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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Climate Change & Gravity's Rainbow in 600 Words or Less

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
Edmund Burke.

Half a lifetime ago, I wrote my MA thesis on Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

Pynchon's novels are notoriously difficult reads, but very rewarding for those willing to take the time to follow the bouncing ball. Part of his genius is in the way he weaves a narrative through seemingly disparate ideas using metaphor. Another part of his genius lies in forcing the reader beyond the metaphor to a deeper understanding. Metaphors: he makes them and he breaks them.

The overarching metaphor (pun intended) of Gravity's Rainbow is, well, gravity's rainbow: the parabola that describes the trajectory of a rocket, as well as the rise and fall of civilizations and perhaps the human species itself.

In my MA thesis, I looked at three of Gravity's Rainbow's recurring themes: entropy (from the second law of thermodynamics), technique ("the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity" - Jacques Ellul), and the Freudian death instinct (the unconscious desire of the animate to return to an inanimate state).

How are these themes tied together by the parabola metaphor?

Entropy is the destination. It is a common joke among scientists to sum up the four laws of thermodynamics (including the later-postulated Zeroth law) as "you must play the game; you can't win; you can't break even; you can't quit the game." We move inexorably toward a state of equilibrium. In thermodynamic terms, equilibrium is absolute zero. In cultural terms, entropy is the tendency for things to run down, for civilizations and empires to fall.

Technique is the vehicle. It is our unthinking and efficient application of technology, operating outside of moral or ethical consideration.* It is our tendency to do things because we can, and not because such things are desirable ends in themselves. (Think Alberta tar sands. Think nuclear proliferation.)

The Freudian death instinct is the driving force -- the reason for the trip. It is our perverse tendency to act counter-intuitively and even unconciously against our best interests.

All of these themes are fatalistic in nature. They're about inevitability, as is the rocket's parabola -- gravity's rainbow. Once launched, the rocket has no choice but to follow it's trajectory to it's own annihilation.

But we are not rockets. And metaphors are not reality. Pynchon breaks the gravity's rainbow metaphor by applying vector calculus to the parabola, turning historical inevitability into a nearly infinite collection of individual actions, or vectors, on an arc. The arc describes the trend of history, but it is not history itself. History consists of a large number of individual acts, or individual vectors. The parabola may describe the most likely scenario, but it is only inevitable if good people do nothing to alter the course of history. Not easy, but not impossible either.

When Pynchon wrote Gravity's Rainbow, nuclear annihilation was the greatest threat facing humanity. Today, an argument may be made that climate change is an equal threat. In fact, James Lovelock has made that argument. In Lovelock's view, climate change may very well be inevitable, but our reaction to it isn't, provided we have the courage to think, to assume personal responsibility, and to act consciously according to our collective best interests.

*The difference between moral and ethical? Tiger Woods may be a moral man who believes that it is wrong to cheat on his wife, but he is not an ethical man, because he did cheat on his wife.


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