Towards a climate of collaboration

Last week I attended “A problem shared: securing a future for our planet: Margaret Atwood in conversation with Sir Brian Hoskins,” hosted by the Royal Society of Literature. The speakers discussed their concerns regarding climate change and the environment, drawing upon their respective backgrounds in literature and atmospheric science. I found both the packed auditorium and the passionate involvement of the speakers encouraging. However, it struck me that the discussion was framed as between two ‘opposing’ fields—literature and science—while the methods of analysis and interpretation that the two disciplines share could have been productively emphasised.

Both scientists and artists struggle with how to convey their sense of urgency about environmental issues. An audience member asked Atwood why one of her novels contains an apocalyptic flood instead of demonstrating the slow decline that is more likely to occur with climate change. If she is trying to communicate present dangers to the environment, the man asked, why not mimic the likely process? The comment and subsequent discussion implied that slow decline might not be a subject about which people want to read. However, this may oversimplify the purpose of fiction as a means to inspire ‘ethical’ action.

Sir Hoskins agreed that climate scientists have also struggled with how to communicate the urgency of global warming: trends are gradual, and most people do not experience the changes in immediate, visceral enough ways to make them sit up and take notice. How do both writers and scientists tell the story of climate change (which is often based in probabilities rather than certainties) in a way that the public will listen?

Though I may wish that everyone could have the experience of reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction, it is unlikely to happen. Even if it did, as Atwood admits wryly, her fiction’s bleak outlook can often “put people off” completely. It is sometimes dark, disturbing, or ambivalent. Instead, the majority of individuals are likely to get their information about global warming and climate change from mass-market journalism, television or Internet news. It seems as though environmentalists from all disciplinary backgrounds would benefit from choosing their rhetorical tone and language wisely and consciously within these mediums, perhaps sharing with one another skills of effective communication.

Also, methods and skills could be integrated from across the disciplines in order to deliver better child education on these issues. When asked how schools should instill a sense of responsibility for environmental protection, Sir Hoskins replied that youth should be taught the “underlying science” (or scientific tool kit) in order to form their own conclusions. Atwood suggested students be brought out of the classroom and into nature more often, learning to appreciate what they might someday lose. To these suggestions I would add using literature itself as a teaching tool for science. I have found, from my own experience teaching a college composition course on the theme of ‘the ethics and politics of science,’ that in addition to learning scientific data, the study of rhetoric can help students develop their own informed opinions. Students benefit from knowing how to spot hyperbole, melodramatic or mixed metaphors, and invalid logical constructions in written argumentation. They can thereby form their own conclusions about which authors deserve more attention and respect.

I could go on about the other highlights of the talk. My favorite comment by Atwood was “we never make things (i.e. objects) that are not a product of our deepest, ancestral fears and desires” and by Hoskins “I don’t believe in climate change; I think the evidence is good. Science isn’t about ‘truth’, it’s about evidence.” Unfortunately, some closing remarks, while meant to underline the positivity of interdisciplinary dialog, rather reinforced a schism between science and the humanities. The claim was made that the event proved writers can talk ‘on par’ (I paraphrase) with scientists. To me, this comment simply re-invoked the stereotypical differences between the disciplines (science=real data, literature=fuzzy studies) that it sought to negate. One conclusion was that the two fields need each other, because if it were not for literature, science would lack a mode of expression. I, for one, hope that is not true. Literature is more than a vehicle for social values, and science is not at all free from them. For contemporary issues of such urgency as climate change, perhaps it would be more useful to frame the discussion as between concerned citizens with complementary methods of inquiry.


About jessicahowell

Wellcome Research Fellow in English and Nursing
This entry was posted in Medicine and the Arts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Towards a climate of collaboration

  1. Ben Chisnall says:

    A very interesting post Jessica – I’ve recently been reading William Paulson’s ‘The Noise of Culture’, which I thought approached the science / humanities issue quite well. In it he posits that the essential difference between the two (and their presence in the academy) is the transition from the word as the object of knowledge (possibly as with Lyotard’s idea of ‘narrative’) to the idea of the word as a means to access knowledge behind it; he then tries to go beyond formalism and structuralism to apply scientific ideas (mainly the idea of entropy) to literary texts and composition. He’s not always so convincing but it is an interesting take on what remains an unresolved tension between these two areas (especially in times of funding constraints and ideological redefinitions of what is a “valuable” subject to study).

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