Blame Derrida

I can’t seem to stop thinking about the disappointing turn Zadie Smith’s otherwise beautiful reflection on climate change for the New York Review of Books takes at the end.

Early in the piece, Smith talks about how comfortably her contemporaries have settled into discussions of the “new normal”—avoiding, like the bereaved, allusions to what once was. She takes up arms against these complacent, accommodating euphemisms, naming precisely what it is that is being lost, at home, in the heart:

Forcing the spike of an unlit firework into the cold, dry ground. Admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot. A bit of sun on Pancake Day; a little more for the Grand National. Chilly April showers, Wimbledon warmth.

A few lines later, we watch these changes play out on distant shores and a far more devastating scale, though they are hidden behind the rhetorical jousting between “alarmists” and “realists” and a convenient slippage of verb tense:

In Jamaica, where Sandy first made landfall, the ever more frequent tropical depressions, storms, hurricanes, droughts, and landslides do not fall, for Jamaicans, in the category of ontological argument … Going, going, gone! But not quite yet. The apocalypse is always usefully cast into the future—unless you happen to live in Mauritius, or Jamaica, or the many other perilous spots.

How can we even begin to account for the damage we’ve done? To whom do we answer, in the end? Smith, like many others, looks to future generations; rather, she looks to the generations of the not-so-distant future, since it seems we’re already well on our way toward the endgame. She imagines herself trying to explain the coming climatic apocalypse to her seven-year-old future grand-daughter, who—to Smith’s credit—is not a polite, passive figure but instead an inquisitive, albeit “slightly tiresome and judgmental,” soul.

Now, what would she say to the child, to explain how it all went so wrong?

I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes—and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.

Wait… what? Deconstruction? What about individual and collective greed, and the stranglehold big corporations—the primary culprits in deforestation, chemical dumping, and our dependence on fossil fuels—have on governments around the world? If it’s a cause for apathy you want, why not look to the scores of protests that fell on deaf ears after the attacks on the World Trade Center sent the war machine rumbling into the Middle East, and speculative investment took down the global economy (but failed to generate any real structural change to the world financial system)? What about the effective disenfranchisement of millions of citizens and the legislative endorsement of race-based homicide here in the States? It’s enough to make anyone feel impotent, defeated. But with all this, Derrida’s the problem?

What bothers me so much is that the claim isn’t only absurd, it’s also just as docile and fatalistic as the euphemisms and elegies Smith herself criticizes. In a piece so concerned with naming, why would such a talented writer shy away from naming the systemic issues behind the causes and effects (environmental destruction and apathy, interchangeably) of climate change? In doing so, in missing this opportunity, she has renounced the little hope we do have in all this, the possibility of a well-reasoned and compelling argument falling on the right ears. Though I can’t say I know whose ears those would be.