My neighbor the Nazi has a new yard sign: “THIS VIRUS IS FAKE.” Not a surprise that he'd think so: this is the same guy who put up a sign reading “ISLAM TEACHES PEDOPHILIA” a couple of years ago.
But, as we have seen, a lot of like-minded volk share his disbeliefs. Or have convinced themselves that they do. Unsurprisingly, it turns out a lot of “coronavirus deniers” are also climate-change deniers. And why not? If you don’t see it happening in your house or your neighborhood, why should you believe it? I mean, especially if it’s inconvenient or expensive — or if you just don’t feel like it?
I just re-read the “Airborne Toxic Event” chapter of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985), and I was surprised how current it seemed. The protagonist-narrator, J.A.K. “Jack” Gladney, along with his family, have fled an environmental disaster that is only described as an “airborne toxic event.” The chapter takes place at a large emergency shelter, where they and lots of other refugees are ensconced. “True, false, and other kinds of news radiated through the dormitory,” he reports, and reflects, “No one thing was either more or less plausible than any other thing. As people jolted out of reality, we were released from the need to distinguish.” If the real/fake distinction seems unpalatable, we go for the simulacra. It seems that “reality” here means one’s immediate, everyday reality — like leaving your house to take your kids to soccer practice, or shaking hands. Instead, the characters drift in a float-tank of uncertainty — disoriented, but not entirely uncomfortable.
That uncertainty includes the nature of the “toxic event” itself: “it’s colorless, odorless, and very dangerous, except no one seems to know exactly what it causes in humans or in the offspring of humans. They tested for years and either they don’t know for sure or they know and aren’t saying. Some things are too awful to publicize.” White Noise was written in the waning days of the Pre-Internet Era, before the proliferation and availability of all kinds of media outlets. Nowadays, no story is too awful to hold back, whether it’s true, false or some other kind. (David Wallace-Wells’ essay “The Uninhabitable Earth,” with its worst-case scenarios described in excruciating detail, is perhaps the most prominent case in point, when it comes to the climate crisis.)
But uncertainty has persisted, even increased, with the explosion of “information.” No one knows exactly what coronavirus causes in humans (strokes? disorientation? loss of smell and taste? déjà-vu?). No one knows for sure what climate chaos will cause in their offspring (heat stroke? forced migration? penury? generalized misery?). Both the virus and the climate are invisible — unless of course you see your loved one fade and die, or return to find your cyclone-scoured island half-submerged. But otherwise, it’s all at a distance, apprehensible only through report — news report, rumor, or rumor masquerading as news. It might have all been filmed on a soundstage in Hollywood, like the moon landing. I’m not sick. My house isn’t underneath a mudslide. Just pick the flavor of information you want your brain to absorb, and click. “Maybe it was prissy to be quoting statistics in the face of powerful beliefs, fears, desires,” Jack reflects. There’s no convincing somebody who’s convinced already. And who isn’t already convinced of something?
Jack is the only family member who has risked exposure to the toxic substance — for 2 ½ minutes, while he got out to pump the gas. He asks an authoritative, offical-looking person:
“Am I going to die?”
“Not as such,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Not in so many words.”
“How many words does it take?”
“It’s not a question of words. It’s a question of years. We’ll know more in fifteen years. In the meantime we definitely have a situation.”
“What will we know in fifteen years?”
“If you’re still alive at the time, we’ll know that much more than we do now.”
When it’s all over, we’ll know what happened. After two weeks of declining numbers, we’ll know the number of cases is trending downward. If we have ten years to save the earth, then we’ll know in ten years whether that was correct or not. Or not. In the meantime, the official speaking to Jack patronizingly reassures him: “‘I wouldn’t worry about what I can’t see or feel,’ he said. ‘I’d go ahead and live my life.’”
Many people are taking this advice, with regard to the virus. And as far as the climate crisis goes, most Americans are doing one but not the other: that is, worrying about it and living their lives as they always have. Same carbon footprint, same clicktivist political inactivism. The destruction of the world as we know it may or may not come about in 20 years, therefore it is both true and false, like Schrödinger's cat. So, what? Me worry?
Of course, there are some people who are so worried they are blocking traffic, canvassing neighborhoods, learning to preserve food, forming mutual-aid networks, pressuring officials to improve infrastructure. That's really great of them. But seriously, I don’t have time for that stuff. Do you?
“Men believe what they want to believe,” Caesar said, describing how he defeated the Gauls. I’d say the same goes for other genders, too. Jack thinks about the “tabloid future, with its mechanism of a hopeful twist to apocalyptic events” — that UFOs or Bigfoot or FEMA or somebody will bring about an era of peace and love (and safety). “Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we kept inventing hope.”
And how better to do so than thinking about kids. They’re our Hope for the Future. The chapter ends with Jack watching his sleeping children and experiencing “a moment of splendid transcendence. I depend on my children for that.” He crawls onto the air mattress “feeling selfless and spiritually large.” Surely there is some colorful social-media meme at hand — something with pictures of kids. Something that will leave us feeling fulfilled and reassured, while asking nothing of us in return.
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.