First engage your mind’s eye. Now crop in close to a large bovine brow with eyes wide and white with panic as the animal desperately tries to keep its head above whirling water. Perhaps fade to a calm talking human head so you won’t disturb yourself with the actual panic and thrashing shuddering death of the animal. Now run along the line of the herd, all dead in the water but arranged as if by Hollywood for the camera. Arranged nose to tail and stretching into and through the shaking horizon of an ocular migraine. Finish with a long range climbing pan from a helicopter.
As the arial shot traces the length of the herd, it speeds up. No, you can’t really do this in real life with a real helicopter, but the engineering whiz-kiddies of the gaming generation can do it with the digital magic that blurs the line between imagination and the world. Ground your image by thinking of the bovine line transported and overlaid on the surrounds of the outskirts of Adelaide in South Australia with the swollen chord of cattle stretching into the distance. Alongside each dead and bloated bovine are a score of people, and a half dozen chickens. The chickens, like the cattle, are dead. But the people still have a little life in their dark eyes, but not much hope. For every thousand dead cattle and 6,000 dead chickens, there will be the corpse of a person. The women and children may rip hardest at our hearts and wallets, but it’s animals who give greatest bulk to the ranks of the Pakistan flood death toll.
As the chopper shot reaches a dazzling speed, first the cattle and then the landscape turn fuzzy. The blur lasts a long time. Not one of those short times that just seems like a long time, but a genuine temporal span of hours before the blur changes from a brown green conglomerate to a rich dark oceanic blue. The shot has traced the line of dead cattle to Brisbane where it pauses for breath and fuel before continuing on to Cairns.
This is the reality of the flooding in Pakistan this year. Over 1.2 million large animals killed, mainly cattle. Another 6 million chickens. Placed end to end, the line really would go from Adelaide to Cairns and beyond. For each large animal killed, some 20 people were displaced … many still are. You haven’t seen it arranged in a long line on the 6 o’clock news, you can’t do that with an iPhone, and the whiz-kiddies don’t work their magic without a paying audience, but it happened. Long before cameras and digitally manipulated images, people could count. They could aggregate data not just as statistics on a page, but as images in their mind’s eye. And they could tell stories. Stories often motivate people in a way that raw statistics don’t and we need motivation to change the future. If we don’t change course we will end up where we are going.
The current warming of the planet was predicted with stunning accuracy by James Hansen in public hearings in the US over 20 years ago. In 2007 the climate website RealClimate.org published an analysis of just how good Hansen’s 1988 estimates were … it is still chilling reading if you have an imagination
The global average temperature is averaged over both the entire year and all of the planet. Its easy to find particularly warm or cold pieces and time spans in any year. By all accounts 2010 has been the warmest year of the warmest decade on record.
The 1988 predictions were based on a physical model of how the climate system works. The essential features of that model, which assumes we are causing the warming, have been conclusively proven by our changing climate during the past two decades. As a consequence we know that events like the Pakistan floods will become more frequent during coming decades. The turbulent relationship of weather to climate means we can’t have perfect knowledge but we can know which way frequencies of heat waves, and floods and other events will move and those predictions are proving accurate.
People will pay a high price for our failure to force our politicians to act. Our domesticated animals will be and are already paying an even higher price.
Some people in the animal rights movement don’t quite understand my obsession with climate change, but it grows from exactly the same obsession with suffering that drives our concern for animals both human and non-human. You will find a section on global warming in Peter Singer’s 2nd edition of Animal Liberation published over 20 years ago. The 7.2 million animals that died in the Pakistan floods are part of the growing cost of this catastrophe of our making.