The spiraling climatological disaster we now inhabit can be approached from many angles—technical, political, and economic, among others—and must be. Our catastrophe is by definition interdisciplinary, since it touches literally everything on earth. It touches my children, whose world is warmed beyond my recognition already, and touches my parents, who live in central California, where the air is laced with particles of agricultural chemicals that inhabit their lungs and mine and can never go away. No doubt because of such effects climate change is most often approached in disciplines where “challenges” are to be “solved”: applied forms of human knowledge that speak the language of problems and solutions, dilemmas and their concrete resolutions.
These efforts are important. But my own work, in English, has helped me see that the most central shifts engineered by our present emergency are conceptual. Climate change is a problem for thought. As Bill McKibben showed as early as 1989, one myth climate change explodes definitively is the myth of nature. The entire record of western civilization has been built on the presumption that a “human” world and a “natural” one are separable. Yet nature is now fatally intertwined with us. Storms in Louisiana, heat waves in the Middle East, drowning islands in the central Pacific, my own family’s incessant subjection to wildfire in central California: these and other apparently nonhuman events are traceable, albeit in oblique and broken and maddeningly unsatisfying ways, to our own actions. I did this: but to what degree, and how?
The point is that conceptual models that rely on older models of agency and action–I did this, I’m not responsible for that—fall down in the face of our present crisis. This matters because, as the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar I am co-organizing will investigate, if we approach problems of climate change using the conceptual tools we have always used, we will simply fail. The old logics of human action, personal agency, and individual profit have enabled massive productivity and what Karl Marx called man’s domination of nature under capitalism. Yet the conceptual legacy we inherit from the Enlightenment, focused on guilt or innocence, yes or no, responsibility and its opposite, is inadequate to scenario in which we now find ourselves imbricated. And yet individualistic models continue to structure nearly all the solutions now presented to us. Carbon taxes, subsidies, paybacks: these and other economistic solutions derive what force they have from the fact of their familiarity. But it’s precisely because of this familiarity that such ideas represent a failure of imagination and indeed a failure of thought.
The current crisis demands that we reengineer the DNA of our assumptions and rebuild, from within, the thought processes we call reason. I teach literature, and in that capacity I focus on what can seem, at first, like small things: personal pronouns, narrative structure, the role of the passive voice. But micro-level features of language like these crystallize our presumptions about issues like agency and responsibility (who
did that, again?) and turn out, because of that, to open onto questions of the utmost consequence in our disastrous present. In a moment when the very foundations of thought must be questioned, and the very structure of our intuitions rebuilt, humanistic methods have never been more valuable. Will the technicians discussing these problems agree? We can only hope.
Nathan K. Hensley is assistant professor of English at Georgetown and author of the forthcoming Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (Oxford 2016). He is currently co-editing a collection of essays, "Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire," and, with Dana Luciano and John McNeill, is co-convener of the upcoming Mellon-Sawyer Seminar, "Approaching the Anthropocene: Global Culture and Planetary Change."