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Why Climate Fiction Matters: An Interview with Malcolm Sen

Why Climate Fiction Matters: An Interview with Malcolm Sen

Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi.”

According to NASA, 2016 was the hottest year on record since scientists began recording global temperatures in 1880. And scientists agree, despite the small number of squawking climate-change deniers who argue otherwise, that global warming is due to human activity—and that our future looks bleak if we don’t find a way to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

Global warming isn’t new, of course. Scientists have been tracking it for decades, and since at least the mid-twentieth century, fiction writers have responded to our global climate crisis in literary form. This monthly column, “Burning Worlds,” was created to discuss “climate change fiction” and explore its social and artistic relevance. Our readers’ response has been swift and wholly positive, but there’s one question I’m continually asked: Why should literature matter when it comes to something as big and potentially catastrophic as climate change?

Great question.

The truth is, “Burning Worlds” is far from being the first platform to discuss literature and the environment. Academics especially have been studying this intersection for years and have drawn some fascinating conclusions. This month, to explore some of those answers, I reached out to one of the finest scholars in the field, Malcolm Sen, PhD, an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Sen has published widely on the subject of narrative and how it informs our understanding of climate change. Interestingly, he focuses on Irish literature, which he asserts has long wrestled with environmental issues. Sen has held numerous prestigious positions at Irish and American universities (including the National University of Ireland Galway and Harvard), and recently launched a podcast series called “Irish Studies and the Environmental Humanities.” In short, if there’s anyone who can answer the question “why read novels about climage change,” it’s him. And he did.

I spoke with Sen about the role literature plays in our collective understanding of climate change, how Irish literature in particular has dealt with the issue, and how climate change may lead not only to environmental crises—but to humanitarian ones as well—if the futures that many authors (Barbara Kingsolver, Amitav Ghosh, Emily St. John Mandel) have predicted in their fiction are allowed to become reality.

Amy Brady: This column is dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction–that is, books that deal directly with man-made climate change and its effects on humanity and the environment. Given your award-winning research in this area, please tell us in your own words why reading novels about climate change is so important.

Malcolm Sen: Stories matter. I think the statement is especially true in the case of
something that is as complex, multifaceted, and multigenerational as climate change. One of the challenges that scientific disciplines face is finding the words that translate data– such as the alarming rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or the fact that this carbon dioxide will affect the climate of the earth for hundreds of years–in terms that the human mind can compute. Homo Sapiens is a species which has an unparalleled ability to imagine futures but our brains are not wired in a way that always allow us to empathize with those futures. The greatest gift of literature is its ability to provoke empathy across distant spaces, and also distant times. This is one of the reasons why climate fiction, or cli-fi, is so important, and why it needs to be taken seriously.

Of course, cli-fi is not only about imagined futures: it is equally, if not more importantly, about the present. Its foundations rest equally on historical facts and scientific data. A good example is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. This is a novel which narrates the migratory patterns of Monarch butterflies, but the book is also about questions of emigration and refuge which underscore our modern economic and political lives. Another novel that comes to mind is Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. This is a novel about the lives of islanders who live in the Sunderbans archipelago between India and Bangladesh. It is ostensibly a novel about how humans, who live in close proximity to habitats reserved for the Royal Bengal Tiger, lead precarious lives. The confrontation between the human and the animal conjures up a number of ethical and political questions in this book. But The Hungry Tide is written under the shadow of a scientifically predictable engulfing of the Sunderbans by rising sea levels. Ghosh’s novel is also about that eventuality.

Climate fiction, therefore, is not simply about thought experiments. Literary texts, engaged with urgent ecological questions of the twenty-first century, testify to the fact that broader concerns of culture and politics, philosophy and history, race and gender, are intricately interwoven in the way we think, speak and write about the environment. Climate change is not simply an environmental problem with political and economic fixes. It is a human problem and thus also a problem of language. Climate Fiction acknowledges this basic, but utterly indispensable, fact.

Amy Brady: One of your key research areas is Irish literature. What is it about Irish literature that makes for such rich, environmentally-focused critiques?

