Scientists are measuring air pollution, monitoring ice floes and modelling global temperatures. Engineers are designing low- carbon transport, deflecting solar radiation and developing sustainable-energy power plants. Zoologists and plant scientists are analysing the effects of rising temperatures and receding habitats on the earth’s flora and fauna.
And what are their colleagues in the humanities doing to combat the climate crisis? Quite a lot, actually.
Historians, philosophers, classicists, linguists and literary scholars may not be providing the physical evidence for global warming, nor the practical measures to mitigate the worst of its effects, but their insights into the complexity of human interactions may be just as important. Climate change is now widely recognised as an all-encompassing aspect of the human condition, with implications for almost every area of research in the humanities.
The last decade has seen the rapid growth of scholarship on historical and literary ecology, land use, nature writing, marine studies, botany, forestry, air, animal rights, natural disaster, travel and exploration, and climate catastrophe. Some are obvious responses to the prospect of global warming, focusing on futuristic dystopias starved of food, fuel and water, or on self-sustaining robots taking charge and seeing off humankind. Some are more concerned with shedding light on maritime history, migration, colonial expansion or industrial development – but everywhere, the relationship between humans and their environment is crucial to fuller understanding.
Even when research interests seem very remote from climate change, consciousness of the pressing questions of the 21st century can open new avenues of investigation, and new questions to debate. History, classics, literature, theology and anthropology all offer rich seams of materials relating to floods, fire, drought, famine and extinction – and vital evidence of how earlier generations and other societies have coped (or not). Individual and communal survival (and failure): these are the stuff of stories and histories. Older narratives and theories of human nature have much to tell us about human responses to fear and perennial ways of dealing with impending disaster.
It is not just the methods of resisting or adapting to challenging circumstances that matter, but also the way human beings relate to each other when confronted with a shared crisis. Byron’s vision of a world gradually cooling after the death of the sun conjures up the very opposite of global warming and yet the real horror of his poem ‘Darkness’ lies in the imagined reactions of the diminishing human beings.
Darkness (extract) by Lord Byron
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires – and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings – the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face...
A charge commonly levelled in discussions of climate change is that so much work in the humanities is underpinned by anthropocentric assumptions. Arguments for the preservation of rainforests, green spaces, clean water, declining insect populations or endangered species often rest on their benefits to human beings – from air quality and food security to aesthetic pleasure, good health, or mental and spiritual wellbeing. This is unsurprising, given the centrality of the human to the humanities. But if climate change results from human mismanagement, narrow focus and short-term goals, then reversing climate change is a human responsibility, demanding long- term, lateral and inclusive thinking – and here the humanities can make important contributions to debate and dissemination.
Climate change is a global challenge: international understanding, which entails language, culture and law, is essential to mitigating its causes and countering catastrophe. A good story well told can distil truths in ways that speak to huge audiences far beyond the reach of the research centre. Three minutes’ footage of a seabird feeding plastic to its chicks can be more affecting – and more effective on policy change – than hundreds of peer-reviewed papers on oceanic pollution. It’s not that one form of truth is better or worse, but that different audiences respond to different media.
Climate change can be presented as a prospect so overwhelming and inevitable that it induces despair or denial rather than action. Of course, we need to recognise the scale of the threat and we need brilliant, practical ways of resisting climate catastrophe, but what’s also needed in the face of this international crisis is deeper understanding of the psychological, imaginative, emotional, intellectual and political challenges – and belief in human capacity to change things for the better.