Introduction--genres of climate change.
Where would you place the study of literary genre on this graphic representation of Earths history? The composite knowledge of earth scientists suggests the Earth is 4,540,000,000 (that's 4.54 billion) years old. (1) Their assumption is that all the solid bodies in the solar system shared by Earth were formed at the same time and are the same age. Although no one has found primordial rocks from the time of Earth's formation--none untouched by plate tectonics--there are, on all Earth's continents, ancient rocks exceeding 3,500,000,000 (3.5 billion) years old, as indicated by radiometric dating, a measurement of the last time rock melted or otherwise shape-shifted and then "rehomogenize [d] its radioactive elements." (2) The Earth is old although the Milky Way Galaxy and the universe that contains our solar system are older: that's a galaxy 11,000,000,000-13,000,000,000 (11-13 billion) years old and a solar system 10,000,000,000-15,000,000,000 (10-15 billion) years old. More evocative than Tolkien's images of Middle-earth, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) graphic introduces a history spiraling down into time so deep that we might want to call it infinity.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
This is the moment to say that although the etymology of "climate"--slope, belt, region--can't be marshaled to defend my choice of attaching greater expanse of time and space to the words "climate change" than to "global warming," I will argue that humans' struggle to grasp the large, changing, and ineffable thing we call climate better captures my intent than the familiar image of the globe and the experience of warming. Timothy Morton, in Hyperobjects, argues for "global warming" as the less politically compromised naming of the current ecological condition, and Frederick Buell corroborates that choice in his essay here. But we all agree, as Morton writes, "that there is something quite special about the recently discovered entities, such as climate. These entities cause us to reflect on our very place on Earth and in the cosmos. Perhaps this is the most fundamental issue--hyperobjects seem to force something on us, something that affects some core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what [human] society is." (3)
The species Homo sapiens (that is, "modern humans") is some 200,000 years old, most of the science agrees. In the 2012 Orion essay "State of the Species," Charles Mann summarizes the science that continues to evolve. For the first 100,000 of the species's 200,000+ years, there seems to have been little change in Homo sapiens culturally, socially, and, perhaps, also geographically. Then something occurred that, first, precipitously reduced the numbers of living humans and then caused, forced, enabled, or inspired their dispersion and development. It is in this time, some 50,000-75,000 years ago, that human clothing, cave painting, weaving, agriculture, and other innovations arose. (4) With them, we might imagine, came art appreciation and critique. I'm placing the beginnings of the study of literary genre on "The Geological Time Spiral" in the last 50,000 years, so within the Pleistocene Epoch and before the temperate pleasures of the Holocene, little Ice Ages notwithstanding. I'll call it 47,900 B.C.E., to draw human history and geological time into the same universe of ideas. (5) Time being the ur-medium of literature, a phenomenon to be melded, forged, elided, even eluded, through the craft of words or other signs, I'd like to pause just a little longer and account for that long history of climate change in which humans have recently played an active role.
All the zeros trailing after the age of the Earth make of climate change a process of very longue duree.
The Earths climate has changed throughout history. (4,540,000,000 years, remember.) Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era--and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earths orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives. The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human induced and proceeding at a rate unprecedented in the past 1300 years." (6)
The opening paragraph of the National Aeronautic and Space Administrations (NASA) web explanation of climate change points, in measured tones, to two of the forcers of climate change in the age of the Earth: variations in the Earths orbit and human activity. Climatologist Lonnie Thompson has elucidated, with similar restraint, these and other climate forcers. He adds a third, changes in energy from the sun, but notes that these changes have not affected the whole Earth at once. And about the variations in the Earths orbit, he explains, they have produced effects that have lasted from 22,000 to 100,000 years, not a mere 200 or even a 1,000. The warming of the Earth in the last 100 plus years, therefore, is not attributable to natural, that is, nonhuman, forcers. He offers further evidence and interpretation to corroborate this claim: temperatures have increased in the troposphere, the lower atmosphere, and not the stratosphere, the upper atmosphere, where we would expect the temperatures to rise if the sun were responsible. Temperatures on average are higher at night than in the daytime, again the opposite of what we would expect if the sun were the source. The temperatures have risen to a greater extent at high latitudes rather than low, again not what one would expect if the sun were the forcer. The whole of his evidence and interpretation takes him back to where we started: the forcer of the current, sudden (100-200 years) change in climate is humans increasing, by use of fossil fuels, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) and methane (C[H.sub.4]), that, in turn, trap heat.
