Humanities and Climate Change

Humanities and Climate Change

– Practicality, narratives and fuel

May 27th – University of Iceland, Reykjavik:

Karen Pinkus, professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Cornell University, gives three short lectures in Háskólatorg on “The humanities and climate change: Against the practical”; “Climate change and narrative: Imaginative Failures, Possible Futures”; and “Thinking with Fuel”.

Click to enlarge.

Professor Karen Pinkus is a member of the Advisory Board of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a member of the Atkinson Center Climate Change Focus Group. Karen has published widely in Italian culture, literary theory, cinema, visual theory, and environmental theory.

Karen Pinkus began writing and teaching about climate change ten years ago. During that same period, general public awareness of the crisis has grown, while universities in the U.S. and elsewhere have placed ever more stress on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and cut back on the humanities. Karen has become ever more convinced that the humanities—critical theory—must play a role in confronting what is the most wicked problem humans have faced. But humanists, she argues, are precisely misunderstood. They are often viewed as either “artists” (“you can create works to raise awareness of what is happening and appeal to emotions”) or “journalists” (“you can help translate our difficult science into legible prose to get people to act”) or “behaviorists” (“you can explain why people act the way they do and get them to change.”). In contrast, Karen advocates for the impractical humanities, for thinking about anthropogenic climate change as unique, not just another environmental issue, and not one that we can solve with better technology inserted into the same paradigms.

1. The humanities and climate change: Against the practical

In this talk Karen advocates for the humanities as crucial to confronting climate change, not because they have something practical to add to a mix of technological and policy solutions, but precisely in their impracticality, as critical theory that recognizes its own inadequacies with regard to the massive disruption that we are facing in the time now called the Anthropocene.

2. Climate change and narrative: Imaginative Failures, Possible Futures

Karen examines the new genre of “climate change fiction.” Yes, novelists have begun to address climate change as an issue, either in the present or projected into a (dystopian) future. But most of these narratives employ conventions and language that are entirely familiar. She suggests that our repetition of old embedded narratives, even in climate change fiction, demonstrates nothing less than a singular lack of imagination. This talk helps to unsettle or dislodge the idea that conventional realist fiction—even if set in a changed climate—is commensurate with the Anthropocene. Perhaps to truly be adequate to the massive temporal disruption of extracting and burning carbon built up over millions of years below the earth’s surface, we might better turn to ancient epic. Long before “the environment” was  term to refer to “that which surrounds but is other than the human,” long before an explosion of population or the extraction of fossil fuels tied in a reciprocal knot with industrial production, texts such as The Odyssey or the Icelandic sagas exhibit the kind of temporal instabilities that might somehow be more appropriate for our times.

3. Thinking with Fuel

It might be enough to insist on the separation of fuel and energy just to get people to think; to draw our attention away from the machines and systems that are in place only because the future—with all of the compounded effects of climate change–might look radically different. In a recent study, a group of British scientists have quantified (in both monetary and purely physical terms) how much oil and coal already discovered would have to remain in the ground in order to avoid “catastrophic warming.” This study imagines not using over 90% of US and Australian coal as well as almost all of Canada’s oil sands (20 trillion dollars). Karen is convinced that critical theory puts this phenomenon of non-use into a crucial perspective: to leave fuel in the ground means to acknowledge that it exists, to have measured and studied it, to have invested money in research and development, leases, and so on. Leaving fuel in the ground, then, also means a special relationship to it that is not just non-consumerist, but is so complex that critical theory, taking into account its own failures to mastery the phenomena of the world, seems both necessary and ethically imperative.