Sabrina Xie / Sun Graphics

September 17, 2020

PERATI | When Life Imitates Art

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My quotidian has evolved to include checking the air quality index in my hometown each morning and watching the west coast burn from afar.

I receive daily updates from my family in California: descriptions of the latest expeditions outside of the house to the grocery store where eyes come back bloodshot from the pollution, tales of evacuation orders in neighboring counties and photos captured of a scarlet haze painted across the west coast sky.

Wildfires have blazed through more than five million acres: imagine the entire states of Connecticut and Delaware being charred completely to the ground.

With the smog choking out the oxygen in the air, many are left trapped inside their homes with clogged air filters and the impending dark cloud of evacuation orders looming overhead.

Homes and neighborhoods have been battered and destroyed, leaving hundreds of thousands of people with nothing but a visceral feeling of displacement. There are few places left to go. With the pandemic, it has become unsafe to come together inside, but with the fires still blazing, it’s no longer feasible to convene outdoors.

There is a phrase that comes to mind, when thinking about the fires back home, by Oscar Wilde who writes in his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” At face value, the argument seems absurd: how are these fires, a manifestation of climate change, forest mismanagement and the disregard for native practices of cultural burning, an imitation of art?

But paste pictures of the red-stricken sky alongside a scene from Blade Runner or Stranger Things, then tear out a page from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, and doesn’t this all feel like a scene from a post-apocalyptic world you’ve seen on screen or read before?

Without the existence of art, a scarlet painted sky would be nothing more than a color. But post-apocalyptic films and speculative fiction all work together to help to contextualize its meaning. Red is no longer just red; it has become an ominous symbol of our changing now.

Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy for example, presents an alternative future in which a pandemic wipes out much of the human race and the survivors are left to deal with the lasting consequences of climate change. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, written in 1993, takes place in a speculative 2024 in which society has largely collapsed due to climate change and fires burn indiscriminately.

We see photos of the wreckages, the people displaced from their homes and the smog suffocating the blue from the sky, and there is a scary sense of recognition that sets in. What we’ve been watching on screen and reading in books is no longer an alternative future or speculative fiction. It is the ongoing present.

Yes, fire season has been a perennial challenge in California, but the destruction in the recent years has pervaded more of the landscape than ever before. Art has always served as a warning of what the future might look like if we remain complicit in our changing landscape. Will we continue to watch the red-stricken skies and high air quality scores, thinking this is an issue that pertains only to the west coast?

The reality is that the climate change crisis affecting California and the west now is already affecting us on the east coast. This past week alone, a yellow haze drifted into our skies, residual smoke from the west coast fires. Hurricane Sally just struck Florida and parts of Alabama causing widespread flooding.

These lasting consequences of anthropogenic climate change predicted by Atwood and Butler will only get worse. The question now is what will we do? What happens when our reality becomes indistinguishable from art? Will we remain passive consumers, taking in fiction and film and attributing it to a far-fetched alternative future? Or will we use art to inspire action?

Shriya Perati is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at sperati@cornellsun.com. Thought Experiments runs alternate Thursdays this semester.