The greenhouse effect, the trapping of gases in the atmosphere, is natural and necessary for life on Earth, Thompson continues, but that does not mean it is immutable. Ice cores drilled from glaciers, some as old as 800,000 years, preserve C[O.sub.2] and C[H.sub.4] in bubbles in their layers telling the story of that mutability. A reader of ice cores, Thompson reports that while C[O.sub.2] concentrations in the atmosphere were 180-190 parts per million per volume (ppmv) during Earth's glacial periods and 270-290 ppmv during interglacial periods, since the Industrial Revolution that concentration is up 38 percent. Between 1975 and 2005 it was up 70 percent. And from 1999 to 2005, it rose at 3 percent per year. Since Thompson wrote this exposition of climate change, C[O.sub.2] levels of concentration have risen to over 400 ppmv. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere has also risen to unprecedented numbers.
Just as the number 400 ppmv is tattooed on some humans' brains but not all, the effects of this concentration are familiar to some but not all. Thompson lists these: rising sea levels; incursion of salt water into fresh water rivers; permanently melting glaciers, ice caps, and snowfields resulting in the loss of cyclically produced fresh water sources; and expanding arid areas. He includes, as well, a number of positive feedback loops intensifying the causes and effects of global warming: higher temperatures producing drier forests and thus more forest fires releasing more C[O.sub.2] producing higher temperatures; higher temperatures melting more ice, exposing darker rock, water, or dirt, reflecting less solar energy and thus producing higher temperatures; and higher temperatures melting more permafrost, releasing more C[O.sub.2] and C[H.sub.4] from rotted organic matter and thus producing higher temperatures. C[O.sub.2] remains in the atmosphere 70-120 years and more; C[H.sub.4], 8-12 years, although it does more damage in the short run. (7)
Rehearsing this information, we arrive at another recognition about time. The general chemical and physical effects of the current climate change are not the stuff of future predictions but are instead a present debt that some of Earth's humans have enjoyed running up but that will not disappear on its own. The accounts are being kept in rock and ice, among other ledgers. We can respond to the debt differently and this will produce different futures: we can take out a second and third credit card and max these out too. We can rob a liquor store, trying to avoid the security cameras. We can change our names, leave town, borrow money from our friends, our family, or from people who will break our thumbs when we don't pay them back. Thompson concludes, simply, "Sooner or later, we will all deal with global warming. The only question is how much we will mitigate, adapt, and suffer." (8) As in all human affairs, in relation to climate change, suffering is not now equally deserved or equally felt. I won't predict the future.
