Climate Change and the Quest for Transformative Fictions

What’s the deal with climate change fictions? Jennifer answers questions on Climate Change and the Quest for Transformative Fictions & “Hacking the Anthropocene.”

Isn’t the challenge getting people to believe in and act on climate change “facts” first and foremost, why on earth would we want to “quest” for “fictions”?

The fact the climate changing does not in and of itself offer a clear path to respond. The ice caps melting as a result of climate change, for instance, will not magically unleash a long-frozen set of clear instructions for the new world order. We have, really, a vast range of possible responses available to us: from expanding coal-mines, exacerbating Co2 emissions and waiting for the tide to wash to rise to cultivating radical paradigm-shifting techno-cultural change. Both of these possible scenarios (and the many in between) are like plans or blue prints for the future. They behave much more like guiding fictions than material facts.

In a recent piece in The Conversation, my collaborator Astrida Neimanis and I wrote about the need to trouble the empirical distinction between weather and climate so as to find an embodied way in which to connect up mundane, daily experiences with the broader global crisis. We need ways of bringing climate change home, to the body, to the immediate vicinity of one’s daily experience in order to get us to consider the ways in which these experiences are part of a global crisis. We suggest doing this via the weather. The action plays with the known facts and brings together the abstract knowledge of climate change via the embodied experiences of the weather. Next Tuesday, Stephanie LeMenanger’s talk is going to explore the more creative, speculative modes of storytelling and how they work socially and politically to bridge the gap between knowledge of environmental change and localized and embodied ways in which we can respond.

Who is Stephanie LeMenager, why is she in Sydney and what is her research area?

Stephanie LeMenager is a Professor of English Literature and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, the author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) and a co-founding editor of Resilience: A Journal of Environmental Humanities. I first heard her speak as keynote at the 2015 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) conference in Moscow, Idaho. Her talk was entitled “Still Being Human: Or, Notes for an Everyday Anthropocene” where she brought the spatially and temporally vast concept of a new geological epoch home to small scale activist practice and extant human politics. This talk made creative political responses seem not only viable but necessary in response to the environmental crisis. She arrived at these suggestions not from a policy framework, but rather by thinking with poetry and literature, by communing with artists; it was a compelling and engaging talk that opened up the field of Environmental Humanities for me, not only as a realm of detached critique of human practices, but also (importantly) as a space for mobilizing new kinds of actions.

When Astrida Neimanis and I were alerted to the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre’s (SSSHARC) call out for funding last year, it did not take us long to pull together a proposal to invite LeMenager out to Australia to speak at our symposium Feminist, Queer, Anticolonial Propostions for Hacking the Anthropocene II: Weathering. LeMenager’s work explores “petrocultures” or the ways in which energy sources like oil shape the world in which we live and, as such, the extent and complexity of change required to address an issue like Co2 emissions and climate change. What is special about LeMenager’s work in this regard is that she brings to it training not only in literary studies, but intersectional gender studies and queer theory as well. Her concerns are not about the “human” as a monolithic category, but rather as a species with politics shaped by difference. So we invited her to speak at our symposium because her work is groundbreaking in bringing the big questions of the Environmental Humanities into concert with the equally pressing concerns of Gender and Cultural Studies.

Regarding the SEI public lecture in particular, LeMenager teaches cli-fi or Climate Fiction at UOregon and has recently co-edited a volume Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017). Cli-fi is name of a particular genre of literature (coined in 2011 by blogger Dan Bloom) that is understood to represent the looming climate crisis. In many instances “cli-fi” texts are apocalyptic, end of world doomsday or sci-fi scenarios (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, P.D. James’ Children of Men). LeMenager is an expert on this kind of creative writing (and its history) and one of her central interventions in the genre is to think in broader terms about what might count as a fictional representation of the climate crisis. Her work invites us to think beyond apocalyptic visions of future climate change scenarios. But you’ll have to come to the talk to learn more about that!

Christopher Wright is a professor in the Business School, what does his work have to do with climate change and fictions?

Christopher Wright’s invitation to be respondent for this talk actually came on the back of some secret advice (from one of SEI’s leading Profs.!) that he is actually a massive ‘cli-fi’ fan. What we hadn’t pieced together then, but have done since, are the curious affinities between LeMenager’s work on creative fictions and Wright’s ethnographic investigations into people’s career narratives. Wright is a scholar of Work and Organisational studies and explores the relationship between climate change and corporations in the book Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015). In other words, although LeMenager and Wright are in entirely different disciplinary areas, there is a strikingly complementary interest in how narratives (creative and personal) hold power to build and shape worlds.

This is part of a cluster of events called Hacking the Anthropocene, what’s that?

As readers of this blog are now probably aware, the Anthropocene names a new geological epoch where “Man” is a determining cause of planetary systems change. But we are asking who and what is missing from this headline of “humans destroying the planet”? Following the success of the series of events in 2016, this year’s Hacking continues along the path to develop alternative narratives for the Anthropocene.

This year, we specifically consider “weathering.” Weathering suggests being worn down by weather, but also perseverance or resilience in difficult times (similar to one meaning of “hacking”). What are we asked to weather in the Anthropocene? We might begin with climate change and its elemental upheavals, but we imagine weathering as more than meteorological. How is weathering also social, economic, cultural and otherwise material? What strategies and tactics are required? And who do we mean by “we”? What coalitions and alliances do we forge, and what tensions are revealed in our attempts to weather this Anthropocenic storm together? In a series of four events—a reading group, a symposium, a workshop and a public lecture— planetary responsibility and situated knowledges entwine in propositions for weathering the world. Bodies, texts and artworks converge in old and new forms of politics, elemental loves, and earthly accountabilities. The free public lecture “Climate Change and the Quest for Transformative Fictions” is the final event in the series. For more information, click here.

Jennifer Mae Hamilton is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney funded by The Seed Box: A MISTRA-FORMAS Environmental Humanities Collaboratory at Linköping University, Sweden. She is also an adjunct lecturer in Ecocriticism at New York University (Sydney) and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions. Jennifer completed a PhD in English at the University of NSW (UNSW). During her candidature she tutored in English and Women’s and Gender Studies at UNSW and English at the Western Sydney University. Her dissertation has been adapted into the book ‘This Contentious Storm’: An Ecocritical and Performance History of King Lear, forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic. After her PhD she took an adjunct position in Environmental Humanities at UNSW (2013-2015), teaching and guest lecturing into their interdisciplinary programs. She co-convenes the reading group Composting: Feminisms and the Environmental Humanities here at the University of Sydney.

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