What can books do in a time of climate crisis?

Written by: Adeline Johns-Putra


As a scholar of the literature of climate change, I am often asked, “Can books save the planet?”. Well, not literally, no. But I do believe that fictional narratives in which characters respond to climate crises act as thought experiments—or, indeed, as ‘feeling experiments’—for the reader’s potential response. I believe that fictional, poetic, or dramatic evocations and musings, of, say, the anxieties wrought by the state of our planet or he connections we share with our human and nonhuman fellow creatures, can help to produce a necessary catharsis or enlightenment. Reading a work of literature can have same effect as a chance conversation or observation: it can supply that ‘Aha!’ moment that makes the difference in individual and, therefore, collective knowledge and behaviour.

Another aspect of climate and literature intrigues me. I also increasingly believe that understanding the history of literature’s meteorological depictions, evocations, and emotional contours is essential to understanding how we have arrived at our unprecedented climate crisis. Climate is not the same as weather: climate is weather measured in a particular place over a particular duration of time. We have to understand how the practice of not just observing weather events but also of measuring them and making sense of them arose, in the West, with what we call the Enlightenment—the rise of science and the impulse to quantify the natural world. We have to understand that climate is a particular representation of weather.

Of course, literature is also made up of representations. Ancient literature records climatic disasters as the acts of divine wrath against human transgression (from the phenomena highlighted in Chinese historical annals to the tempest encountered by Odysseus). Meanwhile, early modern and modern depictions might represent these symbolically: the gods may not literally be angry, but environmental turmoil still signifies human conflict or hubris (whether Lear’s storm or the microclimate endured by Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights).

From the Enlightenment onwards, the settings, plots, and scenes of literature not only included representations of discrete weather events but, just as with climate science, they are able to show how these weather events constituted a particular climate: for example, realist novels steadily build up their climatic settings (from Dickens to Zola), and shocking weather events continue to be shocking precisely because they interfere with hitherto stable climates, while ‘foreign climes’ only too conveniently represent divergent attitudes and appetites. In this way, historically, literature has both reflected and helped to consolidate the Enlightenment distinction between weather (the different meteorological events that happen every day) and climate (a measurement of these individual events to produce a reliable picture of meteorological patterns over space and time).

The reason it pays to understand the scientific and literary history of climate measurement is that this now established expectation of climate as an unchanging backdrop has drastically altered in a time of climate change. What is more, we are learning, to our great dismay, shock, and guilt, that, just like the ancients, we have brought meteorological catastrophe onto ourselves. That’s because the climate is neither the instrument of the gods nor a stable setting. It is, instead, a fragile network, a delicate tissue of interdependencies and feedback loops, that we have carelessly disturbed.  And this, then, is where contemporary literature has a quite different role to play. It can help us to understand—and reflect on—our intricate relationship with climate and consider how to use that knowledge for the better.

When Kelly Sultzbach and I came together to edit The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate, we knew that we wanted this volume to perform two functions. We asked scholars from around the world to present the history of the mutually reinforcing relationship between literature and the conceptualisation of climate. But, in addition, we asked them to show how, in the contemporary world, literature can be a space for understanding not just the science of anthropogenic climate change, but the ethical dilemmas, psychological challenges, and cultural and socio-political ramifications of it. Importantly, too, the volume demonstrates that literatures from traditions other than ‘the West’ can reveal other histories, alternative insights, and new ways of understanding climate that take us away from the myth of climatic stability and give us deeper ways of comprehending our responsibility as stewards (not controllers) of the climate.

Can books save the planet? Not literally. What can books do in a time of climate crisis? As it turns out, quite a lot. They can help to shape our conceptual relationship with climate and with the world—just as they have done in the past.

The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate By Adeline Johns-Putra and Kelly Sultzbach
The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate By Adeline Johns-Putra and Kelly Sultzbach

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About the Author: Adeline Johns-Putra

Adeline Johns-Putra is Professor of Literature at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. She is a past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, UK and Ireland (ASLE-UKI). Her books include Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019) and The History of the Epic (2006), and the edited volumes Climate and Literature...

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