The greenhouse effect is not immutable, and neither are scientific findings. In "An Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" Bruno Latour expresses frustration with climatologists and climate change activists over the so-called Climategate incident of 2009 in which climate change doubters' scouring of climate scientists' emails, at the time of the worldwide climate summit in Copenhagen, revealed some possible irregularities in the reporting of some data. Latour charges that climate scientists and activists, together with those who sought to discredit climate science, share an idealistic view of science, thus denying that its results are composed, discussed, and disputed and that this method is the basis of its truth claims. Latour argues that climate scientists and their supporters should insist on the difference between what is badly composed and what is well composed rather than deny science the efficacy of its methods in favor of an idealization of immutable fact. (9) In this spirit, I cite scientists and scholars of science, knowing their claims have been contested and revised and that this process of composition will continue. Literary scholars share in the understanding that good composition, revision, repetition, and composition again, in an array of genres, bend toward the truth. Scientists, Latour argues, have to compose continuity out of all agents in time and space "slowly and progressively. And, moreover, to compose it from discontinuous pieces." (10) Recognizing ourselves in this compositionist method, literary artists and scholars might direct our curiosity toward the place of recent anthropogenic climate change in the long history of climate change on Earth. We might try to think all of climate change and use that thinking as the basis of our interpretive acts. We might take the Earth on our shoulders, an image Latour provides--withholding the reminder that Atlas did so as punishment for defying Zeus. "[Compositionists, Latour declares,] want matters of concern, not only matters of fact." (11)
This special issue, "Genres of Climate Change," is an invitation to go way back, to start again, rereading and reinterpreting literary production from its beginning and expanding what we have understood the history of literary production to be. Taking the long view, we see, for example, that the effects of the current, swift, and unprecedented climate change will not actually destroy the planet Earth formed 4,540,000,000 years ago. Instead the effects of the current climate change diminish and destroy the world we humans value: the species and landscapes of the Holocene that have trained our senses and our science and defined our art. And they diminish the array of human cultures that have evolved since that great push some 75,000 or 100,000 years ago, cultures that survived the ice of the Pleistocene only to be undone by the pleasures of the Holocene. The effects of current climate change--coupled with the continued growth in human population--stress life support systems, such as fresh water, so that the precarious hold on justice that humans now cling to is yet more tenuous. The human moral codes and conundra that confound our social systems and animate our literary art can become less relevant in this current climate regime or they can be reinvigorated with a new reading, recomposing them in light of what we now know about the mesh of species, cultures, climate, and vibrant matter in which humans have been living and evolving all along.
The genres of climate change include those that look at the climate debt we have accrued in the Anthropocene and speculate on what future that foretells: climate fiction (cli-fi) or speculative fiction and film (science fiction and fantasy). Genres of climate change also include those that foreground the effects of the industrial revolution on humans and all life or the effects of colonial globetrotting on the rearranging of Earths flora and fauna, a scrambling of nature. Genres of climate change include, as well, works of human inequality, since human inequality, competition for Earths resources, and environmental degradation are rarely far from one another. We might expect these genres to carry the Earth on their shoulders, and they do. But I argue that, in fact, all literary forms, every literary piece within those genres, need reinterpretations as genres of climate change. Imagery, plot, characterization of self and humanity in the long history of Earth, recognition of or assumptions about life-sustaining water and food, moral codes, articulation or avoidance of encounters with other species, understanding of the sound and sense of our languages as human habitat, exploration of the media of expression: all this and more need reinterpretations that contribute to the necessary composition of humans' relationship with the Earth. Humanists have long assumed that we benefit if every era of historians reinterprets U.S. slavery or the First World War or the Partition of India for the current generations and the world they inhabit. Generations of readers in this era of climate change require, as well, a rereading of our literary heritage that contributes explanations of the evolving relationships between humans and the Earth. It is not just the scholars of futurist fictions who have the Earth on their shoulders.
This special issue contains six excellent essays, not an exhaustive set of interpretations of genres of climate change, by any means, but a compelling array. It begins with Frederick Buell's essay, "Global Warming as Literary Narrative." Buell's deeply informed argument spins the panoply of risks and possibilities in which a particular "we" is now enmeshed. "We (and, for this essay, I focus on a dissensual, developed-world, U.S.-based "we") are inside something we cannot get out of--that perhaps has no outside ... It promises to intensify its intimate embrace," Buell writes. Understanding that politics and nature are inextricable, as Latour too would argue, Buell offers here an explication of the current crisis of anthropogenic climate change and environmental degradation that has become a way of life and, in doing so, extends the argument of his book From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century (Routledge, 2003). Five works of fiction act as touchstones as Buell follows the tracks of a crisis laid down by entanglements of politics, society, culture, and science. These are Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, Kim Stanley Robinson's Washington trilogy, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl, and Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow. Buell has chosen these works, he explains, because, in them, "environmental crisis has ... moved from a passive constituent of the background to becoming a strange kind of entangling, non-human actor." I offer Buell's essay first because it historicizes, for U.S. studies especially, the current environmental crisis. I also offer it first because it features a selection of recent fictions of multispecies subjects and speculative forms that readers and scholars of literature would most expect to do the work of addressing anthropogenic climate change. Buell and the literary genre and works he interprets carry considerable weight on their shoulders--so much, in fact, that some creators, readers, and scholars of literature might imagine that these talented practitioners of a genre called, say, speculative fiction and a field called environmental humanities should be left on their own to exercise their expertise. I disagree. Instead I suggest that Buell's period and place of study (the American Century in America) and the genre he offers in evidence are a starting place, a provocation, for rereading all periods of literary study and all genres with them.
