Three things historical literature can teach us about the climate crisis



Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870.

David Higgins, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, University of Leeds

New novels about climate change – climate fiction, or cli-fi – are being published all the time. The nature of the climate crisis is a difficult thing to get across, and so imagining the future – a drowned New York City, say; or a world in which water is a precious commodity – can help us understand what’s at stake.

This is unsurprising in these times of crisis: fiction allows us to imagine possible futures, good and bad. When faced with such an urgent problem, it might seem like a waste of time to read earlier texts. But don’t be so sure. The climate emergency may be unprecedented, but there are a few key ways in which past literature offers a valuable perspective on the present crisis.

1. Climate histories

Historical texts reflect the changing climatic conditions that produced them. When Byron and the Shelleys stayed on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, the literature that they wrote responded to the wild weather of the “year without a summer”.

This was caused largely by the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora the previous year, which lowered global temperatures and led to harvest failures and famine. Literary works such as as Byron’s “Darkness”, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveal anxieties about human vulnerability to environmental change even as they address our power to manipulate our environments.

Many older texts also bear indirect traces of historical climate change. In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton complains that a “cold climate” may “damp my intended wing” and prevent him from completing his masterpiece. This may well reflect the fact that he lived through the coldest period of the “Little Ice Age”.

Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Skaters, c. 1608.
Rijks Museum

Even literature’s oldest epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC), contains traces of climate change. It tells of a huge flood which, like the later story of Noah in the Old Testament, is probably a cultural memory of sea level rise following the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.

These historical climatic shifts were not man made, but they still provide important analogues for our own age. Indeed, many cultures have seen human activity and climate as intertwined, often through a religious framework. One of the ironies of modernity is that the development of the global climate as an object of study, apparently separate from human life, coincides with the development of the carbon capitalism that has linked them more closely than ever.

2. How we view nature

Reading historical literature also allows us to trace the development of modern constructions of the natural world. For example, the Romantic ideal of “sublime” nature, which celebrated vast, dramatic landscapes like mountains and chasms, has influenced the kinds of places that we value and protect today in the form of national parks.

When we understand that such landscapes are not purely natural, but are produced by cultural discourses and practices over time – we protect these landscapes above others for a reason – we can start to debate whether they can be better managed for the benefit of humans and non-humans alike.

Past ideas of ‘sublime’ nature have bled into the landscapes we protect today.
Hendrik Cornelissen/Unsplash, FAL

Or consider how in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the work of nature writers such as Thomas Bewick, Charlotte Smith and Gilbert White played a powerful role in promoting natural theology: the theory that evidence for God’s existence can be found in the complex structures of the natural world. Past literature has also been crucial in disseminating new scientific ideas such as evolutionary theory, which understood natural phenomena as entirely secular. Literature does not just reflect changing views of the natural world; it shapes them.

Studying historical texts helps us to understand how modern cultural attitudes towards the environment developed, which in turn allows us to perceive that these attitudes are not as “natural” or inevitable as they may seem. This insight allows for the possibility that today, in a time in which our attitude towards the environment could certainly improve, they can change for the better.

3. Ways of thinking

Some of the attitudes towards the natural world that we discover in historical literature are contentious, even horrifying: for example, the normalisation of animal cruelty portrayed in books such as Black Beauty.

But we can find more promising models too. Voltaire’s poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, for example, has been used to think about the ethics of blame and optimism in responses to modern disasters, like the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

Reading past literature can also help us to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. Samuel Johnson commented of the natural descriptions in James Thomson’s poems The Seasons (1730) that the reader “wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses”. Amid the frenzied distractions of modern life, the work of authors like Thomson, Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare can help us to slow down, notice and love nature.

Historical literature can remind us of our own vulnerability to elemental forces. The famous depiction of a storm in King Lear, for example, mocks Lear’s attempt:

In his little world of man to out-scorn
The two-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.

Shakespeare might appear to aestheticise dangerous weather, but the play reminds us that the storm is far bigger and messier than any human attempt to represent and interpret it.

