Dr David Farrier, Department of English
Intervening in the debate around GM food this month, the environment minister Owen Patterson suggested that the public should listen more to their heads than their hearts when it comes to genetically modified crops entering the food chain. This is not the forum to rehearse the arguments around GM and neither am I, it must be said, especially well-placed as a literary scholar to offer meaningful comment. Patterson’s comments do however point to where the humanities can engage fruitfully with ecological matters: what is the place of emotion in an environmental ethics?
How we feel about something has a determining effect on how we act. This commonplace observation has not, perhaps, been sufficiently acknowledged in debates around ecological threats, where it tends to be supposed that all that counts are ‘hard’ solutions. But the ‘softer’ interventions of the humanities do have a role to play, as a recent contrast illustrates.
On 10th May this year, climate scientists at the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced that atmospheric CO2 levels had reached the largely symbolic but unprecedented milestone of 400 ppm (parts per million). The same month, George Monbiot’s manifesto for re-wilding the UK, Feral, was published with the sub-title, ‘Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Re-Wilding’. On the one hand the contrast here is of course absurd, not least in terms of scale. But it also points to an instructive contrast regarding the relationship between how we feel and how we respond to environmental crisis.
The 400 ppm marker passed largely without comment. News media around the world were unmoved, and humankind has continued to plough on towards Pliocene-era CO2 concentrations. Monbiot, on the other hand, is open about the affective basis for his project–as with the ‘new nature writing’ of Robert Macfarlane, Gavin Francis, and Roger Deakin, an alertness to wonder is presented as the foundation of a newly-vitalised relationship with the nonhuman world.
In both cases, an affective response (exhaustion or exhilaration) is crucial. The muted reaction to the 400ppm threshold seems to have been marked by nothing so much as fatigue. We might say it simply isn’t possible to sustain the level of emotional intensity required by frequent prophecies of global ecological calamity. But the urgency isn’t lessened because we don’t have the resources of feeling to appreciate it. Monbiot, on the other hand, calls for a greater intimacy with the particular and local; a greatly reduced scale that should, we might suppose, be within the compass of our capacity to feel engaged.
It would be easy to suppose that the problem here lies in our over-familiarity with a too-diffuse form of threat, the antidote to which is a good dose of ‘real’ nature; that is, to update CP Snow’s ‘two cultures’ for the anthropocene. Or to suggest that the answer to global problems lie in local solutions. Any one solution would be reductive, though; we also need to think further about the role feeling plays in creating a disciplining frame around concepts of the environment, which often tip into rather broad value judgements (‘good’ and ’bad’). Do we need the environment to make us feel good to engage with it? What is the relationship between grieving and hoping?
These are large questions, but they need to be asked alongside scientific enquiry if we are to properly imagine how to bridge the gap between the future our current actions promise for us, and the future we wish to have.
Dr David Farrier is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature in the University of Edinburgh’s Department of English. He convenes the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities network, and has written books on nineteenth century travel writing (Unsettled Narratives) and asylum seeker & refugees in contemporary literature and visual culture (Postcolonial Asylum)