Malcolm Sen: The poet and scholar Seán Ó Tuama once said that Irish literature displays a unique “reverential feeling of home-place.” Ireland has a deep tradition of pastoral, topographical and nature writings, which produce astute and articulate narratives about how the human is always woven into the matrix of the environment. What Ó Tuama was referring to was the fact that Irish culture (if there is such a homogenous thing) seems to be especially conscious of “place.” I think this is true but it is important to counterbalance such exceptionalisms as well. There are many literary traditions that narrate complex negotiations between human and non-human natures. All of these narratives produce radical ways of thinking about the problematic phrase “cultural identity.” When we see culture as braided to landscape, folk memory, or history (including environmental history), then we recognize that cultural identity does not translate itself into different colored passports.

Culture was, is, and will always be, shaped by its environment. No sooner have we acknowledged this that we also recognize that environments are simultaneously political creations. Irish literature, for example, is often a confrontation, and a coming to terms, with one of the greatest tragedies of the nineteenth century, the Irish Famine. The famine may have had a pathogenic origin (the blight which affected the potato) but it was also politically sustained and socially mishandled. The poems, novels and short stories that reflect on this period allow us to think about and critique our own historical time period which is marked by drastic food shortages and famines, endemic drought and chronic diseases. To form such a critique we need a language suited to the task: literature gives us those tools. It is a misconception to think that global food shortage will be ‘fixed’ by genetic modification (some would say, mutilation) of seeds. The problem is not one of production but of equitable distribution. This is why there are famines on a planet which has never seen a period of plenty like this contemporary moment. Irish famine literature taught me this, as did the literature that reflects on famine-stricken, colonial Bengal. This is the kind of cross-cultural, intergenerational analysis that is made possible by my interest in Irish literature; what Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, may have described as “the chain reaction of a rhyme”. He also wrote: “I speak and write in English…I teach English literature, I publish in London, but the English tradition is not ultimately home.” To a certain degree, then, Irish literature written in English is already self-conscious about words to begin with. If you want to fashion a language that speaks for the importance of the humanities in the climate change debate, Irish literary narratives provide some exciting avenues to follow.

Amy Brady: Are there certain types of narratives that are more effective than others in convincing readers of the immense threats that climate change poses?

Malcolm Sen: This is a tricky question because literature is always open to all kinds of interpretations and responses. What some people find fascinating others may find obtuse. Research suggests that apocalyptic narratives do not generate political action but suffocate political will. I am not so sure about this. The great narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been that of human potential, industrial progress, and scientific possibilities. We live at a time when the same cannot be true because of biological, chemical and planetary limits. But our psychology, of belief in potential, progress and possibility, is unlimited. This is why the climate change debate has provoked an alternative to the “Doom and Gloom” scenario. This is a narrative in which Homo Sapiens recognizes its self-destructive habits, turns course, takes charge and digs itself out of the mess. This may be corrective of pessimism that tires and enervates. But from such hopeful narratives also spring awkward slogans: “Stop Climate Change” (it cannot be stopped because of feedback loops), “Reuse and Recycle” (we need to consume less, not recycle more), “Sustainable Development” (we need to consume less, not develop more).

Apocalyptic narratives provoke us to re-imagine our limits. They allow us to see that we do live, as Charles Dickens might have said, in the best of times and in the worst of times. I want to reimagine what an Indian cultural critic once said of the subcontinent to frame the planetary: We are a highly developed species in an advanced stage of decay. The fact is that we do live in the midst of an apocalypse that is not as spectacular as a Hollywood movie. The slow nature of ecological degradation and habitat loss, what the scholar Robert Nixon called “slow violence,” is not a fact that should provoke moralisms and nostalgia. Ecological degradation amounts to human casualties. Apocalyptic narratives give a species-wide dimension to what is occurring at cultural and national levels right now.

