Summer is a quasi-official religion in Britain. The seaside ribaldry of the tabloids: Phew! What a scorcher! Deckchairs, bikinis, beach balls, sand, footie, ice cream, park romances, picnics, beer and the sea: sun’s out, guns out. To this gaudy commercial cynicism is now added the note of mounting alarm.
This summer the world has already experienced its hottest-ever days. Even before the July heatwaves began, records were broken. On average, land-surface temperatures in the month of June were 1.46°C higher than in the pre-industrial era. Parts of the north-east Atlantic had water temperatures 3-4°C warmer than usual for this time of year. Record temperatures off the coast of Miami, with the ocean reaching 32.4°C, could cause a major coral bleaching event.
The heatwaves in California, and also in southern Europe, are expected to bring days of temperatures exceeding 40°C, in some places even reaching 48°C. Much of the continent is already under extreme weather warnings. Such heatwaves bring tens of thousands of deaths from cardiovascular stress and heat strokes: last year, 61,000 people died as Europe roasted. They also bring unprecedented destruction of crops, forestry and wildlife: the area of Europe burned during last year’s wildfires was four times greater than the average between 2006 and 2021.
Some of this year’s record heat is due to the El Niño phase in the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (Enso) weather cycle, which occurs every few years. We know about Enso thanks to the failure of the Asian monsoons from 1876-79, and the devastating famines that resulted – those Late Victorian Holocausts of which Mike Davis wrote about in 2000, in which the British colonial authorities drastically limited aid in pursuit of “free market” capitalism. To understand the weather patterns precipitating the droughts, the British Colonial Office established a meteorological observatory. In the mid-1920s, Gilbert Walker observed the Southern Oscillation. Warm ocean currents are usually driven from the eastern Pacific to the west Pacific, around Australia and south-east Asia, by strong trade winds reflecting the differences in air pressure between the two regions. During an El Niño phase, the winds slow down or stop and the warm water drifts back east, towards central and southern America. The result is flooding in the southern US and Latin America, and drought and wildfire in Australia, east Asia and the Pacific Northwest. The Asian monsoon rainfall, which has been declining for decades, is likely to be even lower in an El Niño year. It also raises global temperatures as the ocean releases more heat into the atmosphere.
[See also: Seven ways to make leaders act on climate change]
But it isn’t all about El Niño. The year 2016 was by far the hottest on record even when the effects of Enso were accounted for. The latest El Niño phase has only just begun to influence the weather, after a cold, wet spring. Next year, when its impact will be felt more acutely, is likely to be the hottest year ever. There is a strong chance that global temperatures will be 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures over the next five years: it may be next year. This would risk triggering a number of climate tipping points. For example, this year, Antarctic sea ice has been at record low levels for months. Next year, the West Antarctic ice shelf may finally collapse.
This is the foreseeable summer, for decades to come. Wildfires rage. Crops die, animals die, people die. The heatwaves make the Earth uninhabitable for hundreds of millions of people, not to mention wildlife.
Even in temperate regions, the heat is lethal for those who are vulnerable, and unbearable for those who aren’t. Offices, buses and rented rooms are like kilns. There is no sanctuary outdoors. Night times stink of ordure and decay. The wall of still, moist air presses in from all sides, drawing sweat so thickly from one’s pores that it forms a slimy second skin. As though the “hellfire” sermon from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man had been turned into an immersive experience. Such days are becoming common. And each summer is survived, by those who survive, under the constant threat of disaster. The fairytale summers, from the “summer of love” to the “hot girl summer”, are going up in flames like the Earth’s dried-out vegetation.
As the mercury rises, so does the political temperature. In the past, world-weary, attention-seeking rightists have petitioned us to ignore woke weather warnings, cheer up and enjoy the sunshine. Far-right denialists have predictably pleaded, at the first sight of snow, for some “good old global warming”. Such levity had a certain emotional advantage for those who felt paralysed by the bad news coming from climate scientists. But, as the seasons become increasingly surreal, it is no longer convincing.
