(Humboldt’s vision of complex, interlocking ecosystems…and the holding pond near my house, where an animal has built a home in the midst of trash, plastic, poor water quality. This animal has no particular rights in this context, nor could this animal be said to be remarkable beyond simply wanting to survive. Given that the world is not at the point of looking like this holding pond–yet–at what point do we begin to realize that human survival depends on maintenance of complex ecosystems, and our ability to create soft tech to fit in with and supplement that environment? Or is that not a story we want to tell? Do we prefer a story in which traditional hard tech imposes human systems toward ultimate control? Which story is more likely to result in success?)
This past week, I spoke at the University of Florida’s climate change conference. You can find the video of the panel discussion between some participants here. The video of the talks at the climate change conference will not be posted online, so I’m posting my preamble below, in case it is of interest. The rest of the talk constitutes the core of a book I’m writing about fiction and the Anthropocene–it is more broadly, though, about storytelling in the Anthropocene. As, in a Baudrillardian sense, we move further into a terrain or terroir in which the divide between fictional and nonfictional storytelling is eroded, “storytelling” becomes a more fluid term, and one with possibilities of transfer between two worlds. Please note that this preamble does not unpack the ideas it brings up because they are further explored in the body of the essay and in ongoing notes and chapters I’m working on. Thanks to UF entomologist Andrea Lucky for providing a scientist’s response to the lecture and the Southern Reach trilogy. The idea of putting fiction and science in conversation in that way is a good one.
I want to begin by talking a little bit about useful and unuseful storytelling, given that global warming and other effects of the Anthropocene may indeed be vast and taken in total hard to hold in the mind at one time.
Yet just as all politics are local, so too is global warming. And we happen to be in a state, Florida, where the effects of the Anthropocene sometimes manifest much more clearly. Florida has a unique environment, but is subject to the usual human pressures of population, with no real sustainable plan for the future, while also being on the forefront of sea-level rise, as recently noted in the New Yorker.
Florida also—more uniquely but sadly not sui generis—has a sitting governor, Rick Scott, and a department of environmental protection, largely in thrall, that showcase a particular approach to the Anthropocene and its effects—and this involves storytelling to a great degree. In short, in storytelling terms Scott and his proxies represent a nexus of counterfactual fiction—fictions spun out in the service of a particular agenda, occupying a traditionally nonfictional space that has become remarkably less so over the last 20 years. There is the world in which we breathe, eat, create waste, and absorb toxins from the air, earth, and water—and then there is an invisible world composed of strands of human thought that makes malign story-telling easier to sustain, for a variety of reasons.
Within this context, Scott represents a fiction that has metastasized as fact—deforming, creating stress for, and living in the bodies of those ordered to carry out missives they know are destructive. In trying to sell the fiction of fracking along with mis-use of state parks, among other policies, Rick Scott is displaying an impulse toward a culture of death, or death spiral, that eco-psychologists 50 years from now will still be studying the pathology of.
As a localized version of a wider phenomenon of denial, representing a kind of selfishness and cowardice in the face of the fundamental challenge of our times, Rick Scott’s directive to ban the use of the term “global warming” and the trickle-down effects of that decision in this state showcase how the way we view fictional and nonfictional narratives impacts the world.
On the opposite side of this country, Oregon recently experienced not the tale of robber barons, but the reappearance of Manifest Destiny, in the form of the Malheur occupiers—terrorists if you prefer—militia members who cling to another kind of fiction as their truth: That there never really were any Native Americans with a claim to the land and that Nature is just there to drive a road through and wildlife is just there to be used, and scientific discovery on the refuge is pointless.
We might think of the Malheur occupiers as outliers, but, in fact, like Rick Scott’s narrative of business and industry, what the Malheur incident lays bare is just a more extreme version of ideas encoded in the DNA of the United States and expressed in what is widely seen as acceptable ways—coursing through the subtext of car commercials, movies, books, and cultural and societal conversations.
Even a seemingly innocuous movie like Terence Malick’s The New World creates agitprop by depicting a past starved of animals, despite accounts from that era of sheer numbers of wildlife that would, to the modern mind, appear ridiculous if shown on the screen. On the micro-level The New Yorker blog reports that some dictionaries are being purged of words about the natural world in favor of words about the human-created world. (Acorn being replaced by motherboard is perhaps the saddest trade-off I can think of.)
