The Third Something

009 / Barbecues On The Titanic

On climate change and how stories create aesthetic emotion to comprehend what’s happening.

If you live in Britain - and some parts of Europe - you probably had really strange weather this week. A mini-heatwave brought temperatures up to 20ºC (~70ºF) for several days in a row.

Wearing sunglasses(!), I took a walk around Alexandra Palace in London on Monday morning and found trees in full blossom.

A photo of blossoms on the trees in London in February 2019

What the damn hell.

Balmy temperatures in February puts us all in a strange place.

On the one hand, it is obviously lovely. This is the time of year when winter becomes really gruelling and the heart yearns for spring. To have it come early is like…well, it’s like spring come early.

But on the other hand, it is terrifying. Scientists are - rightly - reluctant to pin a single weather event to global warming, but this is exactly what they predicted would happen, around about now. The earth has never been this warm while humans have been alive and, I suppose, will never be this cool again.

And so this week I have found myself walking in glorious sunshine; the sweet smell of pollen in the air; the chirp of birdsong rippling through branches; thinking, with a heavy heart: “so it begins…”

Yet what the weather hasn’t done is create any new sense of political urgency.

Art and aesthetic emotion

Humans are famously bad at responding to big slow changes like the climate. In fact, generally we are not great at seeing the significance of events until after they have passed.

I’m reminded of one of the really interesting ideas in Robert McKee’s screenwriting book Story:

“Life on its own, without art to shape it, leaves you in confusion and chaos” he says.

But stories create a phenomenon he calls aesthetic emotion which “harmonises what you know with what you feel to give you a heightened awareness and a sureness of your place in reality.”

I always thought that was quite profound.

When you tell a story you are creating a space where disparate ideas can be juxtaposed, which in turn allows both intellect and emotion to interact simultaneously. And so, at the climax of a movie or a novel, as the hero stares at the sunset vista and the music swells, the audience are filled with a sense of “this is life!”

Ironically, real life itself rarely generates this profundity.

There are lots of ways to do this but I think often about a visual story’s ability to bring two separate planes into the same window for a short amount of time. In juxtaposing images we can bring knowledge and emotion together, or create a collision that generates emotion not present in either idea on its own.

It’s a reason I was always quite proud of one of my early films, explaining how computers work. Through the story of Claude Shannon’s innovation I think I was able to convey the intellectual idea of binary, while also making you feel the thrill of the discovery.

So I guess what I am hacking at is this: can we use art and story to create aesthetic emotion around climate change? To bring the facts and the feelings into the same plane?

It feels urgent. The science alone - even the reality of global warming - doesn’t seem to shift us to collective action.

On Tuesday morning I ate lunch sitting on the grass at Highbury Fields, not far from my office. The sun was beating down and with no leaves on the trees, it was hard to find anywhere with shade.

Then several groups of students pitched up and started barbecues on the warm grass.

“So this is climate change is it?” one girl asked her friend. “I could get used to this.”

How are we supposed to explain this to future generations?

“Daddy, what did you do when global warming first started to make things hotter?” “Well son, I went outside and had a barbecue.”

Until another Sunday soon,

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