Student Blogpost by Tess Henthorne. Posted October 11th, 2017.
How do we write about a future that is imminently in danger but foreseeably open-ended? What information and sources do we trust? Why do we use the word “skeptic” when referring to individuals who deny climate change?
These are only a sampling of the questions posed at the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar’s “Writing Climate Now” roundtable on September 21, 2017 at Georgetown University. The event included four speakers who aimed to discuss strategies for writing about climate change and environmental disaster: Dagomar Degroot, Assistant Professor of History (GU); Mabel Gergan, Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities (GU); Evan Berry, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion (AU); and Shiloh Krupar, Associate Professor of Culture and Politics (GU).
Although the roundtable concluded with more questions than answers, each speaker raised concepts key not only to writing about climate, but also to communicating it.
Describing her research on India’s Himalayan borderlands, Gergan noted a recent increase in the frequency and intensity of local earthquakes. She explained that indigenous people (and not scientists) most frequently linked these events to climate change, but their voices are often ignored in broader conversations of the Anthropocene because they perceive the environment as sacred. Gergan used this example to flag the tendency of scholarly circles to jettison spiritual or moral issues in favor of the secular vocabulary of disinterested scientific rationality. When considering the way we write about the environmental issues, this neglect highlights an opportunity to change both what and whom we opt to include in climate-focused conversations.
Krupar suggested using new forms to address the Anthropocene. She revealed that in her own writing she integrates what she called “modes of speculative play,” like satire and allegorical folklore. Later, she followed up to explain that she feels her activism comes through most in projects that are not solely writing. Krupar gave examples of modernist techniques, including montage, theatrical play, humor, and documentary folklore, as alternative ways to provide facts and also think through one’s own ideological positioning.
While discussing the past and future of the Anthropocene, Berry outlined three basic narrative frames employed in environmental writing: the “good,” the “bad,” and the “what happens if the Anthropocene isn’t as bad as everyone says it is.” Each frame locates the human within a deeper time scale, either arguing for a return to a prelapsarian mode of social and economic organization or looking ahead to future technological innovations. Thus, these temporal frameworks add another layer to how we “write climate,” creating the opportunity for a rhetorical strategy through which we can contextualize present changes in climate.
These are only three modes that can inform how we think about and communicate environmental issues. But what are strategies to write about climate now?
Degroot left the roundtable audience with several concrete takeaways: Make abstract issues and challenges of climate change tangible. Emphasize local environmental consequences. Pursue interdisciplinary scholarship that will yield new perspectives. Make your message clear without relying on unnecessary jargon. Feel empowered to use social media platforms that will actually reach people. Formatting matters. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Avoid using the word skeptic (unless you’re referring to philosophy).
What I took from “Writing Climate Now” was that now is the time to adopt new modes and strategies. While the roundtable offered a variety of ways for scholars to write about climate change, what we must do is execute them outside the academy and make our work increasingly public. Through approaches like podcasts, pedagogy workshops for English teachers, and newspaper op-eds, we can push the boundaries of what we consider writing in order to prompt action on climate change.
Tess Henthorne is a second-year Master’s student in English Literature at Georgetown University. Her research focuses on the intersection of nineteenth-century British literature and the digital humanities.