The terrible, terrifying beauty of climate disasters

Beauty, even destructive beauty, can be hypnotic, unless you’re literally drowning in it.

The scenes — I use this term intentionally — coming from B.C. are apocalyptic, except the apocalypse was only supposed to happen once. . My brother, who lives on one of the Gulf Islands, writes:


“There has been heavy rain and wind most winters in the eight years I’ve been in B.C., that keep me up with the noise of big raindrops hitting my metal roof, looking nervously at the large fir trees swaying over the house. But the past four weeks has been like the highlights of the worst storms of the last decade squeezed into a month.”

Rick Salutin es es un novelista, dramaturgo, y crítico canadiense que ha ejercido el periodismo durante más de 40 años. Actualmente publica una columna semanal en el Toronto Star, y ejerce la docencia en el University College de la Universidad de Toronto.

The images (ahem) of flooding are terrifying, brown water lashing forward relentlessly. The Biblical flood seems comparatively benign. It merely rose steadily, with Noah’s Ark like a cherry on top. These seem fiercer, with no happy olive-branch ending.

It’s as if we get, to compensate for this ongoing disaster, awesome images, like a brilliant horror movie: beautiful in Yeats’ sense of a “terrible beauty” being born. An esthetic experience for those not in it. Or think of watching Baghdad bombed at night in real time at the start of the Gulf War.

The German-Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who lived (and killed himself) in the years between the world wars, wrote about how art in what he called “the age of mechanical reproduction” was replacing politics and action.

For most human history, art like statues, drama and paintings was available only to those immediately present. But more recently, technologies like print and photography made novels, films, paintings, etc., accessible to “the masses,” who came into existence in the same period. Suddenly art was for everyone.

Benjamin’s era, like ours, was politically polarized between left and right. As a leftist, he felt the solution to horrors like the First World War was to alter the system of property, which the rich would never allow. Their alternative was to accept, even promote, war but turn it into a mass esthetic experience, a big show that was also a mass emotional outlet — and the “Great War” did produce much art, poetry and images (like the Unknown Soldier), which were accessible on a vast scale because of printing presses, movies and radio.

There were artistic ideologies like futurism that said this explicitly. Let there be art, though the world perish, was Benjamin’s rendition of their view. Even the inventor of poison gas, Fritz Haber, travelled to the front, partly to take in as a spectator the visual and other effects of his “creation.”

In our time, the great catastrophe is less war, which persists, than climate disaster, which is also human-created, though not as deliberately. So it tries to hide behind a curtain of innocence. But its apocalyptic quality is undeniable.

So are its esthetics, like those gorgeous polluted sunsets. With the effective culturalization of everything, even newscasts become like gallery shows in which we’re dazzled by images of floods and ruin. Groups like Project Pressure, a Scandinavian arts collective, try to use the images to spur action for change — but they risk the public being mesmerized rather than mobilized. It’s a dilemma that artists like Bertolt Brecht also faced in Benjamin’s time. Beauty, even destructive beauty, can be hypnotic, unless you’re literally drowning in it.

So there you go. I started rereading Benjamin’s renowned essay partly to look away from images coming out of B.C. and I guess I got what I deserved.

But for the record, and since we have some freedom of choice here, I am somewhat more hopeful than gloomy after COP26 in Glasgow. I’d say a corner’s been turned on the seriousness of climate apocalypse. The deniers are now a small, though dangerous minority, like anti-vaxxers (oy vey, yet another cataclysm).

I’m even encouraged by corporate powers like GM, who’re aiming to produce only electric vehicles by 2035. That sounds like an actual plan. If even they get it, who knows, we may make it out alive.


This column was originally published in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[