We live in a time when dedicated, brave people in the world of science and technology are providing common-sense solutions to some of our problems, which often involve so-called “soft tech” in areas like energy conservation, alternative energy sources, and other areas where a growing knowledge of animal, fungus and plant life is beginning to have practical ramifications for our daily lives. Mushrooms in particular hold great “green tech” benefits that we are only just figuring out.
Yet scientific exploration isn’t without problematic storylines either. Sometimes it’s due to a specialist talking about a subject outside of his specialty, like Freeman Dyson on NPR saying that global warming isn’t a big problem. Other times it’s gender bias—as when a male-dominated field led to the assumption that the planet represented by the human egg played a passive role in relation to the expedition known as sperm—an assumption now known to be wrong.
Even the push for outer-space exploration—the idea that we will one day colonize distant planets—could be said to be about not just the joy of discovery but also, an unthinking continuation of the idea Manifest Destiny—frontiers and settlers. [Note: Essential expansion of this idea in the first half of this essay.]
My point is that without beginning to question mundane, every-day assumptions about the lives we lead and the things we want, there is no path past the Anthropocene—and one important part of that self-awareness is to make sure we are not somehow propagating untruthful or unhelpful narratives.
It is also important to make sure we do not engage with and learn from environmental science and ecological causes through the fallacy of a single story. In the words of writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from a TED Talk in 2013: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Indigenous people, for example, are impacting the narrative of global warming, in part by showing what they value. First Nations in Canada have recently rejected an oil pipeline running through their lands, despite heavy pressure and short-term financial reward. They have also aided habitat preservation, pushing back against logging of old-growth forest, and helped negotiate permanent protection from logging of important wildlife refuges. In Arizona, Native Americans have protested copper mining under lands sacred to them that also have ecological value. Rather than being peripheral to the conversation or in some way thought of as “in the past,” indigenous peoples must be a central part of the changes in thinking that bring us past the Anthropocene.
As Nancy Turner writes in Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge, “There are compelling lessons to be learned from indigenous knowledge systems as a whole. The processes of knowledge acquisition and transmission and the values underlying–indigenous relationships with other humans and nonhuman species and entities may in fact be key to our global efforts to stem environmental destruction.” And this means in practical ways, not further fetishizing of “mystical elements” by white people.
Human narrative, and what we value or spotlight and what we don’t, both impoverishes and enriches our scientific and historical understanding of the world. And while it may seem optimistic at best to think that better storytelling can have a noticeable impact in the brief 30 to 40 years some estimate we have until the total or partial collapse of civilization, one relief among all of the hypocrisies we cannot outrun is to acknowledge that even as we must come to accept our condition to solve it, we also by our engagement express hope. And fiction, at its best, shows us how to accept and gives us hope. You can’t quantify hope, but you can say that hope exists because of the very act of writing.
As science turns from specialization to more of an emphasis on inter-disciplinary approaches to deal with global warming, the goals of fiction writers dovetail with those efforts. Fiction writers can, in the laboratories of their novels and stories, combine in chemical reaction all sorts of situations in ways that are as interdisciplinary as, say, scientists delivering their findings in the form of poetry in the 1800s or the “philosophical stories” that influenced Jules Verne–early scientific papers in the West by the likes of Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler in which the fictional framework of an imaginary or dream journey surrounded some sort of scientific speculation.
If environmental scientists should keep in mind some version of Humboldt’s Naturgemalde—or “painting of nature that implies a sense of unity or wholeness,” then fiction writers should as well—in a context wherein the complexities of ecosystems are translated into narratives that try to incorporate useful granularity without lapsing into the didactic.
It is also important in this context to recognize that moving beyond the Anthropocene isn’t just about global warming. There are many effects of the era that may be incidental to or have little impact on global warming that are nonetheless devastating to the planet, to wildlife, and to human health. Moving beyond the Anthropocene is not just about confronting global warming—it is about rethinking the future, and starting over.
In this context, particular areas of interest to me fall into the following categories: Use and misuse of philosophy; Reimagining Narrative, with particular emphasis on: The Role of Animals, De-familiarization, and Combining Vectors.