Global Warming Narratives: The Dangers of Pushing for Early Labeling

Lately, I’ve received considerable pressure from an individual to adopt a particular term to talk about fiction that engages with global warming. I don’t particularly care for the term, but there are plenty of terms I don’t care for or I find limiting and in all cases I respect the freedom of other people to use them as they see fit. And with just one recurring exception, other people in turn have respected my right and freedom not to use them. (Any global warming deniers out there take note: global warming is 100% real and human-created. This post is not about being too early in affirming that.)

I’ve addressed in a couple of lectures, one of them up at Electric Literature, about why I prefer to use as few set terms as possible in labeling discussion of Anthropocene storytelling and fiction itself in this era. “Anthropocene” is one I do use, although I’m not wedded to it, either, in any permanent way if something more useful comes along. (I do find the A-word misused sometimes as an excuse to suggest we shouldn’t preserve our remaining wildernesses, which as E.O. Wilson notes in his latest book is a bullshit approach based on lack of knowledge.) Another is “hyperobject,” because it helps to map the effects of global warming while providing a metaphor that can also manifest in a concrete way for fiction writers.

But if I don’t extend largesse to much other terminology, especially not terminology that would identify a sub-genre, it’s because, for me at least, once you do so everything that lives within that boundary is one thing and everything outside of that boundary is another. On an issue this important, the resultant commodification and rendering invisible is a real problem. In part because we are at the very beginning of a narratological discussion and because, just like hyperobjects, fiction that pertains to this subject doesn’t actually exist in a way that a pat label can helpfully identify.

Much of the really interesting observations and theory and analysis of our current situation that occurs in fiction today occurs in novels in which the subject is not the main point or plot of the book. It may even only exist in a small part of the book or be entirely in the backdrop or be a subtext that manifests less in authorial intent than in readers’ observations of an extended metaphor. In other words, once you label some things as pertinent and some not, a whole body of relevant text winks out of existence. I would not want to label books like Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island or Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen or Zink’s Wallcreeper or Ledgard’s Submergence as being global warming fiction, to cite just a handful of examples. But neither do I want to exclude them, because at the paragraph level all four have extremely fascinating and sophisticated things to say about ecology, geology, the environment that in some cases is much more important or radical than entire post-apocalyptic eco-novels.

It’s ironic too that the obsessive and insistent pressure I have been subject to from one individual about adopting a particular term exemplifies the very things that are faulty about the human gaze and human impulses—the very things we need to try to get beyond if we are to save ourselves and our environment. The things we carry forward without thinking about it, that we need to be more aware of, and not give in to. The territoriality, the slash-and-burn ability to believe one particular “faith” will save the day. When what we need is everything, and to put aside our egos, and to share information, and to be our most generous and forgiving selves. This is difficult—thinking about global warming. It is at times depressing, as reports from scientists who have to look directly into the abyss confirm. We should not make it more difficult with petty factionalism. (This isn’t to say that on the issues and solutions there are not a hundred things to discuss and work out, but this is really not one of them.)

In a very real sense, I know that this insistence on a label has forced other writers off of social media or made them waste countless hours or just added to their level of stress. So in a very real sense this individual’s insistence on a set term has been detrimental to the very goals espoused by this individual. More lately, my inability to use the term has resulted in this person emailing organizers of conferences I’m speaking at to complain in advance of my appearances–multiple times. This is the kind of annoyance that doesn’t bother me, but it does waste other people’s time and if I were a less established writer, if I were a first-time novelist engaging with global warming issues and speaking about it at events…it could indeed be more than an annoyance.

So in this context, I want to reaffirm and restate that in  wanting to expand my inquiry and my thinking about this crisis we face and the baggage it brings with it, I cannot think in terms of labels in the way some people want me to. I understand that such labels may work well for others, and that classifications can help us. But for now I do not want to know where the boundaries of our empathy should lie, what fence will end it, or to be able to map it, to become a surveyor of a territory, when that territory potentially lies…everywhere.

And that’s not going to change any time soon.


2 comments on “Global Warming Narratives: The Dangers of Pushing for Early Labeling

  1. Jo says:

    I like this whole thing with the nameless character. You should write some novels like that

  2. Teaneck says:

    There are two levels and the philosophical one regarding the value or detriment of labels is the less important one.

    What Jeff appears to be complaining about is a lower, more basic thing. Dogmatic bullying. Pushing an agenda based not on outcomes but on linguistic litmus tests. Orwell saw this in the Spanish Civil War and wrote about it in Homage to Catalonia.

    It isn’t helpful.

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