Extreme weather events provoke conspiracy theories, rumours about the unprecedented; Rothschild-funded space lasers, antifa arsonists roaming the US countryside with cans of gasoline, or even renewable energy are cited in explanation as citizens cope with wildfires and power blackouts. When those deflections fail, as the unprecedented becomes the everyday, eco-fascism offers its own solutions: to make war on a part of humanity that is supposedly out of place, nomadic and overpopulating. To eco-catastrophism, the right responds with its own disaster porn.
Environmental catastrophism is impossible to avoid, given that a catastrophe is happening all around us. It is compounded by the pervasive sense of powerlessness shared by the public and climate scientists as, just as in Adam McKay’s satirical film Don’t Look Up, the future of humanity is relentlessly trivialised by politicians and the media. This is a bad position to find oneself stranded, and, by itself, the resultant anxiety is incapacitating.
As Anouchka Grose documents in A Guide to Eco-Anxiety (2020), the body under stress is bombarded with cortisol and adrenaline. The heart beats faster, the lungs open, and the immune and reproductive systems are suppressed. This is supposed to be a transient condition. The longer it goes on, the more one suffers high blood pressure, lower bone density, lower fertility rates, exhaustion, immune problems and a greater risk of strokes. Catastrophism alone is likely to lead people to retreat into a survivalist mentality with the narrowest horizons: fortifying “me and mine” against the world. Nor is it enough to gently pummel the public with “inspiring”, can-do rhetoric: people are right to be terrified, and sceptical that anyone in power seriously intends to meet the crisis.
The love of summer, however, can be a factor in the struggle for survival.
The 20th-century Catholic monk and theologian Thomas Merton once warned that the day would come when capitalism would “sell you even your rain”. In defiance, he celebrated the “gratuity” and “meaningless” nature of rain, the “festival” of “all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody”. He might have foreseen that we would even be sold our sunshine as a commodified experience, whether in the form of marketing for music or beer, or in weekend “getaways”. He could not have foreseen the extent to which (fossil) capitalism would ultimately destroy simple seasonal pleasures.
The gratuity of the summer, the “fructifying heat and light” of which Walt Whitman sang, the “beautiful season” described in the medieval poem, The Menologium, in which “the fields blossom with blooms” and “happiness mounts high”, is not reducible to its commercial clichés. It isn’t the summer of kitsch for which we yearn, but the days of festival, of abundance and rest, of communal leisure, when work pauses for a while and the fruits of the earth swell rather than go up in flames. It is the summer humming with birds and insects. It is the seasonal, sublime perfume of lime trees, the reddening of blackberries, the swift’s cry, the painted lady butterflies, the nightingale’s song, the rutting of deer, the patient flourishing of wildflowers. It is the sun to whose motions, as Donne put it, “lovers’ seasons run”. The sun, blessing life with a surfeit of energy – not wiping creatures out in the billions in a wildfire apocalypse.
The naturalist EO Wilson speculatively suggested that humans had an instinctual, passionate interest in life. He called this Biophilia (1984). There isn’t much evidence for such an instinct, as Wilson himself acknowledged. The invention of this biological fiction was an attempt at moral persuasion, conferring on Wilson’s obliquely utopian thought the authority of science. As such, it was hardly less reductive than his writings on sociobiology, in which he argued that phenomena such as sexism and war arose from genetic adaptations to Pleistocene-epoch conditions. And it would hardly explain why conservationists often respond with the same tremulous fascination to relatively lifeless wildernesses such as canyons and deserts.
The concept of biophilia was getting at something intrinsic to human desire. In everyday experience, we can see for ourselves there is an insatiable, limitless and rational desire for the world and its goodness. A curiosity and hunger that goes beyond any conceivable self-interest. As the theologian David Bentley Hart argues in an essay on the 15th-century theologian Nicholas of Cusa, all “finite longing” presupposes a “deferral of final desire toward a truly ultimate end”. Desire is not intrinsically avaricious; it is transcendent. Even the denialist wish to party like it’s the end of days is nothing but a contracted, perverse, defeated and self-defeating form of that desire for the world, the communion of all living things, thriving and plentiful, various in its moods and seasons, habitable, even potentially glorious.
Such yearning, which Rosa Luxemburg called sehnsucht, can be radicalising. It is a passion that resists fatalism and defies the odds.
[See also: Are extreme heatwaves the new normal?]