Eco-critic Ursula Heise on the narratives of climate change and the evolving challenges environmentalism faces in telling its story
Ursula Heise is a professor of English at UCLA, but she founded the Environmental Humanities Project while at Stanford University, and has served as the President of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. She is in the process of writing a book called Where the Wild Things Used To Be: Narrative, Database and Biodiversity Loss. TNI editor Max Fox spoke to her over the phone for an interview.
Ursula Heise: So you wanted to talk about the weather, or is that just a synecdoche for ecological crisis at large?
Max Fox: That’s interesting. I had thought of talking about the weather as a synecdoche for empty social interaction.
UH: Well, that’s changed vastly of course over the last 10 years. Now even talking about the weather has become very political.
MF: Your background is in literary studies and narratology in particular. How did you come to environmental science and environmental critique? Was that part of the change of the past 10 years?
UH: Well, you’re right, though my shift was a little earlier. My background is in comparative-literature studies. Over the course of the ’90s, I became increasingly interested in environmental issues, but that wasn’t something that was being looked at in literary studies at the time. All the other big social movements of the 1960s, say, civil rights, decolonization, the struggle for women’s rights — those had all transformed literary studies from the 1970s onward. Environmental activism had not, and I think there are particular intellectual and disciplinary reasons why, but by the ’90s the scene had changed.
I think the reason has to do with the study of narrative and the study of metaphor. Those are two things that are really important for understanding what environmentalists talk about, how they talk about it, and how people who advocate against certain environmental measures or against the environmental movement more broadly, how they frame their argument. It’s important to understand the narrative and the literary genres that often underwrite our ideas about nature.
When I teach students how to look at contemporary environmental literature, I definitely want them to know something about a genre like the pastoral. The pastoral is a 2000-year-old genre that celebrates the simple, innocent life of the countryside. It’s had a very long history since then and especially since the Romantic Age, it’s become a powerful narrative against industrialization and
modernization, as both a refuge and a tool by which we articulate resistance to certain forms of modernization. A lot of environmentalist discourse up to the present day is written in or at least underwritten by the pastoral.
Another important narrative genre, especially in the context of climate change, is the apocalyptic. It is a narrative about the end of the world which had religious origins but got secularized particularly but not only in the U.S. and has often been used less as a tool to forecast precisely what events are going to transpire than as a call to social reform. The direr the scenario is, the more urgent is the call to reform. So I think it’s impossible to understand a good deal of environmental writing and thinking — particularly since the 1960s — without knowing something about these genres and the force these exert on the way that we think about whatever scientific data we get about nature.
In recent years I think the apocalyptic narrative has been on the rise again, especially after the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit and the growing frustration in the environmental community with crucial legislative and treaty actions not being taken. But we always need to keep in mind that in part it is the narrative that drives the way in which the data are being taken across and that’s an important part of what we look at — not so much to say that the narratives get it wrong, but to say in what ways do the narratives shape the data. How do they connect them up so that a certain understanding is presented and what other narratives might also be possible.
MF: Given that climate is changing in unprecedented ways and the way we talk about it is still through these ancient rhetorical modes, do you think we’re going to see the emergence of new narrative strategies to talk about the new climate reality?
UH: I think it’s going to be a mix. I think the older forms, the older narrative templates won’t disappear and they’ll play their role. But I think we’re also seeing the emergence of other narratives. I do think there is something underway that I would call nothing less than a seismic shift in environmentalist thought.
One of them would be the idea of the anthropocene, which is a term that was coined about a decade ago by the chemical climatologist Paul Crewdson and the ecologist Eugene Stirner. What they meant by that was that we’re actually in a new geological period in which humans are a geological force. They’ve become geological agents. What they mean by this is we’ve always been biological agents. Humans have messed around with their environments, with the plants and animals surrounding them for millennia. But we’ve not had the collective power to actually transform the basic meteorological structures, climactic structures of our planet. The idea is that most of the nature that humans are going to live in and with from here on out will be nature altered for better or for worse by humans. This is generating a whole new way of thinking about nature.
In environmentalism it’s meant a couple of shifts. In American environmentalism, there’s traditionally been a great sort of cultural and emotional investment in the preservation of wilderness. You know, the great sort of wild areas that are as pristine as possible and are untouched by humans. It created the National Parks, it created efforts for the conservation of biodiversity. From a historical viewpoint, it’s a questionable narrative because what looked to European eyes like wilderness was in fact not or only very partially so. In some cases Europeans dislocated Native Americans to then be able to say “this is nature untouched.” That sort of dislocation of indigenous people is sort of the infamous legacy of environmentalism in the 19th century, and this was still going on between the 1960s and ’80s in Africa. Environmentalism now has very decisively moved away from that, but it was part of veneration for nature untouched by humans. Organizations such of the Nature Conservancy based a lot of their philosophy on that idea.