I think I am an optimist who takes pessimism seriously. The kind of literature that “works” is one that produces radical interventions, reflects on the urgency of exponential and spiraling effects of climate change, pays attention to environmental injustice, critiques the financialization and racialization of our hopes and fears, and clarifies the unsustainability of multiple paradigms of progress and modernity. I think all of that allows for a new kind of social and historical realism. Climate fiction, in the end, traces its genealogy from a realist tradition.

Amy Brady: What kinds of non-fiction, scientific writing do you read as part of your research in fiction?

Malcolm Sen: I enjoy the challenge of reading something that is outside my area of expertise. I regularly read journals on ecology and environmental science, geography and the social sciences. It may be the case that the effect of thermal radiation on cloud fields is not something I can ever comment on. But I am glad that I cannot fully appreciate such research. Since we live in a fantasy universe where all opinions seem to matter equally, rigorously gathered scientific data is a good way to measure the limits of my knowledge. However, we do live at a time which is seeing a resurgence of the kind of innovative, polymathic intellect that gave rise to brilliant writing on natural history in the nineteenth century. There are many contemporary books that come to mind in this regard: one on the history of seeds, another on the communication networks between trees, a book on the matsutake mushroom. Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence is excellent, as is Subhankar Bannerjee’s Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. All of these books do share some kind of intellectual trajectory from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Then there is the activist mode of Bill McKibben, or the journalistic mode of Naomi Klein. Environmental history writing offers some incredible insights. I am thinking here of the books of Ramachandra Guha, for example. All of these writers from different fields are trying to tell the story of the environment in different ways, which is why I said that stories matter. It is no coincidence that The Guardian newspaper’s podcast on climate change has a tagline which asserts this importance of narrative: “The Biggest Story in the World.”

Amy Brady: Speaking of podcasts, please tell us about yours. What kinds of guests do you plan to have, and what topics do you hope to address?

Malcolm Sen: My podcast series “Irish Studies and the Environmental Humanities” started as a part of a project that updates the way we think about a culture’s “greenness.” Ireland is a beautiful country. This has had the natural effect of producing some fascinatingly romantic, nostalgic, and nationalist narratives. These narratives evoke questions on how we read landscapes, how we think about memory, or hunger, in relation to ecology, and how we identify nation-states with territory, or terra ferma. But while it is important to acknowledge all these things, we also live at a time when the borders of nation-states are in the process of being wiped out by rising sea levels, when climate change refugees are seeking legal legitimacy, when migrancy is becoming the normative condition of home. The Irish test case has a lot to teach us in this regard. It is an island-nation, and although not threatened in the same way as the Maldives, or Kiribati, or other Pacific Island nations, it has, nonetheless, a history of ecologically enforced emigration which is quite unique. Future podcasts in the series will reflect on questions of refuge and migration. Others will center on food and energy.

Ireland, as a part of the European Union, has benefitted significantly in relation to a standard of measurement everybody, it seems, has to believe in. This measurement is, of course, GDP. William Petty was the first person to imagine such a system. As an aside: Petty was serving Oliver Cromwell in 17th century Ireland. Despite Ireland’s economic success, indigenous food industries, such as sugar, have been wiped out under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Similar questions of sustainability within neoliberal frameworks also arise in relation to Ireland’s energy demands, its historic reliance on peat, its welcoming attitude to big oil companies, such as Shell, etc.

Amy Brady: If our readers can only pick up one novel this year that addresses climate change or other environmental issues, which one should it be, and why? 

Malcolm Sen: Which: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014.

Why: Because it has Shakespeare, swine flu, a Prophet and a Museum dedicated to Civilization.

MALCOLM SEN is an assistant professor of English at the malcolm sen headshotUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst. He was the Irish Research Council and Marie Curie Elevate Fellow at Harvard University (2014-2015) and has been awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame (2011-2012). Other awards include a Humanities Institute of Ireland Research Scholarship (2002-2006) and the Moore Institute Visiting Fellowship at the National University of Ireland Galway (2014). In addition to publishing in academic journals and books, he has been a broadcaster on Irish radio and has written for The Irish Times and History Ireland. Sen is also the series editor of a podcast series on “Irish Studies and the Environmental Humanities.”

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