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K. Ramachandran: Literature in the age of climate change


Literature has always conditioned our philosophical understanding of nature. Likewise, ecology as a way of seeing and reading the world has irrevocably changed the study of literature itself. We must examine literary/cultural production in relation to questions of environmental impact, ecological thinking and the implications of revising conventional ways of articulating human with extra-human nature.

Literature in the Context of the Development Debate and Climate Change

K. Ramachandran

Many people, even now, speak of climate change as though it is something distant and a probable scenario of the future. However, global warming caused by carbon emission into the atmosphere has already triggered climatic events which have acquired dimensions of a catastrophe that can even erase human beings altogether from this earth. Scientists had warned world’s powerful governments sufficiently early in order to do something positive to arrest this mindless destruction of our only home. Yet these have been dismissed as apprehensions of alarmists and prophets of doom. Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries and political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present conveniences or changing their way of life to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. As a result, of late, severe tsunamis, storms, floods, droughts, tornadoes and heat waves all over the world have become quite frequent and in hitherto unthought-of and unprecedented proportions. International agreements have been made and contracts signed to restrict emissions; but, political and economic motives of the Empire and Capitalism to dominate the world continue unabated and threaten life and life forms on earth. Ecological wisdom and the lessons of interconnectedness have not been strong enough to precipitate sensible decisions on a global level to avert a climate crisis of gigantic proportions. It seems that action on climate change has been relegated to the short timescales and development rhetoric of international policy and the even shorter timescales and business-as-usual vocabulary of the global market. However, climate change is a multi-generational issue with exponential environmental, social, political and economic effects. 

Development or destruction?

Development has been harnessed as though limitless growth is possible, without taking into account the bio-geo-chemical cycles and the delicate ecological equilibrium of this planet. The result has been poverty, inequality, energy crisis, resource depletion and pollution. Land water, forests, minerals and metals have been depleted. Energy production and consumption for an energy intensive way of life have been polluting the earth’s atmosphere with CO2, other green house gases, and various toxic emissions. Global warming, climate change, loss of biodiversity and the attendant social evils are the consequences. In the past 250 years, humans have used up resources by several fold than all organisms together for the past 6 lakh years and have polluted the earth’s atmosphere than never before. Pollution has exceeded all imaginable limits. Life and lifesupport systems have been endangered. Numerous species have become extinct. The future of the planet is at stake.

This is no more a nightmare of environmentalists, but a stark reality. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 280 ppm in 1750. It became 379 ppm in 2007 and 400 ppm in 2015. This creates the possibility of temperature rise from 2 to 2.4 degree Celsius.

Now there has been a global agreement to bring carbon emission immediately down to 350 ppm. The variation was only between180-300 in the past 6 lakh years! Carbon emission is part of energy production and consumption. Coal, oil and other fossil fuels are the major sources of this pollution. 75 % of energy consumption is for urbanization and transportation and fossil fuels are implicated in this destruction disguised as ‘development’.

This very same process of so-called development is promoting poverty and inequity and creating environmental refugees and outcasts in society. This is done through denial of access to resources (by privatization & so on), denial of rights (e.g., aboriginals’ rights for forest use), exclusion, evacuation and marginalization.

In an article entitled The debate is over: Earth’s sixth great extinction has arrived in The Ecologist, 18th November 2016, Bill Laurence & Paul Ehrlich have pointed out the gravity of the collapse of biodiversity. Mass extinctions involve a catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

Theres much more to biodiversity than just species. Within each species there usually are substantial amounts of genetic, demographic, behavioural and geographic variation. Much of this variation involves adaptations to local environmental conditions, increasing the biological fitness of the individual organism and its population. The debate is over: Earth’s sixth great extinction has arrived. And theres also an enormous amount of biodiversity that involves interactions among different species and their physical environment. Even assuming conservatively high background rates, species have been disappearing far faster than before. Since 1900, reptiles are vanishing 24 times faster, birds 34 times faster, mammals and fishes about 55 times faster, and amphibians 100 times faster than they have in the past. For all vertebrate groups together, the average rate of species loss is 53 times higher than the background rate. It is clear that humans cannot keep growing in number and consuming ever more land, water and natural resources and expect all to be well.

Mindless consumption

How should the environment be used and who should use it and benefit from it are all political decisions. Growing understanding of the relationship between the people and their environment can generate a concern for a more equitable and sustainable use of the environment. Despite the worldwide process of decolonisation, there is today many times more land being used in the developing world to meet the food and other biomass needs of the Western countries. The main cause of environmental destruction in the world is the demand for natural resources generated by the consumption of the rich (whether they are rich nations or rich individuals and groups within nations) and because of their gargantuan appetite, it is their wastes mainly that contribute to the global pollution load.

