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  • Noises from Outside the Humanities:Outrage and Climate Change
  • Leif Schenstead-Harris (bio)

To all of you who choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself. Your silence is almost worst of all.

Greta Thunberg No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

I. Climate

In the backdrop to the exhortations of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is a tradition of contemporary writing that seems to have emerged in an incredibly compressed time and that may have been obscured by its timeliness: the literature of ecological catastrophe. Today, this literature seems to be dominated by natural scientists and popular writers occasionally rooted in the social sciences. Unlike its cousin, the dystopia or science fiction of climate catastrophe, this new writing directly and specifically recognizes changes influencing our world, and it is often read by audiences with a gravity distinct from other works. Writers in this tradition are familiar; here is an arbitrary list: Naomi Klein, Bill McKibbon, Rebecca Solnit, George Monbiot, Nathaniel Rich, Daniel Wilson-Wells. Their lineage [End Page 11] extends across decades to writers such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, and, as a tradition, their works turn toward the cumulatively catastrophic effects of human or anthropogenic change on the world's geological and biological systems since 1945. Literary claxons ring across their titles: On Fire (2019), The Unimaginable Earth (2019), Losing Earth: A Recent History (2019), How Did We Get Into this Mess? (2019). A storm of outrage. Frankly, the narrative structure and closure of these works is unimpressive—shocking revelations of biogeological indecency are accompanied by historical sketches, localized narratives, and familiar recitations of key scientific findings. All exhort readers to action. As such, none would meet Virginia Woolf's approval, for they are occupied with indecency and atmospheric-level musings. Yet "how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public-spirited act of a man who needs fresh air!" (Woolf 52). Fresh air! As Jenny Offill's protagonist of Weather tells her friend, a climate change researcher named Sylvia, "'Environmentalists are so dreary' […]. 'I know, I know,' [Sylvia] says" (51). To read books like these Woolf might judge that "it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque" (44).

At the same time as this literature has emerged, political theorists of ecological catastrophe have explored why attempts to shore up ecological collapse have failed. Louder than these are the scientific community's attempts to spur change through reports issued by such groups as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (ipbes), or the Global Environment Outlook (geo) initiative. Their assessments establish familiar reference points concerning the cumulative depreciation of the increasingly homogenous ecosystems that sustain human life. The causes: rapid changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of natural resources, climate change, pollution, and species depredation. Talk of planetary boundaries is increasingly common, and not only from neo-Malthusians or computer modelers (Ceballos, Ehrlich, and Dirzo). Those most impoverished by contemporary distributions of resources suffer without relief; those highly invested with energy allocations live better, are more well traveled, and have more resource-intensive lives than ever before. Meanwhile, theorists of neoliberalism make well-reasoned and humane analyses of capitalism's ends. Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber mutters (2018).

A thunderous noise grows—it storms—outside the humanities. To what response? Eloquent certainly but piecemeal, even inconsequential to [End Page 12] a skeptic's eyes (McNeill and Engelke 209–10). For others, "relatively marginal" (Pálsson et al. 5). The uninvited guest at the party, despite arguments to include the humanities in climate change research (Hulme 2011; Castree et al.; Castree). Obscured by the thunder of the natural sciences in the storm of assessments, reports, conferences, and attempts to engage with the industries that extract, transport, and process oil and gas resources, a blur of scientific reports has become all so much white noise in the background of modern life—ample evidence to suggest that...


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pp. 11-18
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