Now there’s a move away from that where people are saying there’s very little wilderness left that’s accessible to anybody. There is, in fact, no wilderness left if you take into account climate change has now altered even the last little spot of jungle or an icy part of the Arctic or the depths of the ocean where no human has ever yet set foot. It’s all been altered through anthropogenic climate change. In a quite literal way there is no part of the planet that hasn’t been touched by humans. So we need a different way of thinking and a different story to tell about that. And the anthropocene — envisioning nature as pervasively reshaped by humans, and thinking about what we might do with nature in the future on that basis — has been one productive point of departure.
There’s other ideas that have cropped up. Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, has for at least five or six years now published articles on “domesticated nature,” the idea that we are really dealing with nature most of the time that has been one way or another domesticated by humans. So we need to think about not how do we go back to something that’s not domesticated but what kinds of domestication do we want and which kinds do we not want. Emma Marris, the science journalist, published a book last year that’s been much discussed, whose subtitle is “Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.” So, you know, how do you think about the post-wild when there is no more wilderness.
This is focusing very much on American environmentalism. In many parts of the world, the idea that conserving nature had to do with wilderness has always been a bit foreign. In a lot of the developing world, the most important environmentalist struggles have always been about certain cultural communities trying to defend their means of subsistence: their water bodies against the building of dams or their forests against conversion to agribusiness. That’s never been about preserving a nature that was untouched by humans but precisely preserving older human ways of life.
But we’re now seeing a real seismic shift toward seeing nature as domesticated. We’re no longer thinking so much about nature going to hell in a handbasket — as we cultural scholars say, declentionist narratives, narratives of decline — but trying to think more about narratives of design. We are now charged with the task of designing what kind of nature we’ll have in the future, so that’s what we need to think about. Who the “we” is who calls the shots on that is of course a crucial question and what mechanisms we have for making collective decisions is I think one of the key issues confronting environmentalism now.
MF: So there’s a story you could tell where you periodize human interaction with weather as going from a priestly or shamanistic effort to exert control over it with sympathetic causal action to a modernist detachment predicated on being causally separate from the weather, where all we can do is predict it and exert control that way. But this seems to be a third twist, that through our detached practices of prediction, we are the ones responsible once again, and now it’s really out of control.
UH: There is a fascinating history that attaches to our thinking about disaster generally, and the Australian literary scholar kate Rigby works on precisely this issue. She’s a scholar of Romanticism. The argument that she makes is that in Europe, up until the 18th century natural disasters, including weather disasters — a thunderstorm, things like that — used to be looked at as punishment from God. And the older priestly approach that you alluded to is a version of that, where you have to pray to the gods to ensure weather that will ensure your survival.
There was a particular turning point with the disastrous earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, which killed so many obviously innocent people. The idea that natural disasters were punishments from God came into question among thinkers, writers, philosophers, all the way from Voltaire to Heinrich von Kleist. And gradually that idea got replaced by the more modern idea of natural disaster, that no there is no moral significance here and certainly no divine significance. These are fairly normal events that have to do with the fairly random functioning of nature. In many ways that’s been a very good development. It allows you, among other things, to take care of the victims rather than blaming them for what happened. But as Rigby pointed out, in the context of things like Hurricane Sandy, there’s actually an odd downside that emerges from thinking that way about disasters: In the current context of what we know about anthropogenic climate change, it actually tends to hide that we are causing at least some of these disasters.
MF: Looking at cultural history, you see the Lisbon earthquake prompting a reevaluation of things like divine providence. But you also get both larger and smaller stories about how El Niño-like events caused droughts and famines in crucial years without which colonialism wouldn’t have been able to take hold the way it did, or 1816, the Year without a Summer, when Mary Shelly and Lord Byron and all of them holed up because of abnormal weather and that’s how we got Frankenstein. How much do you distinguish culture and history from weather itself?
UH: For anybody who’s interested in how people live with nature, the interest is not to draw a sharp line but to see how people work certain natural events into their political and cultural project. And you’re absolutely right about Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The preface that describes this totally cold and dark and gloomy summer that they spent in Switzerland was for a long time understood to be metaphorical, that it was meant to conjure up an atmosphere of the gothic and the horror that then lent itself to writing the kind of story that Shelly tells in the multiple embedded narratives in the novel, and it took an eco-critic, Jonathan Bates, to point out that in fact that was the year after Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia and it was in fact very dark because there was a layer of ash in the atmosphere and harvests froze all over Europe. There were food riots.
To what extent this conditioned the cultural product itself I think is open to question. One wouldn’t want to go too far in that direction but it’s certainly interesting to realize that ecological conditions have an impact on cultural production. And that’s what I think environmentalism has changed overall: we can’t really distinguish human history from natural history anymore. In older forms of intellectual history there was a fairly sharp distinction drawn. But now that’s definitely changed, and we now recognize that these boundaries are porous. Our history is not independent of material conditions, many of which are not just out there, but were created by previous generations of humans who changed the natural world for very particular political, cultural, historical reasons of their own. And I think there’s new kinds of materialism that follow from that, recognizing the enormous causative and even agential force of the environment.
MF: In Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear he talks about the recurring imaginary destruction of Los Angeles as being displaced race or class anxiety — that when you are talking about the weather, really what you’re talking about is the social. How much would you agree with that analysis?
