The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

Can the novel capture the climate crisis? ELCI talks to Dr. Mark Bould

January 07, 2022 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
Can the novel capture the climate crisis? ELCI talks to Dr. Mark Bould
Show Notes Transcript

ELCI's Assistant Editor Lauren asks Dr. Mark Bould about his new book 'The Anthropocene Unconscious'.

They discuss whether fiction goes far enough in representing narratives of climate crisis, ranging from Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ to the 'Fast & Furious' franchise.

You can also read Lauren's review of 'The Anthropocene Unconscious' here


Lauren:

Hi, you're listening to the Economy, Land and Climate podcast. I'm Lauren, and I'm here with Mark Bould talking about his new book, 'Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture'.

Mark:

It's estimated by 2050 there will be something like 500 million climate refugees, not that they will be accepted as refugees and not that climate will be accepted as the cause of their refugee status. But how are we going to deal with those kinds of people? If we look at something like contemporary zombie movies, which are a kind of imagination of massive mobile, unwanted populations, in our current mindset, or our states' current mindsets, what we're going to do is we're going to build border walls and kill them, or leave them to die. And that is just not acceptable for human beings.

Lauren:

I asked Mark how his new book came about,

Mark:

I was really, really curious to see how it's being expressed by culture, which isn't expressing it directly. How these currents of anxiety and concern and stress flow through our culture. So one of the things I decided on early on was I wasn't looking at climate fiction. And although most of my work is on science fiction, I wasn't gonna look at any of the kinds of science fiction, like Kim Stanley Robinson's work, which directly represents climate change and thinks through technological, scientific, economic, political, social ways of ameliorating the impact of climate change. And then very early on, I read Amitav Ghosh's book, 'The Great Derangement', which is a fascinating book, where he argues that what he calls serious literary fiction - I call it mundane fiction, it's an old science fiction fandom joke about mainstream literary fiction - he argues that the way mundane fiction developed prevents it from being able to directly address crises and so on because of the focus that the novel prefers on the restricted and well defined social and physical landscape. Think of a Jane Austen novel something like 'Mansfield Park', it's all about getting Fanny out of Portsmouth and out of the working class into the estate. And just around the edges of Mansfield Park, there are a couple of references towards the unto Antiguan plantations, which are financing this estate, but it's all pushed out of the novel and all of the literary novel. And in the 20th century, we get a greater focus on individual psychology in the literary novel. So his argument is that the novel as it exists, cannot cope with something like climate change. And my reading of these novels is a little bit, was a little bit different from his in that I saw them struggling with their form, and struggling with the process of exclusion. And often these kinds of concerns sneaking in, in ways that aren't necessarily the focus of the novel, but they're part of the backdrop. So one of the novels they talk about, which Ghosh himself says doesn't address climate change, is Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things. And he's right, there's nothing in the novel that's directly about climate change. But it does talk about changes to weather patterns. So you get a sense of the characters being familiar with cyclical weather patterns. So this is the monsoon season where the weather is like this. But over time, those patterns are being disrupted. And we also see this with river flow. And so a development project has changed the way water is flowing through the countryside. And these things to me seem to be focusing on some of the drivers of climate change; development projects and so on, but also to be expressing the ways in which the Holocene period where we have developed as a species is this period of stability. And that's changing, we can no longer predict the weather with that kind of accuracy. So that has to be on some level about processing climate change. But I was also determined not just to write about serious literary fictions. Quite a bit in there, I talk about Paul Oster and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Lucy Elman, Paul Kings North, Amitav Ghosh himself, but I wanted to see how these currents of anxiety and concern were flowing through culture at all kinds of levels. So you know, my first major chapter is about the Sharknado movies, my conclusions about the Fast and Furious franchise, and in between we take in some art house cinema, some comic books, all sorts of things, just to see how widespread as well, these cultural concerns are.

Lauren:

There's a phrase in the book I really love, I mean the whole thing's written in really beautiful prose, but you say that novels have a tendency to tighten their focus, narrow their range so that they miss out the world. Do you think that that is just a problem of novels or that that's a problem that we, as humans have more widely? I mean, it's been notoriously difficult to get climate change addressed with any of the kind of urgency that you'd want to see on such a big issue.

Mark:

Yeah, I think, you know, it's very much a characteristic of the kind of fiction gauche is addressing, though, you know, there are exceptions, there are marginal cases. One of the other comparisons I make in the book is that these kinds of larger scale systemic crises, the patterns of the global economy that are drivers of climate change, there's a parallel there with externalities in the way capitalist economics works. So capitalism, as a system says, okay, we don't count these things as part of the cost of the commodity we're producing. And those things are the environmental degradation, immiseration of peoples, the impoverishment of peoples, the

exhaustion workers feel:

things capitalism doesn't count in its equation, it does everything to cut them out. And the novel does some very, very similar things, in part because the literary novel, as it emerges, is a grand ideological work, emerging capitalist culture and the development of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist class. So those kinds of parallels between the kind of exclusions in the novel and the externalities of capitalism I draw attention to. I guess also the notion that usually get evoked to talk about the problem of imagining climate change or imagining climate even, the notion of the hyper object, it's something that's systemic too massive, has effects and consequences we can't predict, we can't see, all we can experience are kind of local manifestations, local epiphenomena. So you know, we see the weather, but we can't see climate, we can hold a bank note, but we can't see the economy. And scaling up is really, really difficult to address not just works of fiction, but more generally, in politics and in activism. So part of the purpose of the book is to try and get people to start thinking about those problems of scale, and how you scale up from local action to global action and how you cope with something that's too massive to cope with, in terms of local daily lives. That kind of critical, creative reflection, not just on culture, but on the ways we live.

