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Image of Humanitarian Catastrophe

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Iveline Zvezdov

In contemporary discussion of climate risk, the image of humanitarian disaster takes central part in definition of argument and in motivation for action. This image is most often created with the languages of politics, philosophy, and mathematics. We have not yet come to its effective rendering in the language of the visual arts. Perhaps in the absence of such artistic reference, in the commencement of his 2018 Nobel prize speech for this purpose Professor William Nordhaus invoked the 1812 painting – The Colossus. The painting is done by Francisco de Goya and produced in the style of his aptly named series of black paintings, “pinturas negras”. It portrays the horrors of the human catastrophe brought about by the Napoleonic wars. It is a painting of a particular vision of suffering created by the torrent of events during a total and uncompromising war. The figure of the giant, the colossus clearly stands for the overwhelming power and unyielding  brutality of the unfolding disaster. The throngs of men, cattle and horse wagons represent a ‘humanity’ which is subject to the super-human wrath of the catastrophe. These are the refugees of whose survival the audience cannot be certain. It is evident that disorientation, despair, and chaos grasp the mass of humanity in Goya’s painting. Its artistic impact upon the spectator then prompts the ever-pertinent question, which always accompanies the shock of a catastrophe – how did it come to this. The artwork of Goya does not reveal this answer. When method is a master of masters then the language of politics and science or art and philosophy must be used to render light on the causes and the outcomes of colossal events. A scientific or artistic image of a humanitarian catastrophe always requires an answer, demands an explanation of how and why the actual event had come to unfold and impact lives in tragic manner. The question is there because it is existential to humans. We may not have an artistic image of the current and vastly evolving climatic risk crisis, but we have its scientific and humanitarian understanding. Hence the same question on its origin, which Goya’s painting delivers to its audience – “why did it come to this” can no longer be avoided when contemplating the stability of climate in contemporary human affairs. An artistic construct attempting to reveal the causes of this complex economic and societal question would be even more challenging and even more subtly ambiguous than that of its observed physical outcomes. In his 2018 Nobel lecture Nordhaus effectively applied a classical economics theory explanation to the same questions of origin and of root cause. He found the end of climate stability and predictability to come from a depletion of a global public good, exhausted by free riding. During Goya’s lifetime, in the early 19’th century the European public good, depleted and exhausted, was a security order for continental societies provided by the anciens regimes.  This order was shattered to pieces by the French revolution and consequent Napoleonic wars. In the Colossus society has clearly gone over the tipping point of collapse, as order has cascaded into chaos. With the public good of societal security destroyed by war a downward spiral of social degradation unfolds for all to see. Francisco de Goya expressed this clearly with the language of visual art. Today another essential public good is vastly and speedily depreciated. The global public good of climate stability has always been of extreme and high importance to economic and social growth, while perceived to be of infinite supply. Societies of pre-industrial revolution times viewed climate stability and predictability as existential. The pace of the seasons defined the pace of industry which was based on agriculture and husbandry. The severity of flood, draught or winter cold determined the availability of food, the accumulation of wealth and the absence of pestilence and conflict. The industrial revolutions changed this. Societies in Europe and North America acquired newly elevated and celebrated powers over nature and the abundance of its resources. At the same time these societies began to vigorously exploit the capacity of the earth’s atmosphere to store carbon emissions without a consequence or cost on the assumption that this capacity is eternal and infinite. Fifty years ago, through scientific research we found that the assumption is woefully wrong. In parallel developed societies proceeded on the path of rapid economic growth under a second erroneous assumption. That is ecology, biodiversity, and environmental health have little to no impact on our personal health, wealth, success, on the success and stability of the societies and communities in which we live and work. Technology, merit, and personal character were to be the all-powerful tools of a new breed of ‘masters of the universe’ able to resolve all needs of progress and growth. The miscalculation in the assumptions of infinite and valueless resources of climate stability and environmental health peaked in the form of free riding these global public goods to their complete depletion. Now the fallacy of these assumptions comes back to us in the form of severe climatic shocks and environmental deterioration, which may result in systemic chaos. By the unforgiving rules of contagion in social and economic networks as chaos spreads, accounting for the public good shortens even further and the horizon of rational cost – benefit analysis diminishes. In times of severe and existential crisis, individuals, communities, societies as a whole simply care less about the long-term implications of depleting essential public goods. We find in our present-day experience that at time of military conflict its participants consider the health and stability of global climate to be a distinct and unrealistic concern. And yet a society on a trajectory of relentless development and economic growth will still reach threshold points in destruction of unprotected public goods. The journey and timing on this path are uncertain and unknown to scientists and mathematicians as well as to policy makers and artists. However, when thresholds of collapse are reached by social and economic systems then the outcomes of disaster are mostly certain and well predictable. To avoid the fate of ‘humanity’ in Goya’s artwork societies equip themselves with proper instruments, which allow them to prevent exhaustion in their treasury of public goods – be they in natural resources, environment and ecology, security, and climate stability. As a civilization we do have the tools and the knowledge to protect and regulate their resourcing and use. These tools are our international binding conventions and treaties designed with legal frameworks to provide protection of our common human heritage of global public goods. Such instruments of international diplomacy and policymaking were successfully deployed this year in the field of regulating marine plastics’ pollution. The occasion created an example of a success story to follow for practitioners and experts in many areas of international environmental and climate policy.

In the early nineteenth century the mutual security arrangement of European states failed completely to prevent total continental war despite sovereigns being in procession of all the tools and process of international diplomacy. Francisco de Goya captured an artistic rendering of the human cost of this catastrophe in his painting The Colossus. The failure came not from lack of diplomatic skill, knowledge of international due process and technique. Above all it was a political failure in poor timing, lack of collaboration and weakness in will to act. It surmounted to inability to solve a free riding problem among sovereigns expecting that the disaster will engulf others first and thus some may be spared. Today as we contemplate Goya’s masterpiece we also remember the political failures of his times. Today as then societies are fully equipped with the technical and diplomatic tools and techniques to deal with the free riding and catastrophic depletion of the global public goods of climate stability and environmental health. Today as then political willpower of sovereigns to prevent free riding and thus protect themselves would make the difference.