We have now got a large number of consumers in the world whose consumption is highly destructive of the environment but who cannot perceive this destruction psychologically. These are consumers of distant resources: those who have access to all the fruits of modern science and technology. Such consumers, no longer dependent in any crucial sense on the immediate environment for their consumption needs, slowly become oblivious of the destruction even of the immediate environment. Gandhi’s oft quoted dictum, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed should be the guideline for consumption based on ecological justice.

Sustainable development

Sustainable development requires economic growth, but it must not be equated with growth. Growth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for sustainable development. In addition, sustainable development must advance three objectives:

1. Satisfaction of basic needs.

2. The strengthening of self-reliance, so that people take control over their own destinies.

3. Harmony with the environment, since the development process must withstand the passage of time and survive over the long run—otherwise it will not be sustainable.

Post liberalization trends, such as the withdrawal of state from areas that sustained life and mattered for people, imposition of unjust taxes, huge cuts in social security networks like food subsidy, unprecedented rise of corporate power, privatisation of everything including intellect, stunning rise of inequality in every field, market fundamentalism, etc., have further deteriorated environmental and social justice.

Fred Magdoff observes: “Doing away step by step with capitalism in a necessary long revolution will not automatically bring positive social or ecological change. That change will happen only if a large portion of the population believes in, and fight for, an environmentally sound and socially just society. And it will take a huge shift in almost all of human activities, ways of thinking and behaving, including how we relate to each other and interact with the environment. New ethics will be needed for this new society to function.”

“Most people in this society can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I fear that barbarism may be the fate that awaits our grandchildren and their children unless we can change that way of thinking and start to envision, and begin to work towards, an economy and society under truly democratic social control with the very purpose being to satisfy basic human needs, which includes a healthy and thriving environment. (Monthly Review Sept 2014).

Environmental protection refers to any activity to maintain or restore the quality of environmental media through preventing the emission of pollutants or reducing the presence of polluting substances in environmental media. It may consist of (a) changes in characteristics of goods and services, (b) changes in consumption patterns, (c) changes in production techniques, (d) treatment or disposal of residuals in separate environmental protection facilities, (e) recycling, and (f) prevention of degradation of the landscape and ecosystems. In India, rules and regulations related to protection of environment and the institutional framework to implement them are all in place, partly because of the prolonged struggles of environmental organizations and partly because of the obligations to globally accepted norms. Yet the stakeholders have yet to show the commitment, will and determination to implement them in letter and spirit. The following observation by the eminent ecologist Dr. Madhav Gadgil is illuminating, in this context:

“Indian environmentalism, faced by aggressive developmentalism, is in retreat even as people, baked by the heat wave of the summer of 2016, confronted with serious water scarcities, are becoming ever more acutely aware of the environmental crisis. We still have fresh memories of the Alakananda floods of June 2013, and the Chennai floods of December 2015, both caused by development gone haywire. At the same time, we see growing social violence all around us, violence linked to struggles over natural resources.”(Madhav Gadgil: Todays Environmentalism in EPW Vol. 51, Issue No. 46, 12 Nov, 2016)

By 2016, 1% of the super rich possessed the wealth of this world equivalent to the total wealth of the remaining 99%. 1 out of 7 in the world has only an average income of 1.7 dollar a day. This is the balance sheet of our ‘development’ for the past two and a half centuries.

As Noam Chomsky observed, a basic principle of modern state capitalism is that costs and risks are socialized to the extent possible, while profit is privatized. Environmental crisis can be overcome only by establishing a system that will insist on production only for use, instead of the capitalist logic of production for exchange and profit. We should conserve Nature by setting limits to the spheres of current economic reason and by expanding spheres of autonomy. Otherwise ecology will have to subserve technobureaucratic dictatorship or centralized techno-fascist control.

The struggle that should be undertaken by people at large may at times be against a particular company, a huge corporation, or the policies of the government. It is always against an economically or environmentally unsustainable concept of development that we have to struggle.

Climate change at our Doorstep

Global warming and climate change have already started to take their toll everywhere. Can humanity survive? Can we anymore be complacent in our homes? Are we condemned to be the species which occupies the minimum period on the earth?

We are now in an era that will be marked by events that are improbable by our current standards of normality: flash floods, violent storms, persistent droughts, spells of heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring from glacial lakes, and freakish tornadoes. One can imagine the horror and misery suffered by those who are direct victims and witnesses to these catastrophes. As Amitav Ghosh has rightly observed, “Climate change is inherently uncanny. No other word comes close to expressing the strangeness of what is enfolding around us…. The uncanniness lies precisely the encounters with presence and proximity of non-human interlocutorsThe events set in motion by global warming have an intimate connection with cumulative human actions .They are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms. They are instances of the uncanny intimacy of our relationship with the non-human.