Lauren:

I like that phrase, the hyper object. I think, yeah, it really describes something which is quite difficult to get your head around. I guess one of the main questions which your book is grappling with is what power can fiction have in the climate debate? What are the responsibilities of fiction as opposed to the responsibilities of news? What can fiction do which political speeches or news can't in terms of the climate debate?

Mark:

I think the great asset of fiction and film is its ability to move people, to touch them, to make them imagine, to cause their minds to come alive in a kind of critical and creative way as we try to understand them, as we try to make sense of them, as we discuss them. The book begins with an invocation to imagine and this kind of dark, dystopian future that we're creating for ourselves. But it ends with a call to imagine differently. And I think, one of the purposes of fiction, one of the things we can do with fiction is begin to imagine differently, and that can be transplanted out of or translated out of novels that we read into everyday practice. So one of the conversations I'm right at the start of having with various friends and colleagues is around one of the reports that came out during COP26. It was a survey that had been done if I remember correctly across 10 European nations, asking people whether they thought they were doing enough to combat climate change. One of the findings was that people tended to consider they were doing enough if it was something they were already doing, but they couldn't imagine taking on larger actions. So it seems like the European middle classes are quite content to do their recycling every week, but they can't imagine a future without privately owned cars. And this is a really intriguing question because obviously, and this always shocks people when I say this, obviously, no one actually needs to own a car. The majority of cars sit unused for something like 97% of their lifetime. How do we get people to stop wanting to own cars? And we can't do that just by banning cars. Though it would be good to ban SUVs, for example, as they're the second largest new contributor to CO2 emissions in the 2010s. And how do we get rid of cars? Well, one of the ways we do that is we create fast, effective, efficient and free public transport. But people have a kind of resistance to public transport often because they have an imagination of what it's like. And their worst experiences of public transport tend to sit with them. So we need to get people to imagine what a life without cars could be like. I run through South Bristol, quite often, I have a nice route that takes me through residential streets, which are for the most part 2,3,4 cars wide. Imagine if those streets were gardens. Imagine if those streets were places you could go out and socialise with and meet your neighbours, you'd still need, you know, a one car width so deliveries can get through and emergency vehicles can get through and things like that. But if you're not using half the width of a road to park cars in the street, if people aren't owning cars and driving cars, we could take an expanse, like with Downs I live on which have been residential for over a century. And we could make this a garden, we can make this a green space, we could have playgrounds out there, we could have barbecue pits everywhere, we could have pop up stalls and markets. And it's a genuine transformation of life. It's not just getting rid of cars and having to survive in this world just without privately owned cars in it. And obviously, you know, public transport would involve car like vehicles that you could rent but not - obviously not - at current rental prices, they should be free like any other public transport. So that's a kind of very rapid fictional and science fictional vision of transforming the world. But we can talk about these things with our communities, we can begin to do things like closing down streets, where they're not necessary. There's an organisation that started in Bristol that regularly closed down streets, so children can play in them. But we could transform them far beyond that. And these kinds of tools of the imagination and what science fiction often brings us as well is a kind of disciplined imagination, things have to be plausible, they have to tie together, can be a tool to not just combat climate change on the local level, they can be a way of improving all our lives.

Lauren:

So from what I understand, you're saying that dealing with climate change is about learning how to adapt to a changed world. In the book, you quote Ghosh saying that the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity. Do you think that in reimagining what the world might be it's not just about reimagining our everyday activities? It's about reimagining how we structure the world itself. It's about how we see borders. It's about how we see our calendar years, for example.

Mark:

