For the Greeks, it all began with Gaea, the personification of all that is Earth. From her came Uranus, a second primordial deity that represented both the heavens and the sky which – from a human perspective at least – sits atop of the Earth. The two deities were wedded, and this almighty union generated several orders of titans, giants, and gods personifying not only aspects of the natural world such as oceans, rivers, mountains, but also the human experience through nebulous dreams, the spinning threads of unruly fate, and the punitive rage of the furies.
This rich canon of mythmaking is typical of the first stories told by our species. They are interpretations the world we have inherited, and poetic engagements with its apparent rules and parameters. For example, the cycle of sunrise to sunset was explained by way of the radiant deity Helios, who emerges daily from the earth to pull the great star from East to West across the sky in his celestial chariot.
Western storytelling pivoted dramatically during the nineteenth century. Authors turned away from the Epic and began to conceive of problems that could not be smitten and days that could not be saved. By swapping Gorgons and Furies for the kitchen sink, these writers created realist fiction, a new kind of writing that wrestled not with monstrous foes or antagonistic deities, but with the moral murkiness of life as we know it – and consequently discovered rich thematic depth in the low drama which reflected the reality of their day and sought to navigate the rules and parameters of an increasingly complex human society.
Around the same time an industrialised and expanding West inadvertently led the transition into the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which human activity has become the dominant influence upon climate and our environment. In recent years this fact and its implications have become better understood and accepted, and yet, twenty-first century writers have, so far, been slow to reflect this new reality and the rules and parameters of this changing world. Talking to the Guardian in 2016, Amitav Ghosh (1) – an internationally renowned author who has dedicated much of his recent time and output to discussing the climate crisis – suggested that “if literary forms are unable to negotiate these waters, then they will have failed – and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.” (2)
So why and how is literature failing to engage with the most important topic facing us today? Perhaps the problem of genre is one contributing factor. Authors of climate change stories are often compelled to explore the subject via imaginative genres such as science-fiction. The appeal of using such devices is clear enough. Writers can shock readers by imagining our histrionic last days – nature rising to choke our paltry civilisations with ash clouds and wash away their edifices amidst deluges of flame and froth. Similarly, they can present harrowing visions of dystopian future ruins, etched in incalculable regret, to serve as dire warnings for readers in the present.
Such engagements have a critical flaw: overtly fictional stories can fail to resonate precisely because they feel too much like fictional constructs. Climate change should not be categorised alongside paranormal flights of fancy or alien invasions, it is a very real phenomenon with very real consequences that are directly linked to the destabilising effect of human behaviour and human choices.
The answer to this problem therefore does seem to lay within the tradition of realist fiction. Returning to Amitav Ghosh, he has highlighted as a problem the word ‘nature’ itself, saying: “this is a word or concept that comes into being during the Enlightenment and all sorts of dualisms are written into it: it has come to signify the opposite of the human. But this is an absurdity of course because humans are in every sense a part of the continuum of living things.” (3)
This intellectual and emotional disconnection from the natural world has its roots in concepts of dominion, conquest, and exploitation. The prevailing colonial narratives were of the spread of civilisation at any cost, the march of progress, and the ultimate mastery of man. These hubristic attitudes faded in the twentieth century only to be displaced by barely regulated capitalism, which would only ever concern itself with profit generation and self-beneficiation.
For the Greeks it all began with Gaea. The personification of all that is Earth was largely dramatically neutral with an unrivalled capacity to create life and to form matter. However, she was not some straight-forwardly benevolent figure. In the stories and poems of the Greeks, Gaea feels pain, and responds vengefully to abuse and humiliation, ridding herself of several tyrannical self-interested rulers. Should she read our own stories, she may feel underrepresented.
Amitav Ghosh, has described climate change as “a conflict between a principle of profit, and a principle of what do we owe the natural world.” (4) The Edinburgh International Culture Summit believes that writers and artists have great potential to reframe a conversation and to drive the necessary cultural shift towards a sustainable society. The process of writing climate fiction seems to be a healing process, one that acknowledges the place of humanity not apart from the natural world, but as an aspect of it. One way that writers can achieve this is by restoring the non-human voices; fostering both empathy and perspective in our culture by giving space and consideration to the rainforests, oceans and weather cycles that allow our planet to function, and by giving other animals life and presence within our narratives.