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WHAT DO STORIES HAVE TO DO WITH CLIMATE CHANGE: Part II

By: Kylie-Anne Grube

Hello again, Radicles!

Last month I wrote an article discussing how the stories of our past construct and reinforce particular human-environment relations. Specifically, in western Nature Writing we see links with environmental racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation – issues that lie at the heart of the climate crisis.

We left off here:

“What we need are new stories and new storytellers. Stories that reimagine and transform our relationship with the environment and with one another”

Most of us will reply to this statement with a scoff: “Yeah, okay … pick up a pen, write a little story, ‘change the world’ – like that is going to do anything to help climate change”.

And that statement is where I want to begin today. Why is it that storytelling is typically not seen as a “serious” response to climate change?

To answer that question, we have to turn once again to history, where we can note the emergence of a binary between two cultures – the sciences and the arts. This binary presents the arts and sciences as opposing sources of knowledge and establishes a perception of what disciplines are capable of addressing the environment, and, today, climate change. Unsurprisingly, science is the discipline that was granted sole authority of concerns regarding Nature, and this historically-entrenched division can limit our ability to think about the social, political, and cultural intersections at the heart of the climate crisis.

This scientific framing of climate change can be traced back to the long nineteenth-century, during which time science and economics were the dominant modes of representing and understanding the environment. This particular discourse “made available the very tools upon which contemporary environmental and climate sciences depend: statistics and probability theory; long-and-short-term studies of climate; critiques of industrialization and urbanization; and an awareness of the final nature of natural resources” (Choi and Leckie, 2018)

English novelist and physical chemist C.P. Snow first wrote about this division between the two cultures in 1959. Essentially, he argues that the intellectual life of western society has been divided into two primary cultures, the sciences and the humanities, which limits our ability to problem solve. This dichotomy continues to influence contemporary discussions and practices in the field of climate change, as scientific models have become the primary method of predicting the future of the climate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) serves as a great example of this. While this type of prediction model is crucial for policy decisions, their reports frame climate change within the schema of numbers, charts, and graphs that resist interpretation on the human level – that is, these reports do not help us to understand what things feel like. It is also difficult to address issues related to equity within this scientific framework which sets a precedent for how climate justice is conceived, communicated, and legitimized.

But, ay, there’s the rub …

While the IPCC reports are firmly rooted in the scientific literature, it is becoming increasingly recognized that climate prediction and scenario analysis involves a great act of imagination, which actually disturbs the hard division between the arts and sciences:

“By putting data into meaningful sequence and giving it a graphic framework, visineers ultimately produce not only images, but also narratives consistent with particular worldviews”(Mehnert, 2016).

Even as we attempt to approach climate change through a purely logical or rational lens, narratives of human desire and agency operating within the intersections of politics, economics, and culture are a driving force behind our actions and our conceptions of what is possible.

Natural scientists cannot in fact predict the future of climate in a scientific vacuum because the fate of the climate crisis depends on human action – human choice. This aspect of human choice is key and, as such, both formal and informal narratives play an important role in thinking through and communicating climate change. Why?  Because it asks us to make choices about what kind of ecological futures we desire.

However, as we discussed last month, the ecological narratives we have available to us at present are sorely lacking. Nature writing has established a literary tradition in which the environment serves, almost exclusively, as a background for human concerns and relationships: they reproduce and naturalize a human/Nature division that impedes our capacity to imagine the possibility of other ecological relationships.

Again, what we need is new stories. A new narrative frame is necessary to deconstruct established categories of difference and open up space for new identities and human-environment relationships to emerge. The good news is that the roots of these new narratives are beginning to emerge and next month we will start to look at where this is happening. 

Until then!

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