UH: I think it’s very important to look closely at how what we call nature is socially shaped and culturally framed. As an environmentalist I’d be a little more reluctant to reduce it to that and say, “There’s absolutely no nature outside of our social transactions and outside of our cultural framing.” I think that’s a much trickier step because that denies there’s a noncultural world out there with whose material reality we have to interact, even or especially where we or previous generations have shaped that reality. I think that most environmentalists would be reluctant to accept that strong version of cultural constructivism.
That was one of the reasons it was difficult for environmentalism to take hold in cultural studies up until the 1990s. Because that was certainly the prevalent way of thinking about nature that we inherited mostly from a certain kind of poststructuralist tradition. As a graduate student I was trained to look at claims about biology and nature as really camouflaged claims about race, class, and power. That you always claim something is natural when you want to naturalize your own claim to power, your own social position and your own social group. I think part of the environmental turn was a move toward reaffirming that there is a real material world out there. Nature is always out there and surprises and overtakes and changes our social and cultural structures.
But Mike Davis is certainly right and I admire a lot of his work in terms of how he shows how nature and natural disasters get mobilized within particular social structures. He talks about the fires that break out regularly in parts of L.A. Because McMansions are being built exactly in the canyons where Santa Ana winds will fan any flame that goes up, public money has to be invested to rescue those houses. I think he’s very good about pointing out the class and race structures that often exacerbate already existing material conditions and distribute the effects of ecological conditions and disasters very unevenly. That’s very pertinent to climate change as well. Clearly there are certain communities that will be much worse placed politically, financially and socially to avert the worst consequences than others.
MF: Regardless of the political or material constraints that we have, what is your assessment of the narrative tools that we have to deal with the weather? Are we able to think of appropriate responses, or are we in fact locked into this older of thinking about the environment that brought us to this place to begin with?
UH: I don’t think we’re by any means locked into it. And culture, just as nature, is very dynamic, and the environmental community is vast and multifarious and very, very energetic about coming up with new models of organization and new models of telling stories about nature. But there is often a certain inertia to existing cultural patterns. We need to be aware of what our old patterns are and our old stories — perhaps most important among them that nature is deteriorating, that old story of decline — what hold they have on our thinking and on the possibilities of action. But there isn’t a shortage of energy for thinking about this. I don’t think we have the narrative templates ready-made, but there are a lot of people who are trying to think about new kinds of narrative.
One question it seems to me urgent to ask is why are environmentalists so focused on climate change right now almost to the exclusion of everything else? We have other major crises right now underway that are also global. There is a global crisis of toxification, and we have an enormously challenging crisis of biodiversity loss, which I’ve spent a lot of my recent research and writing on. We’re losing animal and plant species at a rate that before has only happened at exceptional moments in the history of life on earth. In 3.5 billion years, we’ve only had five mass extinctions before, and now it looks like we’re in another one, this time one created by humans. You don’t really hear as much about that in the media as you do about climate change, and so a question a cultural scholar has is why do we focus on a certain risk scenario and talk about it almost to the exclusion of other risk scenarios. Is it because climate change gives us the possibility of speaking about apocalyptic scenarios and speaking about the decline of nature in a way that other crises do not?
If you look at other phenomena like deforestation and species loss, yes, there is a large scenario, but then when you look at the details there are many different stories, where species are being lost but then other species are thriving, though not in their native habitats. Or you have the story of massive reforestation in the Amazon that’s barely ever reported because we like to think of the Amazon as this area where horrible environmental havoc is being wreaked. We forget to talk about or perhaps deliberately don’t talk about the many success stores that environmentalism has had over the past 50 years. So I think we need to be careful about what we choose as the primary crisis. I’m sometimes a bit worried that with climate change we have chosen the crisis that is least accessible to the general public. In terms of global policies it seems most difficult to do anything about, as the Doha conference has shown.
Now, I’m not saying that this is all there is to it. Clearly there are massive interests aligned in the fossil fuel industry that have worked quite effectively to distort the information that gets out to the public and to forestall action. But I don’t think that’s the only problem, especially at the global level. So we also have to give ourselves time on really large-scale crises like this for a very diverse and divergent global community to work its way through these often slow and frustrating processes and come up with solutions that may not be what the most radical environmentalist would wish for but that comes with negotiating the interests of a lot of different people. And for these reasons, I’m a little bit worried that we’re just focusing on climate change. There are a lot of other crises going on. And some of these are much more concrete; they’re much more locally focused, and you can do things about them much more easily than you can about global, systemic issues such as climate change.
So that’s sort of one issue that’s on my mind when I talk about climate change. The other one is the close connection between weather and climate. We experience climate change through weather events, but the difficulty is that we can never be totally sure whether these weather events, which have multiple and often indirect causes, how we can relate them back to the underlying systemic change.
When you look at the long-term trends and statistics, it’s clear where the trends are going, but if you look at individual events that are traumatic, it’s actually not that easy to then jump back to the more systemic crisis. That’s a really difficult issue we deal with in environmental communication on a daily basis.