Although Robert Markley's essay "Defoe and the Imagined Ecologies of Patagonia" does not begin in the Pleistocene, it does begin in a time before climatology as science. Focusing on Daniel Defoe's last and little known novel, A New Voyage Round the World (1725), a narrative of Englishmen in Patagonia, Markley investigates what understandings of climate emerge and how. He traces those travelogues and other texts of earlier centuries that provided Defoe a set of climate-defining strategies. Chief among these is the "geosymmetrical assumption that similar climates obtain the same across the same latitudes and therefore similar resources either can be found or transplanted across similarly situated regions, countries, and continents." Alien weather conditions can be thus normalized and suppressed in the service of an idea of "Nature" and a belief in infinite resources emerging in new and analogous places. Colonizing assumptions about climate can then interpret the practices of indigenous peoples as underutilizing the resources that climate could make possible in their place. Informing Defoe's narrative, Markley argues, are also theological understandings of climate such as those of John Milton. "Milton describes an unpredictable and demonized nature as a mark of the fall not only into postlapsarian history but also into the extremes of the seasons: the Angels literally push the earth into its obliquity, the twenty-four degrees of deviation in its angle of rotation, and thus end the 'Spring / Perpetual' that Milton erroneously believes would be a consequence of a perpendicular rotational axis." Markley's analysis of Defoe's "Patagonia" continues his long engagement with the exportation of the English imagination around the globe and with the play of ideas about reality that compose the development of the sciences. Here Markley informs the ongoing struggle to explain the relation of weather and climate, as matters of science, experience, and narrative.
Under Allen MacDuffie's scrutiny, Robert Browning's fantastical dramatic monologue "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" becomes as evident a genre of climate change as is Defoe's fictional travelogue. Rather than read the poem's landscape as a projection of its speaker's psyche, MacDuffie situates the landscape in the emerging environmental discourse of its day: from the science of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin to the fiction of Charles Dickens and cultural critique of John Ruskin. The paradoxical agency of the speaker "might be reframed," MacDuffie writes, "as a conflict in which the power humanity gains to write the book of nature--to shape the environment in its own image and according to its own desires--always also produces a threatening, paranoia-inducing illegibility and loss of power." MacDuffie speaks directly to the aspirations of this special issue, when he writes, "In its unmatched ability to dramatize the complex psychological dynamics of rationalization and self-concealment, and to make palpable the tension between immediate experience and the various cultural systems that would press that experience into meaningful patterns and teleological narratives, the dramatic monologue can engage with the cultural blind spots that made (and continue to make) these interlocking material and epistemological crises so intractable." In MacDuffie's reading, Browning's poem enters into an uncanny and canny dialogue with the deep history of Earth and with its speculative future depicted in the videogame Proteus with which R Saxton Brown concludes his analysis and this special issue of PQ. As MacDuffie has in his recent book, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination (Cambridge, 2014), in this essay, he contributes to the "growing list of offerings in Victorian ecocriticism ... [and to] the critical role of literary thinking in a fully articulated ecological understanding" that Barri J. Gold praises in his review of Heidi C. M. Scott's Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century (Pennsylvania State U. Press, 2014). (12)
Nineteenth-century, and eighteenth-century, British literary study have supplied this special issue with the talents of Grace Moore and Tom Bristow as well, even though their subject here is a contemporary poem by the Western Australian John Kinsella. In fact, Kinsella himself has placed his antipastoral lyrics in the tradition of British pastoralism in his epic poem The New Arcadia. Kinsella is a man of letters and the Australian bush. As resident and steward, he is enmeshed in arid Western Australia, but he is also an international literary presence. He holds appointments at Edith Cowan University in Australia, Cambridge University in the U.K., and Kenyon College in the U.S. A widely published and decorated poet and prose writer, he has published in and edited such U.S. journals as the Kenyon Review, Triquarterly, and Poetry. His poem "Bushfire Approaching" situates its persona in the West Australian border between bush and encroaching human settlement, but it also contributes to an understanding of place that he calls "international regionalism."