Lear and the Fool in the storm, Ary Scheffer, 1834.
Folger Shakespeare Library, CC BY-SA

At the same time, literature can remind us of the need to take responsibility for our own impacts upon the environment. We may not want to follow pre-modern and early modern literature in viewing climate change as divine punishment for bad behaviour. But when Milton suggests that it was the fall of man that brought in “pinching cold and scorching heat” to replace the eternal spring of Eden, his narrative has clear figurative resonance with our present crisis.

Historical literature can show us how writers responded to climate change, trace how they influenced modern ideas about nature, and reveal valuable ways of relating to and thinking about nature. The climate crisis cannot be addressed only through technological solutions. It also requires profound cultural shifts. To make those shifts requires an understanding of past ideas and representations: both those that led to our current predicament and those that might help us address it.The Conversation

David Higgins, Associate Professor in English Literature, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change novels allow us to imagine possible futures – read these crucial seven



Hitoshi Suzuki/Unsplash, FAL

Adeline Johns-Putra, University of Surrey

Every day brings fresh and ever more alarming news about the state of the global environment. To speak of mere “climate change” is inadequate now, for we are in a “climate emergency”. It seems as though we are tripping over more tipping points than we knew existed.

But our awareness is at last catching up with the planet’s climate catastrophes. Climate anxiety, climate trauma, and climate strikes are now all part of many people’s mental landscape and daily lives. This is almost four decades after scientists first began to warn of accelerated global warming from carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere.

And so, unsurprisingly, climate fiction, climate change fiction, “cli-fi” – whatever you want to call it – has emerged as a literary trend that’s gained astonishing traction over the past ten years.

Just a decade ago, when I first began reading and researching literary representations of climate change, there was a curious dearth of fiction on the subject. In 2005, the environmental writer Robert Macfarlane had asked plaintively: “Where is the literature of climate change?”. When I went to work in 2009 on one of the first research projects to attempt to answer this question, I found that some climate change novels were only beginning to emerge. Ten years later, the ubiquity of cli-fi means that the question of how many cli-fi novels there are seems irrelevant. Equally irrelevant is any doubt about the urgency of the climate emergency.

But the question of how to deal with such a complex challenge is paramount. The climate emergency demands us to think about our responsibilities on a global scale rather than as individuals, to think about our effects not just on fellow humans but on all the species that call this planet home, and to think about changing the resource-focused, profit-seeking behaviours that have been part of human activity for centuries.

Novels allow us to imagine possible futures from the comfort of the present.
Maria Cassagne/Unsplash, FAL

This is where literature comes in. It affords us the headspace in which to think through these difficult and pressing questions.

Cli-fi has a central role in allowing us to do the psychological work necessary to deal with climate change. I am often asked to identify the climate novel that is the most powerful and effective and, just as often, I reply that no one novel can do this. The phenomenon of cli-fi as a whole offers us different ways and a multitude of spaces in which to consider climate change and how we address it.

Here, then, is my list of a range of novels that offer just such a diverse set of perspectives. These books provide readers with a range of thought (and feeling) experiments, from dystopian despair to glimmers of hope, from an awareness of climate change impacts on generations to come to vivid reminders of how we are destroying the many other species that share our planet.

1. The Sea and Summer, 1987

Australian novelist George Turner’s book is one of the earliest examples of cli-fi and is prescient in more ways than one. Set in Melbourne in the 2030s, skyscrapers are drowning due to sea-level rise: a setting for a stark division between the rich and the poor. Like many cli-fi novels, this novel’s dystopian future provides a sophisticated thought experiment on the effects of climate change on our already divided society. Turner’s book deserves to be reread — and reissued — as classic and still relevant cli-fi.


HarperVoyager

2. Memory of Water, 2012

Water has become a precious commodity in this cli-fi dystopia by Finnish author Emmi Itäranta. In Nordic Europe in the distant future, a young girl must decide whether to share her family’s precious water supply with her friends and fellow villagers and risk being accused of “water crime”, punishable by death. This tender coming-of-age narrative is thus also a meditation on the value of resources taken entirely for granted by the contemporary, westernised reader.

3. The Wall, 2019

At first glance, John Lanchester’s novel could be a comment on the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in Britain. In a not-so-distant future, every inch of British shoreline is guarded by an immense wall, a bulwark against illegal migrants as well as rising sea levels. But through the experiences of a young border guard, the novel shows us how this national obsession with borders not only distracts from the climate emergency at hand; it diminishes our responsibility to fellow humans around the world, whose lives are threatened by climate change and for whom migration is a desperate solution.


