Using the arts to teach how to prepare for climate change

EUGENE, Ore. — University courses on global warming have become common, and Prof. 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,” Professor 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; Professor 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 Professor 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 last 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 Mr. McEwan.

And with remarkable speed — Ms. Kingsolver’s and Mr. Rich’s books were published less than a year ago — 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, Professor 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

By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA

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