presentation, ‘Pessimism of the Intellect’, I adduce arguments for believing that we’ve already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, in the smug but sadly accurate words of one of its chief opponents, has done “nothing measurable about climate change. Global carbon dioxide emissions arose by the same amount they were supposed to fall because of it.” It is unlikely, moreover, that a post-Kyoto process can stabilize greenhouse gas accumulation this side of the famous ‘red line’ of 450 ppm by 2020. If this is the case, the most heroic efforts of our children’s generation will be unable to forestall a radical reshaping of ecologies, water resources, and agricultural systems. In a warmer world, moreover, socio-economic inequality will have a meteorological mandate, and there will be little incentive for the rich Northern Hemisphere countries whose carbon emissions have destroyed the climate equilibrium of the Holocene to share resources for adaptation with those poor subtropical countries most vulnerable to droughts and floods.

The second part of the talk is my self-rebuttal (‘Optimism of the Imagination’). I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming – the urbanization of humanity – is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science, and forgotten utopias.