Examples are numerous. Look at the tsunami in 2004, the downpour in Mumbai in 2005, the deluge in Chennai 2015, floods and droughts caused by El Nino in 2015, the Ockhi cyclone in Nov 2017, and the Kerala floods in August 2018. These are not stray or freak incidents or vagaries of the monsoon; they have an emerging pattern that can be traced to climate change. There is a relationship between the flood in Kerala and the melting of ice caps in the North Pole!

It has been pointed out that in India a significant rise in sea level could lead to the loss of thousands of square kilometers of land, including the most fertile land. It could result in the migration of up to 50 million people in India and 75 million in Bangladesh; 24 % of India’s arable land is slowly turning into a desert. A 2degree rise in global average temperature could reduce food supply by a quarter. In Pakistan, salt water has pushed inland by 65 kms, as Indus water no longer reaches the sea. By 2008, Himalayan glaciers have lost all ice formed since 1940. This may cause catastrophic water shortages, inundations in summer. The life and livelihoods of half a billion people in South and SE Asia are at risk due to climate change.

Water and climate-related disasters such as tsunami, hurricane/cyclone, tornado, extreme heat, drought, severe thunderstorm, flash floods, sea erosion, bursting of dam, etc. are expected especially in coastal states. We don’t have any disaster management plan, except on paper. We don’t have proper alerts and warning systems or preparedness to deal with even routine untoward eventslet alone catastrophes of a giant scale. Our rescue operations during floods and storms have been dismal. These have resulted in loss of life especially among the poor, inability to rehabilitate the victims, leading to the creation of environmental refugees.

Carbon economy became what it is because of the fact that European powers established a strong military and political power in much of Asia and Africa (The Empire) in the late 18th and 19th centuries, continually reinforcing Western power, suppressing other variants of modernity and appropriating into what is now a single dominant model. Politicisation has not translated into a wider engagement with the crisis of climate change. In spite of having environmental organizations and grass roots movements there is not much passion against climate change in India. It has not been made a political issue. Capitalism and imperialism are the drivers of climate change. Yet, politics has become only a means of self expression, (a spectacle’ as Guy Debord said in The Society of the Spectacle in 1960s), the opposite of dialogue. Power is being relegated to the interlocking complex of corporations and institutions of governance that has come to be known as ‘deep state’. We should realize that in spite of severe warning from scientists around the world, global inaction on climate change is by no means the result of confusion or denialism or a lack of planning: on the contrary, the maintenance of the status quo is the plan to continue the present reign of domination and control over the market.

To quote from Ghosh, “What we need is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped. Future generations will blame the leaders, politicians and writers for their failure to address the climate crisis. Global warming is unique in that it is simultaneously a domestic and global crisis. It holds the potential of drastically reordering the global distribution of power and wealth. This is because the nature of the carbon economy is such that power, no less than wealth, is largely dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels.

The time horizon in which effective action can be taken is very narrow: every year passing without drastic reduction in global emissions makes catastrophe more certain. Therfore, protest movements should gain momentum. Organisations should mobilize people in greater numbers.

Inter generational, long term responsibilities should be addressed. There is no way out of the crisis without an acceptance of environmental limits and limitations!

 

Level of Literary Engagement – Will this suffice?

We have to examine literary and cultural production in relation to questions of environmental impact, models of ecological thinking and the implications of revising conventional ways of articulating human with extra-human nature. Ecology as a way of seeing and reading the world has irrevocably changed the study of literature. A materialist world-ecology presents the most promising contextual paradigm for re-orienting literary study today, since it is by definition comparative and global in its reach while remaining attentive to the material and relational particulars of local environments.

Amitav Ghosh accuses most fiction writers that they are complicit in the concealment of the broader culture, in the manipulations of the market place: “They don’t mention climate change as it would banish them from the preserves of serious fiction…Future generations may conclude that our generation concealed the realities, as we fail to reflect climate change in our work. Our era will be looked upon as the time of Great Derangement”. Climate change should be a principal preoccupation for writers; but it is not. Even Arundhathi Roy has not written fiction about it, he says. Global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense: the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability. They cannot be accommodated in the prosaic world of serious prose fiction.” (Ghosh in The Great Derangement)

Ecocriticism

William Rueckertin, in 1978, wrote about “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature”. While literature has always engaged with nature and the environment from a creative and aesthetic approach (through poems on nature and more), eco-criticism demands a close critical look at nature and the environment. Nature should not be taken for granted. Whenever man has exploited the natural resources unethically, nature has responded furiously in the form of ferocious floods, earthquakes, landslide, tsunami and other natural calamities etc.Ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnectedness between nature and culture, specifically the cultural artifacts of language and literature. . . .as a theoretical discourse, it negotiates between the human and the non-human. (Glotfelty 1996).

