Some years ago, in response to the construction of a new nuclear waste facility, the French government issued a challenge to artists. How, the question went, might people living thousands of years in the future best be warned to steer clear?
Ideas ranged from pictures of vomiting stickmen to clusters of trees genetically modified to turn blue. The most promising solutions, however, were reckoned to be those cemented in storytelling. The theory being that as long as we humans have breath, we’ll always be spinning yarns.
This innate desire has left our species with a long back catalogue. About 5,000 years ago, stories that were originally passed down orally from generation to generation made their way on to clay, then papyrus, and now into a wide variety of different media.
This vast canon is Martin Puchner’s home terrain. A professor at Harvard University, he studies humanity’s great epics, from sacred texts such as the Mayan Popul Vuh to ancient animal fables such as the Sanskrit Panchatantra or the Jataka Tales of south Asia.
But Puchner’s concerns are not purely academic. He worries deeply about the looming threat of climate disaster and, just as importantly, our failure to construct narratives that galvanise us to act.
Too much of our current discourse about climate change is laced with ideas of “sin and punishment, transgression and retribution”, he argues in Literature for a Changing Planet. No one wants to listen to a hectoring activist or finger-wagging scientist, even if the world might be about to burn to a crisp.
How did we get to such an impasse? Based on a conviction that the literary masterpieces of history (collectively defined as “world literature”) comprise a “single, interrelated” phenomenon, Puchner asks how storytelling traditions have subconsciously framed our current thinking towards the environment.
At the crux of his case is the historic role of literature in explaining and defending our evolution as sedentary creatures who are reliant on settled agriculture, as opposed to hunting and gathering like our low-carbon ancestors.
Take the Cyclopes in the Odyssey, for instance, a people so uncivilised, according to Homer, that they refuse maritime trade, and, sin of all sins, fail to “plant their goods from seed”. Or the animal-like creature Enkidu in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, who takes on human form and duly embraces bread, beer and the other joys of sedentary life.
Treating agriculture as a proxy for resource extraction and, by extension, human-made climate change, gets around the problem of literature’s historic silence on the latter. Given this inherent “complicity with the lifestyle that has led to climate change”, every story ever told becomes open to an environmental interpretation.
Buy that argument or not, this erudite and provocative book presents a compelling case for the power of the stories we tell ourselves — not just as a method for handing down information, but also as a way of framing how we see the world around us.
That last point is especially vital. As a species, we need to find better ways of telling stories about climate science; stories that capture its complexity and urgency but hold off from bamboozlement or blame.
Puchner is adamant that “world literature” offers pointers for how to do just that. Regrettably, tangible examples are few and far between. The closest he gets is a call for literature to shift more towards the collective, both in its protagonists (eg, Karl Marx’s “proletariat”) and its creation (think: more curators, fewer lone authors).
Even so, this short book is on to something important. We are all, in a way, what we write — and read — about our world and our place within it. Whether future generations will even exist to stumble on our toxic waste depends in no small part on how our storytelling evolves — if indeed it does.
Literature for a Changing Planet by Martin Puchner, Princeton University Press $18.95/£14.99, 160 pages
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