Tuesday, November 20, 2012


[as promised – to the seminar – some notes on "Storm-Cloud," written much on the fly at some point last summer:]

"The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century" (1884) somewhat of a disappointment. The first lecture is familiar territory, from commentary and anthologization; the second is merely a series of annotations, commentaries, and expansions. Ruskin spends a good deal of time describing the meteorological phenemena of bygone times – indeed, that's the bulk of the lecture – and then rather than showing what contemporary "plague-clouds" look like, he simply bids his listeners to look outside, to reflect on the weather that they're experiencing.

Ruskin dates the storm-cloud from the early 1870s (1871, to be precise, though he specifies that these phenomena have come on gradually). For the most part, he refuses to engage contemporary scientific explanation; his commentary on scientists of his day here consists mostly of attacks on their specific use of language (though at one moment he actually gets a jab in at Tyndall on the issue of the movement of glaciers, an argument which took up way too much of Deucalion). Though early on, describing one cloudscape, Ruskin mentions how many factory smokestacks there are in the vicinity, he never makes a clear connection between their smoke and the conditions of the atmosphere. He brings up (in a note) the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, which everyone's agreed had a worldwide effect on cloud cover, only to immediately dismiss it. It's as though he determined from the very beginning to resist any purely physical explanation of what he's observed, that eschewing physical explanation is a fundamental rhetorical basis of his discussion of the weather.

 It's as if Ruskin were reluctant to adduce physical causes for the climate change he sees about him, because such explanations might hinder him in his advancing, seemingly reluctantly and tentatively, his own moral "explanation." That explanation has to do with what's he's been inveighing against for so many years: the immorality and materialism of contemporary English society.

Of what "use" then is Ruskin for contemporary environmental discourse – or rather, since he's clearly of no use whatsoever except as a precise and dogged observer of atmospheric conditions, what does he has to say to contemporary writers/critics interested in the environment?

The issue of science is central here: Environmental discourse is premised on scientific knowledge of the various interrelated phenomena that make up the human environment, their causes and outcomes, the way they mesh and clash with one another. But since the environment is an environment for something or someone – in most cases the average person thinks about it as an environment for us as human beings – purely scientific discourse is always, in environmental argument, tied with up with moral (having to do with human behavior, with "oughts") and political discourse. We see this most clearly in the global warming debate, where the relatively clear scientific consensus believes in anthropogenic climate change; this is taken up by environmentalists, who charge this in itself neutral conclusion with moral weight – we are changing and have changed the global climate to something it was not in our parents' time, to something that will be far more inimical to our children (or, at the very least, the process of adapting to such climate change will involve a huge amount of suffering, particularly in third-world countries, and widespread international conflict). Arresting such change, then, is a moral imperative. The environmentalists, in short, draw moral and political conclusions from what they see as "dispassionate" scientific evidence.

The global warming "deniers," on the other hand, dispute this scientific "consensus." As hard as it is to take this particular discourse seriously, it's worth untangling some of the various strands:
•there is among many rank and file denialists a kind of unwillingness to acknowledge that human activity might have an impact on a system as huge and complex as the global climate – we're only ants in God's sight, after all; how can ants change the conditions of this vast world? 
•there is an assertion that "climate change" is a natural, periodic phenomenon (as it indeed might well be), that we have not caused: it's really in the hands of God what climate we live in, and we've simply got to endure it. 
•there is a questioning of the motives of the vast majority of climate scientists, who are distrusted as being fundamentally suspicious of late capitalism as it has developed, and who are willing to bend evidence (or even to invent evidence) in order to make a scientific-sounding case for a turn away from the laissez-faire, free-market based system under which we live. 

Leaving aside the degree to which most global warming denialism is fostered and even funded by industries whose deepest interests lie precisely in the fossil fuels that scientists finger as the primary culprits in global warming, it's clear that denialism is as much a moral and political discourse as environmentalism, if in many of its forms it takes a far more skeptical view of science (or, to be more precise, of the neutrality of science). But both discourses (save for the Know-Nothings) of the first denialist category I adduced) pay at least lip service to science, the reigning discourse of our own day, in ways that Ruskin really doesn't.

 The problem with Ruskin's environmentalism and science is twofold: 1) In Ruskin's day, environmental science is really in an embryonic state, and frankly isn't able to provide particularly good explanations of meteorogical phenomena. And 2) Ruskin's own revulsion against scientific discourse (see his resignation from Oxford over the issue of vivisection, and the cancelled anti-scientist lectures from his last Oxford series, among much else) ensures that he is unwilling, at all costs, to enlist the scientists in his own cause.

What's left then is his moral message, which proves exceedingly vague in the crucial matter of mechanism. When Pat Robertson claimed that the fall of the Twin Towers was due to America's fallen moral state, his argument – never explicit, but easily figured out – went something like this: "America has given herself up to sensuality, godlessness, and homosexuality; therefore God sent, as his chosen vessels, these Islamic terrorists, to send a message." That is in short a message from the Hebrew Prophets: fall away from the Lord, and he will make of Assyria or Babylon an instrument to destroy you. Such "explanations" short-circuit all conventional sorts of historical, political, and scientific causality. (And that of course is part of what makes them so compelling to the religious-minded, and for that matter the lazy-minded.) Ruskin's discourse of the "plague-wind" is ultimately of this sort, though he is far more reticent than Robertson, or Ezekiel for that matter.

What's left for Ruskin and the environmentally-interested critic?

1) Clearly, Ruskin has a place of honor among writers who have devoted themselves to careful observation and recording of the natural world – Gilbert White, Thoreau, etc. That can't be denied on any level.

2) Ruskin's observations of the storm-cloud amount to the following: Over the course of my adult life, the condition of the sky has changed for the worse, and I have the records to demonstrate it so. No longer is the sky as hospitable and as beautiful as it once was.

3) Since the beauty of the sky (as argued in Modern Painters) is, for the human being, a theophanic mark, a demonstration of God's desiring to provide us with beautiful spectacles, something must have changed in our relationship with the heavenly powers (call them God, Athena, etc.), and for the worse.

Ruskin will not argue a materialist, causal explanation: You have poured so many millions of tons of smoke out of your factory chimneys, in pursuit of ill-gotten gains, that you have poisoned the sky; this – look above you! – is the result of your laissez-faire, of your headlong commercialism. Why not? On the one hand, he's at the very end of his productive career, liable to go off the rails at any moment; that may explain why so much of the main lecture is devoted to affectionately recalling the sunsets of his youth, and of classical literature. He has not much energy left for sustained argument, nor the desire to do the spadework necessary to bring causal arguments up to speed. On the other – and this is just a guess, a pure speculation – his distrust of science goes so deep that he might fear a "scientific" explanation of the storm-cloud would in some way blunt its deeper moral significance.

[And there my notes break off. I can only refer readers to Raymond E. Fitch's The Poison Sky: Myth and Apocalypse in Ruskin (Ohio UP, 1986), a 732-page (!!) volume which doubtless delves deeper into these matters than anyone else. No, I haven't read it yet; it's on my list.]

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