Titan Books (UK)

4. Clade, 2015

Australian author James Bradley’s novel chronicles several generations of one family in an increasingly devastated world. The day-to-day detail of their lives, as relationships hold together or break apart, unfolds against the backdrop of environmental and thus societal breakdown. The novel contrasts the mundane miscommunications that characterise human relations with the big issue of global warming that could rob future generations of the opportunity to lead meaningful lives.

5. The Stone Gods, 2007

Jeanette Winterson’s stab at cli-fi offers, like Bradley’s novel, a long view. The novel ranges over three vastly different timeframes: a dystopian, future civilisation that is fast ruining its planet and must seek another; 18th-century Easter Island on the verge of destroying its last tree; and a near-future Earth facing global environmental devastation. As readers time travel between these stories, we find, again and again, the damage wrought by human hubris. Yet, the novel reminds us, too, of the power of love. In the novel, love signifies an openness to other humans and other species, to new ideas, and to better ways of living on this planet.


Constable

6. The Swan Book, 2013

This novel by indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright is unconventional, fable-like cli-fi. Its protagonist is a young indigenous girl whose life is devastated by climate change but most of all by the Australian government’s mistreatment of its indigenous populations. Weaving indigenous belief with biting satire, Wright’s novel is a celebration of her people’s knowledge of how to live with nature, rather than in exploitation of it.

7. Flight Behaviour, 2012

Unlike the other novels on this list, this one, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a realist novel set entirely in the present day. A young woman from Tennessee stumbles upon thousands of monarch butterflies roosting on her in-laws’ land, the insects having been thrown off course by extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

From the scientists who come to study the problem, she learns of the delicate balance that is needed to keep the butterflies on course. Kingsolver’s rich descriptions of an impoverished Appalachian community are combined with her biologist’s training, so that reader empathy is eventually shifted from the likeable heroine to the natural wonder that is the butterflies. We are reminded of how climate change risks not simply human comfort but the planet’s ecological complexity.The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading classic novels in an era of climate change



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Smoke rises over the city of Manchester in William Wyld’s painting Manchester from Kersal Moor.
(1852).
Wikimedia commons

Philip Steer, Massey University

There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism. The Conversation

What might we now find if we look again at the literature of the 19th century? Although Victorian writers lacked our understanding of a warming planet, we can learn from their deep awareness of the rapid and far-reaching ways that their society was changing. In their hands, the novel became a powerful tool for thinking about the interconnections between individuals, society, economics, and the natural world.

North and South

One place to start thinking about such things might be Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), a classic example of the “industrial novel” genre that flourished in the middle decades of that century.

Most of the novel’s events take place in the industrial town of Milton-Northern (Manchester), the epicentre of Victorian coal-fired industrial production. Our protagonist, Margaret Hale, is forced to relocate there due to family circumstances, and her first numb impressions are that the environment, the economy, and the city’s urban geography have all been transformed by fossil fuel consumption:

For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay … Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.

Milton is covered in a thick layer of pollution as a result of the town’s industrialisation, as depicted in the BBC mini-series North and South (2004), which starred Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Gaskell brings her refined but impoverished heroine into contact with a forceful cotton-mill owner, John Thornton — imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set in a factory. Their love plot offers a symbolic means of restoring harmony to a nation disrupted by the new economy, as Margaret softens the edges of Thornton’s laissez faire practices and brings about improved relations with his workers. As he admits to one of his acquaintances, near the end of the novel,

My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’.

Thinking about this resolution in light of the fossil fuel economy, however, what comes into focus is how vulnerable this harmonious social vision is to wider social and environmental forces. By the novel’s conclusion, the global market — the source of raw materials, investors, and customers — proves to be so powerful and destabilising that the harmony of Thornton’s factory can provide only temporary solace at best, and he is bankrupted:

Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually… . Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure… . [F]rom the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer[.]

Looking back at North and South now, we can see how interconnected its vision of a fossil-fuelled society and the economy is, and how artificial the borders of the nation prove to be when faced with the instabilities that it causes.