Ecocriticism is a readily accepted theory worldwide. Its practitioners explore human attitudes toward the environment as expressed in nature writing. It is a broad genre that is known by many names like green cultural studies, ecopoetics and environmental literary criticism. This is a relatively new branch of literary criticism.

How to think on an ecological wavelength is the question that should engage writers and readers. The following are the questions they can ask when ecologically engaging with literary texts:

• How is nature expressed in this text?

• Are the values represented in the text consonant with “green” thinking?

• Do literary metaphors for land/the earth have an impact on how we treat the land/the earth?

• Are there differences in the way men and women write about nature?

• Are the values expressed in this work consistent with ecological wisdom?

• How can we characterize nature writing as a genre?

• In addition to race, class, and gender, should place become a new critical category?

• Has education changed man’s bond with nature?

• Is the environmental crisis represented in literature, and how has this affected man’s relationship to mother earth?

• How has ecology impacted the study of literature?

• How has the concept of wilderness changed over time?

• In what ways and to what effect is the environmental crisis seeping into contemporary literature and popular culture?

• What bearing might the science of ecology have on literary studies?

• What relationship is possible between literary studies and environmental discourse in related disciplines such as history, philosophy, psychology, art history, and ethics?

Literature has always conditioned our philosophical understanding of nature, of environment. Even the aesthetic categories by which our feelings for nature are understoodthe beautiful, the picturesque, the scenic, the sublime, the wild etc.have been defined largely by their use in literary and critical contexts.

Most ecological work shares a common motivation, that is, the awareness that we have reached the age of environmental limits, a time when the consequences of human actions are damaging the planet’s basic life support system. This awareness brings in us a desire to contribute to environmental restoration.

“For us the highest purpose of this world is not merely living in it, knowing it and making use of it, but realizing our own selves in it through expansion of sympathy; not alienating ourselves from it and dominating it, but comprehending and uniting it with ourselves in perfect union.” (Tagore 1922: 49) Tapoban

Climate Fiction or Cli-Fi

In late 2000s, a journalist, Dan Bloom, coined the term ‘cli-fi’ to describe fictional works written about the effects of climate change and global warming. “It astonishes to think just how long humans have known that the Earth is getting warmer. The term global warming didn’t enter public consciousness until the 1970s, but scientists have studied our planet’s natural greenhouse effect since at least the 1820s. In 1896, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrheniussome concluded that human activity (like coal burning) contributed to the effect, warming the planet further. And yet, here we find ourselves in 2017, still wrestling with manmade climate change like it’s a new phenomenon. Why have we not acted sooner? The answer may lie in what Indian author Amitav Ghosh calls humanity’s great derangement: our inability to perceive the enormity of the catastrophe that awaits us.”

That’s where fiction writers come in. When an interviewer in February 2017 asked Dan Bloom,What brought your attention to climate change fiction specifically?, this was his reply:The 2006 report released by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the powerful James Lovelock interview in The Independent in the UK that same year. He spoke of there being only a few people left in the arctic after global warming decimates the human population. That bit sent shivers down my spine.  It was a “eureka” moment, a wake-up callCli-fi came to me after I read the IPCC report and was thinking of ways to raise awareness of novels and movies about climate change issues.

The following are a select list of novels dealing with the crisis that we face.

Omar el Akkad – American war 2017

Margaret Atwood – A Trilogy by her: Oryx and Crake2003;The Year of the Flood2009;MaddAddam (2013)

Ian McewanSolar 2010

Jeanette Winterson Stone Gods 2007

Mindy Mc Ginnis Not a Drop to Drink 2013; In a Handful of Dust 2014-

Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour 2012

JL Morin – Nature’s Confession 2015-

M.E Ellington – Devolution of a species

Emmi Itaranta – Memory of Water

Nathaniel Rich – Odds against Tomorrow

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Water Knife

Liz Jensen –Rapture

Humans have transformed the Earth’s atmosphere, committing our planet to more extreme weather, rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, and mass extinction. This period of observable human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems has been called the Anthropocene Age. Adam Trexler has traced over 150 novels that are about climate change in one sense or another. He highlights the profound cultural shifts that are accompanying this phenomenon and underlines the novelty of the artistic challenges it represents for novelists. His book Anthropocene Fictions is the first systematic examination of a number of novels that have been written about anthropogenic climate change

Literature, art and every conceivable human activity should be geared to address and avoid/mitigate the impending climate crisis. It is our intergenerational responsibility as human beings to save this earth, our home, and conserve it for future generations.

K. Ramachandran is veteran environmentalist and writer based in Payyannur, Kerala

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