Tuesday, October 21, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Colleges highlight the art, not the science, of climate crisis

By Richard Pérez-Peña

EUGENE, Ore. — University courses on global warming have become common, and professor Stephanie LeMenager’s new class here at the University of Oregon has all the expected, alarming elements: rising oceans, displaced populations, political conflict, endangered animals.

The goal of this class, however, is not to marshal evidence for climate change as a human-caused crisis, or to measure its effects — the reality and severity of it are taken as given — but how to think about it, prepare for it and respond to it.

Instead of scientific texts, the class, “The Cultures of Climate Change,” focuses on films, poetry, photography, essays and a heavy dose of the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, novels like “Odds Against Tomorrow,” by Nathaniel Rich, and “Solar,” by Ian McEwan.

“Speculative fiction allows a kind of scenario-imagining, not only about the unfolding crisis but also about adaptations and survival strategies,” LeMenager said. “The time isn’t to reflect on the end of the world, but on how to meet it. We want to apply our humanities skills pragmatically to this problem.”

The class reflects a push by universities to meld traditionally separate disciplines; LeMenager joined the university last year to teach both literature and environmental studies.

Her course also shows how broadly most of academia and a younger generation have moved beyond debating global warming to accepting it as one of society’s central challenges. That is especially true in places like Eugene, a verdant and damp city, friendly to the cyclist and inconvenient to the motorist, where ordering coffee in a disposable cup can elicit disapproving looks.

Oregon was a pioneer of environmental studies, and LeMenager’s students tend to share her activist bent, eagerly discussing in a recent session the role that the arts and education can play in galvanizing people around an issue.

To some extent, the course is feeding off a larger literary trend. Novels set against a backdrop of ruinous climate change have rapidly gained in number, popularity and critical acclaim over the past few years, works like “The Windup Girl,” by Paolo Bacigalupi; “Finitude,” by Hamish MacDonald; “From Here,” by Daniel Kramb; and “The Carbon Diaries 2015,” by Saci Lloyd. Well-known writers have joined the trend, including Barbara Kingsolver, with “Flight Behavior,” and McEwan.

And with remarkable speed — Kingsolver’s and Rich’s books were published within the past year — those works have landed on syllabuses at colleges. They have turned up in courses on literature and on environmental issues, like the one here, or in a similar but broader class, “The Political Ecology of Imagination,” part of a master’s degree program in liberal studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

For now, LeMenager’s class is open only to graduate students, with some working on degrees in environmental studies, others in English and one in geography, and it can have the rarefied feel of a literature seminar. Fueled by readings from Susan Sontag and Jacques Derrida, the students discuss the meaning of terms like “spectacle” and “witness,” and debate the drawbacks of cultural media that approach climate change from the developed world’s perspective.

Climate novels fit into a long tradition of speculative fiction that pictures the future after assorted catastrophes. First came external forces like aliens or geological upheaval, and then, in the postwar period, came disasters of our own making.

Novels like “On the Beach,” by Nevil Shute, and “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller Jr., and films like “The Book of Eli,” offered a world after nuclear war. Stephen King’s “The Stand,” Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood,” and films like “12 Monkeys” and “I Am Legend” imagined the aftermath of biological tampering gone horribly wrong.

“You can argue that that is a dominant theme of postwar fiction, trying to grapple with the fragility of our existence, where the world can end at any time,” Rich said. Before long, most colleges will “have a course on the contemporary novel and the environment,” he said. “It surprises me that even more writers aren’t engaging with it.”

The climate-change canon dates back at least as far as “The Drowned World,” a 1962 novel by J.G. Ballard with a small but ardent following. “The Population Bomb,” Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 nonfiction best seller, mentions the potential dangers of the greenhouse effect, and the 1973 film “Soylent Green,” best remembered for its grisly vision of a world with too many people and too little food, is set in a hotter future.

The recent climate fiction has characters whose concerns extend well beyond the climate, some of it is set in a present or near future when disaster still seems remote, and it can be deeply satirical in tone. In other words, if the authors are aiming for political consciousness-raising, the effort is more veiled than in novels of earlier times like “The Jungle” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

LeMenager’s syllabus includes extensive nonfiction writing and film, alongside the fiction, and she said she had little interest in truly apocalyptic scenarios or those that are scientifically dubious. She does not, for example, show her students “The Day After Tomorrow,” the 2004 film about an ice age caused by global warming that was a huge hit despite being panned by critics and scientists alike, though she says everyone asks her about it.

Stephen Siperstein, one of her students, recalled showing the documentary “Chasing Ice,” about disappearing glaciers, to a class of undergraduates, leaving several of them in tears. Em Jackson talked of leading groups on glacier tours, and the profound effect they had on people. Another student, Shane Hall, noted that people experience the weather, while the notion of climate is a more abstract concept that can often be communicated only through media — from photography to sober scientific articles to futuristic fiction.

“In this sense,” he said, “climate change itself is a form of story we have to tell.”

Comments

comments

New York Times News Service

.

News

Suspected arson fires worry neighbors, firefighters

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Winters homicide case enters jury-selection phase

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1

 
So much more than a cute baby store

By Bob Schultz | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Fill the Boot for the hungry

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2

 
Existing home sales rise in September

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

For the record

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2

 
Democrats love seeing minimum wage on the ballot

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

Pets of the week

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2 | Gallery

 
Tax tips offered for sole proprietors

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Apply now for community mediation training

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Paws for Thought: Pets for Vets: matches made in heaven

By Evelyn Dale | From Page: A3 | Gallery

‘Tokyo Kill’ author will visit bookstore

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

 
Sierra Club gathers for morning walks

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

DPNS has play group, preschool openings

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Yolo Knitters Guild plans fall meetings

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Local farm products found at hospital market

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
First-time home buyers get free advice

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Psychiatric clinic hosts open house

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Beer dinner set on Co-op patio

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Walkin’ the Dawg through the park

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4 | Gallery

 
 
Essay contest winners will be honored Tuesday

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

Volunteers sought to make veggie bags

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Library hosts after-hours teen movie nights

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Forum eyes impacts of raising the local minimum wage

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

 
NAMI-Yolo family support group meets Sunday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

To save the birds, look to the fish

By Kat Kerlin | From Page: A7 | Gallery

 
Birding field trip planned Saturday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A12 | Gallery

.

Forum

Ready to go, whatever happens

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

 
Where there’s a will …

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

These three are the best

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

 
Sunder has bold vision

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

Archer, Nolan are my picks

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

 
She’s innovative, passionate

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

An accidental fan becomes a baseball devotee

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A8

 
U.N. steps up to lead Ebola response

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A8

John Cole cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A8

 
.

Sports

UCD’s Wegener is the engine that drives the train

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Villegas wonderstrike powers Devils

By Evan Ream | From Page: B1 | Gallery

DHS golfers take the title

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

 
Devil defense regresses in football loss

By Thomas Oide | From Page: B1

Sports briefs: Top-end tennis talent helps DHS girls grab a win

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B2 | Gallery

 
Junior Blue Devils: Regular slate ends with 2 Davis teams playoff bound

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3 | Gallery

After running the gridiron gauntlet, can UCD regroup?

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B8 | Gallery

 
.

Features

.

Arts

 
Stories on Stage Davis presents tales by Lescroart, Montieth

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A11 | Gallery

 
.

Business

.

Obituaries

Peggy Belenis Swisher

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

 
.

Comics

Comics: Tuesday, October 21, 2014 (set 1)

By Creator | From Page: B5

 
Comics: Tuesday, October 21, 2014 (set 2)

By Creator | From Page: B7