“What were they thinking?” We invoke this question on behalf of our descendants to shine a certain unforgiving light on the dissonance between our “understanding” of the climate crisis and our actions.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thought-provoking answer to this question than Zadie Smith’s essay in the April New York Review of Books, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.”
Don’t let the title fool you. It does have some moving nostalgia about the wonderful, local things we’re losing to climate disruption. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about our failure to deal, and how we still might. I’m not sure how much of it I agree with, but I find it haunting.
I quote the end at length. Yes, it’ll give away the punch line. But I bet once you read it, you’ll read the rest.
Oh, what have we done! It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar – essentially religious – cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation. This is why (I shall tell my granddaughter) the apocalyptic scenarios did not help – the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse. In the end, the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved. Like when the seasons changed in our beloved little island, or when the lights went out on the fifteenth floor, or the day I went into an Italian garden in early July, with its owner, a woman in her eighties, and upon seeing the scorched yellow earth and withered roses, and hearing what only the really old people will confess – in all my years I’ve never seen anything like it – I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?