Yeah, absolutely. What Ghosh means by that is that we've long had this imagination around the idea of progress that somehow the Western world, you know, all the white guys are the ones get into the future first and then he says we look at the conditions in the global south or the third world, however you want to describe it. And that's what the future looks like. A world of greater immiseration, a world of poverty, a world of violence, of hunger, and thirst a world of pollution and so on. So when we look to those venues, that is the future we're building for pretty much all of us. But we live in this world at the moment where again, another report I think, came out during COP26 was showing how much money the US and Europe was spending on building border walls and border security and fences, and patrols and so on. And how much greater that proportion of their expenditure was than the money being spent on climate amelioration. So clearly we need to flip those things. You know, borders are fundamentally inhumane. They're fundamentally an exercise of power and of privilege and of wealth. They're fundamentally violent. So we're confronted by a future, for example, where it's estimated by 2050, there'll be something like 500 million climate refugees, not that they will be accepted as refugees and not that climate will be accepted as a cause of their refugee status. But how are we going to deal with those kinds of people? If we look at something like contemporary zombie movies, which are a kind of imagination of massive mobile, unwanted populations, in our current mindset, or in our states' current mindsets, what we're going to do is we're going to build border walls and kill them or leave them to die. And that is just not acceptable for human beings, but we can learn vital lessons from them and I was determined quite early on to finish with the Fast and Furious movies, because they seem impossible to redeem. They're from the, you know, the heart of the petrocultural base that's burning down the world. And then something very curious goes on in these movies. First of all, the kind of utopianism that runs through them. The idea of family, the way it gets evoked in the movies is that the group that calls itself family contains very few blood relations, it's mostly family of choice. It's a multi ethnic family. It's a mostly working class family. And one of the things the films do is they kind of celebrate skilled manual labour, being able to fix cars. So there's this kind of fantasy of a utopian future going on in those movies. Although, of course, they're still very bound by not really being able to imagine beyond, you know, heteronormative patriarchy and reproduction and things like that. And they're certainly not able to imagine a world without oil, in the way they appear on the screens there is also running through them an admission that we can't go on like this. As the franchise develops, and as budgets get bigger and bigger and bigger. So the action sequences that the films are centred around become more and more spectacular, and over the top, and they have to become digital, the analogue world, the mechanical world cannot do these things. And there is this kind of beautiful, frantic haste to keep making the movies before the franchise inevitably collapses. Because although pretty much, with a couple of exceptions, each film's box office has been bigger than the previous film's box office, in terms of return on investment, the first film is probably the most successful of them. The one with the smallest budget had the highest ratio. So there's a kind of desperate sense of burning up fuel and possibility also going on in those movies. So I think it's a good pointer to the way I am treating books and films and comics in my book is what is in there that we can see as hopeful and positive and offering us glimpses of a potentially better world, and what is going on there that's riven by anxieties and the impossibility of the world we've created.

Lauren:

So why don't you look at any climate fiction in this book?

Mark:

I mean, part of it was there's just so much good work out already on climate fiction and the varieties of science fiction that address climate change directly. I've written about those kinds of fictions as well. But to actually commit the time to writing a book, I wanted to do something different and unusual and expand the conversation. The kind of problems that arise with talking about climate fiction, and particularly that kind of empirical science fiction, realist science fiction if you like, is you very quickly get caught up in debates and arguments about different geoengineering technologies, different magic bullets that are going to solve the problem, or outside of those kinds of science fictional texts in the other kinds of CliFi that you find is basically as far as I can figure, a fairly despairing one, one that does seem to lack much in the way of hope. It's about living through the crisis and barely surviving. And from the kind of literary Cli Fi end as well, they really do replicate that problem that Ghosh talks about.

Lauren:

And is there not an argument that fiction works best as a lens for exploring big political issues, even if it doesn't address them head on. For example, you talked about 4321 by Paul Oster. Briefly, the book explores diverging paths for his hero's life. There are many events which within the context of the novel are permanent fixtures, for example, the Kennedy assassination. Does a story like that not have quite a lot to say about how climate exists as one of those superstructures our lives cannot function without. Does fiction not work best, I guess what I'm saying is, when it's presenting a stance at an angle?

Mark:

yeah, and I think Oster's book's a really curious one, it's one of the ones I have really mixed feelings about. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and found it - I always think of it as you know, having a nice long soak bath and a very big and very nice warm cup of tea. For me, it was a very, very comfortable and somewhat smug and self satisfied book, though I enjoyed it on a sentence by sentence level. There are some astonishingly long and beautifully crafted, balanced sentences in there. And it's clearly a novel that both in terms of its own structure is thinking about alternatives, and then each of the characters themselves has some imagination of what alternative worlds might have been like if simple decisions had happened here or there. But I also found the overall politics of the book kind of unforgiveable in that what it seems to do is validate that kind of comfortably middle-classmiddle class Boomer generation that are responsible for so much. And it always privileges the characters who stand on the sidelines and watch but do very little and denigrates the characters, marginalises the characters, who do actually attempt to affect change, you know, there are complex currents running through the book. Its engagement with alternative possibilities is exactly the kind of engagement we should be thinking of, looking for, in our culture, in our texts, in our own imagination of our present and future worlds. But for me, the novel was ultimately well within that kind of event horizon that Ghosh argues is there for the you know, the mainstream bourgeois literary novel that it can't really go very far. But of course, this is my response to it. There's absolutely no reason why other people won't respond to that and find in its presentation of possible changes, tremendous grounds for hope and for rethinking their own choices from the smallest of local decisions to the largest scale choices of which are possible for individuals to make.

Lauren:

Well, Mark Bould. Thank you. That's probably all we've got time for today. Quickly, where can listeners buy your book?

Mark:

It's available in all good bookstores. It's published by Verso so it's on their website. And if people want to read the opening of a book, there is an extracted version available on Boston review on their website.

Lauren:

Well thank you very much for listening. We have been the Economy Land and Climate Podcast. If you like what you've heard, head on over to our magazine, at www.ELC-insight.org or you can follow us on twitter @elcinsight. We hope very much that you enjoyed the show!