The Time Machine

Australian author James Bradley suggests that writers today, grappling with how to represent climate change, have found genres such as science fiction more suited to the task than classic realism.

“In a way this is unsurprising,” he comments, because of those genres’ interest in “estrangement” from everyday circumstances, and their fascination with “experiences that exceed human scales of being.”

The last decades of the Victorian era were, like now, a stunning time of generic innovation, and prominent amongst those late-century innovations were the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells.

The Time Machine’s bleak view of humanity’s future (seen here in the 1960 film adaptation) is a chilling one.
George Pal Productions

In The Time Machine (1895) Wells found a narrative device that would allow him to think about social and environmental change over enormous spans of history. Near the end of the novel, the inventor of the machine undertakes a voyage to the very end of the planet’s history:

I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained… . I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct… .
From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over.

In imagining this bleak beach, Wells is taking up contemporary predictions that the law of entropy meant the inevitable “heat death” of the universe. Global cooling rather than global warming, then, but one thing that resonates now is how the novel views humanity as a species — and a finite one, at that — rather than from a more limited individual or even national perspective.

The Victorians were the first to stare into the abyss of geological deep time, and to confront the idea of natural history as a succession of mass extinctions.

As a result, Wells raises the idea of a future where even technology cannot overcome calamitous natural processes, and dares to imagine a planet without a human presence.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently described a “broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” arguing that the characteristics of the realist novel have made it resistant to representing those environmental and social complexities. Does the realist novel really have nothing to offer and nothing to say in an era of climate change?

The melting icebergs of Breidamerkurjokull’s Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland: is there a role for the realist novel in an era of climate change?
Ints Kalnins/Reuters

One place to look for an answer is another famously bleak Victorian text, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The plot is set in motion with Tess’s father’s discovery that his family name, Durbeyfield, is a corruption of D’Urberville, and they are in fact descended from an ancient family that once dominated the area. When they are ultimately thrown out of their home, the Durbeyfields end up seeking refuge at a church, amongst the graves of their ancestors:

They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct there was none so forcible as this spoliation.

A bit like our own era of increasingly constrained resources, Tess inhabits an exhausted present, and she moves amidst the ruins left by previous generations who have consumed the material wealth that once made life abundant.

Hardy is also deeply attuned to the ecological damage produced by increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture. Late in the novel, when Tess is abandoned by her lover, Angel Clare, she is forced to accept work on the vast and stony fields of Flintcomb-Ash farm.

She labours through a brutal winter, and endures the relentless demands imposed by a steam-powered threshing machine — “a portable repository of force” — that reduces the workers to automatons. Around the same time, Angel abandons England for Brazil, only to find that English bodies do not translate to tropical ecosystems:

He would see mothers from English farms trudging along with their infants in their arms, when the child would be stricken with fever and would die; the mother would pause to dig a hole in the loose earth with her bare hands, would bury the babe therein with the same natural grave-tools, shed one tear, and again trudge on.

Gemma Arterton as Tess in the 2008 mini series adaptation. Stuck on a farm, Tess seesk to make ethical choices despite overwhelming constraints in Hardy’s novel.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Both Tess and Angel — and the anonymous, sundered colonial families — seem to be climate refugees of a kind, caught between hostile climates and the environmental wreckage wrought by agribusiness.

What little Tess of the D’Urbervilles offers in the face of all this bleakness also centres on Tess. For one thing, she doesn’t just think of herself as an isolated individual, but sees herself as part of larger social and ecological collectives — her family, her fellow milkmaids, even the rural landscape.

She persists in her determination to care for those around her — including, most challengingly, the son she gives birth to after her rape — despite the weight of the moral and economic systems that bear down upon her. After her father refuses to let the parson visit, Tess chooses to baptise her dying son herself — naming him Sorrow — and then secures him a Christian burial:

In spite of the untoward surroundings … Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening … putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.

Tess refuses to abandon her project of care despite its futility, persisting with her fidelity in the midst of catastrophe.

Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew.

The Sydney Writers Festival will host a session on the rise and rise of Cli-Fi featuring James Bradley, Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay on Friday May 26.

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.