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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

The Cultural Challenge Created by Climate Change

Dana Luciano

The impossibility of choosing between the terms listed in our initial blog prompt leads me to propose a term that does not appear on the list. The climate crisis poses a fundamental cultural challenge. We cannot reverse climate change with a few surface-level tweaks; it will require deeply-rooted cultural transformation. As the Petrocultures Research Group and others have pointed out, the use of fossil fuels isn’t simply something we do; in developed nations, over the past century, it has become fundamental to who we are. The same holds true of our modes of food production, habits of overconsumption, and patterns of waste distribution, all of which play a part in the ongoing crisis. And it extends to the radical and growing global inequalities between rich and poor, which exacerbate negative environmental conditions even as they deprive the most vulnerable communities of some of the key resources needed to sustain life in the face of these conditions. All of these have become bound up with the way we look at and think about the world; they have become cultural norms, and it is difficult to conceive of the world without them. These cannot simply be legislated away, although strong corrective legislation is urgently required. The crisis demands a thorough understanding of the beliefs, values, and modes of relation and expression that have produced and sustained these conditions—the kind of inquiry central to the humanities. Only then can we inspire people to change these conditions. 

In this light, any belief that the humanities will play merely a supportive role in this crisis is as dangerous as the climate denialists’ insistence that climate science is simply a matter of opinion. Indeed, recent surveys suggest that most Americans do accept the overwhelming scientific consensus around climate change, despite the concerted campaign to sow disinformation and denial. Still, most people report no plans to take action on behalf of this acceptance. The problem is not the lack, or the incomprehension, or the refusal, of scientific information: it is the difficulty of envisioning a viable connection between knowledge and action, and of awakening the energy, indeed the passion, to sustain action over the long haul. More information, without these, will only produce anxiety and fear, and these cannot lead us in any positive direction. We need to generate the desire to develop other ways of living, the will to connect both to the world we live in and the one we need to bring into being.

This is the conviction guiding the Mellon Sawyer Seminar in the Humanities that I am co-directing, “Approaching the Anthropocene: Global Culture and Planetary Change”: that alongside the important perspectives offered by policymakers and scientists, the critical, analytic, ethical, and creative skills of humanists remain vitally necessary. Climate change often generates calls for disciplinary innovation and reinvention. Yet alongside these, we need to recognize, and to recommit to, the tools that we already possess. If we hope to adequately address the problem of human-induced alteration of the planet’s geophysical processes, it is not only the planet that requires our attention; it is also, on the most fundamental level, the problem of the human itself.

Dana Luciano is an associate professor in the Department of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program in the College.

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