From their positions at the University of Melbourne, Moore and Bristow take on bushfires in Western Australia where this phenomenon as old as the continent persists but, under the regime of anthropogenic climate change, with an inevitable difference from what it once was. Kinsellas lyric poem "Bushfire Approaching" draws a line between the two words of its title, placing its speaking subject in between, they suggest. He is not able to be in nature, in the fire; no sense of the fire as human hearth here. The poem, as literary object, a legacy of its author, is neither, as representation, part of a natural fire nor a survivor of it: the typewriter and its words are imagined instead to melt. The season of fire has itself been lost, the intervals between fires having disappeared. Settlers' local practices of deforestation, cattle grazing, and cereal crop production together with global atmospheric changes increasing heat and aridity across Australia produce a new continuity of fire in the west Australia bush. It is different from the fire born with the continent or that managed by 50,000 years of indigenous occupation. Kinsellas contemporary, settler persona cannot be in the fire but neither can he leave the place of fire and so he remains between bushfire and approaching never without the smoke that portends future fires. Moore and Bristow read Kinsellas (anti)lyric as expressing a new, necessary ecology but not quite as an articulation of apocalypse. "[The poem's] ontology generates and signifies anxiety: the fire is imminent, but not secured in view. Such spatializing of the trope of fire to keep it at a distance is central to the ecological politics within Kinsellas oeuvre that often critiques a false sense of connection or intimacy with the environment." Humans don't get off the hook by watching themselves (their selves) annihilated through an identification with the fire or the bush, even though the individual speaking subject of the poem who loves his home as Wordsworth did his may well meet his death in one particular fire or another, he recognizes. We too remain between bushfire and approaching.
Rachel Rochester aspires to identify a genre that takes its subjects and, more important, its audience beyond suspension into a practice of world-making. She finds in the audio podcast, specifically the audio podcast We're Alive, a forum for envisioning the self in a more sustainable environment, an environment one has helped to produce. Kc Wayland, creator of Were Alive, made just the scaffold of a narration and made it out of materials attractive to consumers of horror and masculinist action adventure, Rochester explains. In this way he invited a large audience to work together to further the story through sustainable worldmaking. The audience grew from a local Los Angeles cadre around the podcast's creator to 20,000,000 downloads worldwide. Many listeners negotiated, online, to find a way forward for the story's characters struggling to live in a damaged world. Rochester argues that the particular efficacy of a sound medium, especially one experienced on mobile devices as its listeners move through their lived worlds contributed to the success of We're Alive. The psychological experience of produced sound entering the internal monologue that drives each of us through our days creates, Rochester explains, a special invitation to engage in worldmaking in both spheres that in fact share crises of resource depletion and environmental degradation. Thought and auditory perception collapse, she claims.
The genre of audio podcast calls upon the history of radio narratives but also on contemporary artistic experiments with sound. Rochester cites one especially exciting instance of sound art that, in reaching down to deep Earth and deep time, provides a compelling context for her arguments about worldmaking in the form of and response to Were Alive. "Describing Doug Aitken's 2009 work Sonic Pavilion, in which a battery of microphones and accelerometers placed in a deep hole on a Brazilian hilltop translate the sounds of the earth's rotation and the shifting of seismic plates into a register humans are capable of hearing, Kim-Cohen writes: Aitken is not the first artist to turn to the medium of sound in an effort to create, as he put it, an experience with no beginning and no end, deep-rooted, pure and direct.'" An infestation of zombies may have produced the depleted world of We're Alive, but its auditory narrative situates its listeners in the chorus of time, planetary and quotidian, and thus engages them more with the long struggle for survival than with the living dead. Climate change catastrophe is not mentioned and may not have motivated Wayland, Rochester acknowledges, but the active response to his audio podcast suggests it is a genre of climate change deserving the enticing introduction she gives it.
