Climate change, the London Olympics, and the defiance of death

August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Amongst all the hype, excitement, goodwill and enthusiasm, what does the London Olympics tell us about people’s relationship to the other-than-human world? Where does the rest of the natural world fit in this spectacular paean to human endurance and the perfectibility of the human body? It is easy to detect a flavour of bread and circuses in the whole endeavour but at a deeper level we are in a realm where politics and myth unite.

Resurgence of denial

When the success of the London bid was announced a young campaigner assured me that climate change meant that the games could not go ahead, or at any rate that they would have to be severely modified. The carbon emissions from the building projects and the flights of so many people from across the world to the venue would no longer be tolerated. The huge sums of money budgeted for the event would be needed to fund urgent infrastructure change. Politically it would become impossible – the Copenhagen treaty would see to that. I was enchanted by his confidence. In 2005 it felt as if the world might turn itself around.

7 years later we sit amongst the ashes of Copenhagen and the detritus of Rio. There is no agreement. There is little likelihood that dangerous climate change can be averted. National and international moods have changed. A recent UK government survey shows that the percentage of UK citizens who are not convinced that climate change is happening has almost doubled, rising from 13% to 24% between 2006 and 2011. (UK Department of Transport 2012). Meanwhile in the United States, the Republican party fielded a slate of presidential candidates most of whom openly expressed their climate scepticism and a research study (Smith and Leiserowitz 2012) found an increase from 7% to 23% between 2003 and 2010 of people connecting the phrase global warming with associations such as ‘hoax’. Anecdotally, it is easy to observe this shift. People no longer seem embarrassed to chat about their long-haul flights. Climate change has joined sex, death and money as a subject that should not be raised in polite conversation.

What do the Olympics represent?

The political function of an event like the London Olympics may seem obvious – it provides distraction from the interlinked economic and environmental crises and offers a narrative of national unity and goodwill that it would be churlish to condemn. However the Olympics also raises deep questions about what it means to be a human being amongst other species in the 21st century. How can people live in reciprocity with the other-than-human environment? What kind of relationship to the rest of the natural world underpins the inadequate and short-term responses we witness to the crises we are living through?

The desire to join the gods

The London Olympics represents a particular and complex embodiment of the relationship of people to the rest of the natural world. In its technical and organizational complexity, huge expense, dependence on unaccountable, undemocratic corporate bodies and minimal regard for environmental concerns it refracts the dominant culture in a slew of brilliant entertainment, distraction and reassurance. At its heart however is the desire to be Olympians – to overcome the bounds of human nature and join the Gods.

In defying the limitations of the ordinary human body the Olympic athletes represent our culture’s defiance of death, its dream of immortality and its denial of our deep and dependent connection to other species and the habitats that nurture both them and us. Myths suggest that this desire may be universal across cultures but also that the desire must be checked and reality reasserted. Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden of Eden. Icarus pays for his flight by tumbling to an early death.

In the euphoria of the race, the chase and the victory lap, anything seems possible. Ordinary people, watching from the comfort and safety of the sofa, are temporarily uplifted and reassured. The downside is yet to be felt – from the arthritis that cripples athletes in later life, to the financial debt and the 3.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions estimated by the organizers as the baseline footprint of the games (London 2012, 2010). The sad truth is that we are not Gods. Our relationship to the rest of the natural world is not as we dream.

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