Recycling tin cans or reducing our carbon footprint will only go some of the way to helping the problem of climate change. What we also need, argued a panel at Durham Book Festival, are stories. Hannah Piercy was there to listen to two imaginative responses that seek to inspire humanity towards a better world.
Gathered on an appropriately green stage, Professors Janet Stewart and Harriet Buckley and writers Justina Hart and Sarah Thomas welcomed a varied audience for a discussion on the role literature can play in combatting climate change. Justina and Sarah have both been commissioned to produce new pieces of climate change writing (or, as the panel wittily referred to it, ‘Cli-fi’) for Weatherfronts, a project that originally brought together climate scientists and writers for the conference Weatherfronts: Climate Change and the Stories We Tell. Sarah and Justina talked a bit about this conference and how they each came to climate change writing, but the real highlight of the event was the chance to hear some of the work in progress they are producing for this project.
Their two projects (previously unknown to each other) aptly showcased the huge variety of literature that could be included under the umbrella (no pun intended) of ‘climate change writing’. One of the points Harriet Bulkeley raised early on was that climate change fiction is dominated by sci-fi and fantasy novels set far in the future, which are almost without exception dystopian works. ‘Where are the utopian stories?’, she asked us and herself. Justina’s and (especially) Sarah’s writing offer a reply to this. Neither work is utopian, but they certainly challenge the parameters of futuristic ‘cli-fi’ with their focus on, in Justina’s case, the distant past, and in Sarah’s case, the personal present.
Justina’s poetic work is a challenge to conventions in its own right: her commission is a collection of poetry written from the point of view of the Doggerlanders, Neanderthals who once lived on the piece of land between Britain and Europe, which now lies beneath the North Sea – not utopian at all, you might think. But in a way perhaps there is something strangely comforting about the idea that a people who existed before us experienced a climate disaster similar to that we are now facing – not because they survived (most probably didn’t), but because the world survived and although it was the end of the story for them, new human stories developed. The voice Justina gave to this prehistoric people was chilling, certainly, but also a comfort as an expression of events that happened many thousands of years ago reached out to us today.
Sarah’s reading was completely different to Justina’s, taking the form of a prose memoir that recorded events of the here and now (events that felt particularly so to me, as she described how the 2015 floods devastated Cumbria, my own county). Combining the backdrop of a terrible and increasingly common climate disaster with a close narration of her personal life and emotional bonds, Sarah shone a light on the effect of climate change that people are experiencing right now, in their everyday lives. The power of such stories to inspire change should not be overlooked. Touching in its emotional and interpersonal focus, Sarah described her particular focus on scale, zooming in on her own experiences but at the same time demonstrating how these represent the global challenge we all face everyday, even if we don’t realise it.
Writers: if you’re looking to get a commission, humorous climate change fiction ought to be your next brief!
While neither author’s work was humorous, this was something that both agreed there is room for: so if you’re looking to get a commission, humorous climate change fiction ought to be your next brief! Sarah also commented on what is close to comic in the phenomenon of climate change itself: ‘it’s absurd that it’s the “elephant in the room”’, she observed, when it is something that affects each and everyone of us, constituting the shared global experience of our time. Justina also praised the idea of comic climate change literature, disavowing didactic writing as unlikely to inspire the desire for change in people. On the other end of the spectrum, climate change deniers were not mentioned at all during the session, but I suspect they too would have been a comic subject or target, had they been up for discussion at all.
Harriet Bulkeley further commented on what amounts almost to a comedy of expectations – the obsession with one big heroic moment that will represent the tipping point in climate change. She observed that this runs through narratives of any and every form about climate change – literary, political, personal. We may all want a hero, but really it’s about the everyday – the small scale, as Sarah would say – rather than a single drastic change that will make all the difference.If there is a tipping point, then, it must be arrived at gradually. One thing this panel united on was the idea that the arts and humanities have a crucial role to play in tipping the balance of climate change.’ Harriet Bulkeley emphasised that the arts and humanities shouldn’t just be confined to communicating climate science to the public, ‘because we [scientists] can’t do that very well on our own’. Instead, she argued that writers’ work should feed back into scientific work and inform the debate, something that I hope Justina’s and Sarah’s excellent commissions-in-progress will have the chance to do. And Janet Stewart concluded the debate by inspiring us all with the idea that ‘climate change is a challenge to literature and the humanities’. So, arts and humanities students, researchers, and creatives out there – you’ve got a role to play in this. And it’s not just doing your recycling or reducing your carbon footprint (although they’re important too, and we mustn’t forget the impact the everyday can and needs to have): it’s telling the stories of climate change, which permeate right through discourse from the scientific to the subjective, the personal to the global.
Durham Book Festival continues until 16th October, featuring writers such as Anthony Horowitz, Pat Barker, Michael Morpurgo, and Helen Mort.