, ,

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

– “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

In Gabriel Tarde’s 1896 utopian novella, “Fragment d’histoire future”, which was translated into English by Cloudesley Brereton in 1905 as “Underground Man”, the last surviving members of the human race are forced to withdraw into the Earth’s interior because the cooling of the sun has turned our planet’s surface into an uninhabitable realm of ice. If you replace this catastrophe of ‘solar anaemia’ with global warming, there are parallels to be drawn between the reactions to the fictional disaster described by Tarde and the response to climate change in reality. Of course, the change in the temperature in the book is downward rather than upward, but it remains a catastrophic change in temperature nonetheless.

Tarde was a French sociologist, criminologist and psychologist, and it is because of this background that he had a unique insight into human behaviour and was able to make uncannily prescient observations about the reaction to a catastrophe on a global scale. The cooling of the sun begins by being ignored:

“Whatever the reason was, the public concerned itself little about the matter, as in all that is gradual and not sudden.”

In her history of the climate crisis, “Our Biggest Experiment”, Alice Bell evaluates a study produced by the CIA in August 1974, long after the discovery of the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ and the warming of the atmosphere through increased carbon dioxide had been established, by saying that the report “had a point that climate change wasn’t getting the attention it could have and there was a lack of urgency in discussions. There was no large public outcry, nor did anyone seem to be trying to generate one.”

The catastrophe in the novella then “become[s] the subject of several rather smart articles in the reviews”, an obvious analogue to climate change being mentioned in newspapers. An example of this from the aforementioned history is the 1980 New York Times headline, “Global warming has begun, expert tells Senate”. Bell adds that: “The New York Times wasn’t the only place covering the story. The resulting coverage was the first time climate science really made a news splash.”

Even the scepticism about the disaster and whether it will truly have any impact is foretold:

“A few unorthodox persons of heretical and pessimistic temperament remarked, it is true, that at different epochs, if one believed the astronomers of the remote past, certain stars had gradually burnt out in the heavens, or had passed from the most dazzling brilliance to an almost complete obscurity, during the course of barely a single year. They therefore concluded that the case of our sun had nothing exceptional about it.”

Compare the above quotation to Bell’s description of “Global Warming: What Does the Science Tell Us?”, a 1990 book written by conservative think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute:

“It wasn’t out-and-out ‘denial’ of climate change or the greenhouse effect. They simply argued the sun had caused the slight warming of the past century, and when its natural variation calmed down again that would balance out any future greenhouse warming.”

You could even end the second paragraph with the sentence that concludes the first and it would not seem out of place.

In response to the solar cooling, Miltiades, a man who has been wounded in the face and therefore given the nickname, “scarred face”, (not Scarface, as even the original movie had not come out in 1896) proposes that the remnants of humanity retreat to the interior of the Earth. The parallels with the colonisation of Mars propounded by certain billionaires are clear.

Finally, there are the forecasts of the future. In the novella, a “chief of the fashionable school in sociology” predicts that mankind will, in time, continue to migrate and dwell in ever deeper recesses of the Earth. The modern parallel is interplanetary space travel, and, once the habitable and terraformable planets of the present solar system are exhausted, interstellar colonisation. Tarde’s sociologist foretells that the last member of humanity will be a “sole survivor and heir of a hundred successive civilisations, left to himself yet self-sufficient in the midst of his immense stores of science and art”. Imagine, if you will, a long time in the future, in a galaxy far, far away, a scion of the Musk dynasty, sitting on their own in a sports car in a rocket sending memes to themselves in order to try and make themselves laugh one last time.

I think I know enough of hate

It would be remiss of me not to remark on the racism in the text. This is not the accepted view of the time seen as problematic in retrospect, but pure unadulterated racism. The first hints of it appear at the beginning of the chapter entitled “Prosperity”, when Tarde refers to the ‘barbarous tribes’ of Oceania and Central Africa who are ‘incapable of assimilation’, but he reserves his most explicit racism for the Chinese. It is prefigured by the abominable sentence:

“The meadows were no longer green, the sky was no longer blue, the Chinese were no longer yellow, all had suddenly changed colour as in a transformation scene.”

It later happens that the underground civilisation comes across a separate community of Chinese people who have had the same idea as Miltiades. Tarde says that “they had hastily crawled underground without encumbering themselves with museums and libraries, and there they had multiplied enormously”, “they had shamelessly given themselves up to ancestral cannibalism” and that “The words of our language refuse to depict their filth and coarseness”.

Somehow, the description of this Chinese community as filthy, uncultured cannibals is not the worst part. This is:

“Several proposed, it is true, to exterminate these savages who might well become dangerous owing to their cunning and to their numbers, and to appropriate their dwelling-place after a certain amount of cleaning and painting and the removal of numerous little bells. Others proposed to reduce them to the status of slaves or servants in order to shift on to them all our menial work. But these two proposals were rejected. An attempt was made to civilize and to render less savage these poor cousins, and once the impossibility of any success in that direction had been ascertained the partition was carefully blocked up.”

So, despite being a good predictor of human behaviour, it is a shame Tarde’s crystal ball did not show him that his racism would not be tolerated in the future.