A key element in our books and arts pages is the search for a narrative in which the Transition drivers of climate change and energy depletion find their creative expression. Scientists can give us the data, but they cannot tell us how to live or how to respond to the ecological and social crises we face. We need a new cultural storyline to help us navigate a challenging and leaner future. Here storyteller and writer Nick Hunt looks at some of those responses in his review of Culture and Climate Change: Narratives ed. Joe Smith, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler (Shed, Cambridge)
If the six essays, eleven stories and one conversation in this book agree upon one thing, it’s that telling people the facts about climate change – deluging them in statistics in the hope it will change their behaviour, or translate into political action – stopped working long ago. Culture and Climate Change: Narratives is a welcome attempt to think beyond the ‘hurling facts’ approach to the problem, bringing together writers, artists, academics and theatre-makers to investigate the role of stories in responding to the crisis.
But, as the book’s introduction asks, what sort of story is climate change? “Climate change is too here, too there, too everywhere, too weird, too much, too big, too everything,” writes Renata Tyszczuk in an essay entitled ‘Cautionary Tales: The Sky is Falling! The World is Ending!’. “Climate change is not a story that can be told in itself, but rather, it is now the condition for any story that might be told about… our inhabitation of this fractious planet.”
Climate change is… too everywhere, too weird, too much, too big, too everything
“Stories about climate change don’t need to be about climate change,” says Intelligent Life’s Robert Butler. In Voltaire’s Candide, he points out, the devastating Lisbon earthquake is not the principal theme of the book but the apocalyptic backdrop to the characters’ ordinary lives: ‘…the sailor goes looting, Candide goes begging, and Pangloss delivers a lecture on optimism. Voltaire’s interest lies in the human reactions that follow on from the earthquake.’
A natural disaster, Butler says, is not a story in itself. George Marshall later notes that climate change is problematic as a dramatic subject: “It contains no heroes, no villains, no enemies, no victims, no motive, no clear beginning or end, no pivotal event, no climax, no catharsis, no denouement – other than the ones we choose to project onto it.” How, then, do we tell engaging stories about it?
Bradon Smith, in his excellent analysis of recent climate change fiction (including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Will Self’s The Book of Dave and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods) hints at an answer in viewing climate change in terms of “the many interconnected forms of loss that it will bring about – of loved ones and family, of other species, of beauty, of humanity, of culture.”
But the book really comes alive in the ‘In Conversation’ chapter, which brings together author Caspar Henderson, theatre-maker Zoë Svendsen, poet Nick Drake and the London College of Fashion’s Kate Fletcher in a panel discussion chaired by the OU’s Joe Smith. Each describes the personal stories that have sustained their work, the narratives bringing them to this point in their understanding of climate change; the conversation asks more questions than it answers, but the willingness to investigate new approaches where others have failed makes this the most honest and urgent part of the book.
At the end of his essay, Bradon Smith returns to the closing words of The Road: a vision of trout whose backs are patterned with ‘maps of the world in its becoming.’ “In the maps and mazes on the brook trout are revealed two paths,” writes Smith, “one a way out of this mess, and one that takes us further in.” Culture and Climate Change: Narratives contains possible keys to those maps. Whether we head further in, or out, depends on what stories we tell next.
Nick Hunt is a writer, storyteller and co-editor of Dark Mountain. His first book, Walking the Woods and the Water, was published earlier this year. nickhuntscrutiny.com
Image: Arctic terns on the wire: Cape Farewell’s Bird Yarns project with artist, Deirdre Nelson. An Tobar gallery and community knitters in Tobermory, Isle of Mull (Photo: Sarah Darling)