R Saxton Brown also acknowledges that video games, the genre of his analysis, rarely directly engage climate change or other environmental degradation--especially, popular video games, and many of them are enormously popular. Brown argues instead that video games create environments that invite users to respond in a variety of ways enabling different experiences of environmental consciousness. He does not argue that depictions of natural environments in video games displace, in the user's awareness, the violence and misogyny in a game like Grand Theft Auto. He does not deny video games are themselves products of high resource consumption and energy use. He also does not deny that they distract users from direct engagement with material worlds such as U.S. National Parks. They are, nonetheless, significant forms of rhetoric, often nonpersuasive rhetoric, arguably a more effective means of engaging audiences with anthropogenic climate change than the facts, fear, or hope usually proffered.
Following Lawrence Buell, Brown proposes three different strategies of video games--subgenres--that make possible environmental consciousness of different sorts: those that function by procedural rhetoric, those that function by spatial allegorithm (that is, a combination of a games algorithm and allegory), and those that function through simulated boredom. Informed by theorists of gaming, interspecies relations, environmental justice, and the phenomena of time and space themselves, Brown's taxonomy will engage both veterans of and novices to video games. Brown's analysis, in fact, acts as expansive closure to these essays as it echoes desires seen in other essays. When he writes of the machinic (deliberately, digitally crude), wildly popular game Minecraft, one can hear Kinsella's resistance to the lyric presence immersed in the natural world: "Minecraft's overt image of nature as calculation might lead us to question the everyday notion of a pure, untouched nature, and to confront the extent to which that notion masks the operations that enframe nature, with devastating environmental effects, as resource and data. Minecraft effectively, in other words, reverses the traditional pastoral image of the machine's intrusion into the garden, showing that the garden is always already within the machine." The nonagential user of a game like Proteus engages with the mysteries (the Climate) of the nonhuman world in a manner antithetical to that of Milton, as Markley describes the poet's interpretation of the Earth's position on its axis. Proteus provides, virtually, an intimate and uncanny engagement with the meaning of nonhuman worlds and human society. The fancy and fact of the USGS graphic of geological time may be static and crude compared to the environment of Proteus, but both evoke an individual and collective human nonagential movement through time (and therefore space) that recognizes our brevity in the longue duree. The call to action, the reinterpretation of literary genres as expressions of anthropogenic climate change, may well be most possible in this deep time of simulated "boredom."
University of Iowa
(1) I'll be typing out all those zeros to stay mindful of how much our elder the Earth truly is.
(2) See "Age of the Earth," U.S. Geological Survey, accessed Apr. 3, 2015, http://pubs.usgs. gov/gip/geotime/age.html.
(3) Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (U. of Minnesota Press, 2013), 15.
(4) Charles Mann, "State of the Species," Orion (2012), https://orionmagazine.org/article/ state-of-the-species/
(5) In For Space (London: Sage Publications, 2005) Doreen Massey makes a case for attention to geological time although her immediate interests are neither climate change nor literary genre.
(6) See "Climate Change: How Do We Know?" accessed Apr. 3, 2015, http://climate.nasa. gov/evidence/.
(7) Lonnie Thompson, "The Evidence and Our Options," The Behavior Analyst 33.2 (2010): 153-170.
(8) Ibid., 168.
(9) Bruno Latour, "An Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" New Literary History 41.3 (summer 2010): 471-490, 478.
(10) Ibid., 484.
(11) Ibid., 478.
(12) Barri J. Gold, "Virtual distractions," The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), March 13, 2015, 25.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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