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Literature Professor Probes Novels of the Anthropocene Age

Dan Bloom is a climate activist in Taiwan. He blogs at

"The industrialized North looks with nostalgia and admiration at the false image of the people whose labor and resources fund its comfort, imagining them to be somehow closer to nature." -- Nick Admussen. Photo Credit: Arun Shrestha/IPS

TAIPEI, Aug 22 2016 (IPS) - A literature professor at Cornell University in upstate New York, Nick Admussen, has recently published an online literary essay about writing novels in the Anthropocene Age.

Titled “Six proposals for the reform of literature in the age of climate change,” the 1500-word essay will change the way you think about how modern novelists need to change they ways they try to tackle climate change themes.

Admussen is an assistant professor of Chinese literature and culture at Cornell and has an MFA degree in poetry. In the essay, which has reached a larger audience of literary critics and writers worldwide via social media, Admussen uses the negative poetics of an an early 20th century Chinese writer to outline some habits he feels that fiction writers need to break in order to make culture more responsive to climate change. It might be one of the most important literary essays of the 21st century, and whether you agree with all his six proposals or not, Admussen’s piece deserves an international readership.

"Vast disparities in income, as well as vast differences in the intensity of social and political systems from region to region, drive climate destruction in the present day and fundamentally restrict our ability to conceptualize the global ecosystem of tomorrow," -- Nick Admussen

One of Admussen’s themes is that global culture has not just failed to adapt to the climate change challenges we now face in this age of global warming, it actively prevents us from facing those challenges. That’s a tall order, but the author has his talking points and they’re all worth paying attention to.

Admussen says he wants to speak to those ”who feel an intense responsibility for our shared future on Earth, those casting around for means and methods by which that future might be improved.”

“Today, global cosmopolitan culture [is creating massive ] chaos,” Admussen, 45, opines. “Power is concentrated in the hands of a few independent corporations and states, each strong enough to escape environmental regulation, none with the will or mission to provoke change in themselves or others. Day after day, human activity fills
the atmosphere with carbon, transforming Earth’s climate, melting the polar ice caps, already destroying the homes and habitats of the planet’s many creatures — including ourselves. Yet we lack the ability to visualize these problems, to locate their source in our own actions and lives, to tell and transform the stories of the interactions between our behaviour and our biome.”

“This is not a failing of science, the science is quite clear: it is a failing of culture,” he adds, noting: ”The single most influential artwork of climate change remains former U.S. Vice President Al Gore standing in front of a Powerpoint presentation 10 years ago. Global culture has not just failed to adapt to the challenges we now face: it actively prevents us from facing those challenges. To change this, we need to break with our existing traditions of art and media, even if that means rejecting some of the works we love most.”

Admussen says that the current way that novelists worldwide try to tackle global warming themes is ”a destructive and atomizing act of imagination” that ”erases our radical dependence on each other and on the environment.”

And he doesn’t stop there, adding: ”Reducing literature to a procession of isolated actors (or authors) belies the responsibility readers have to see the disastrous paradigm in which a focus on individuals occludes acts that harm the broader community.”

Admussen goes from despair to hope. While he maintains that ”the humblest grammatical formulation all the way up to the way we conceptualize our most cherished ideals, the English language is choked by metaphors of possession and exchange, and sorely lacks metaphors of membership and interrelation,” he also champions what he calls perhaps the greatest hope for fiction today, that young people are participating now in fiction.

“They write a fanfic or attend a book club or play Quiddich on the college campus green,” he writes. “They dream themselves into capacious and novel systems. This gives them the power and vision to build futures.”

Building on his variou themes and proposals, Admussen notes that in the last 20 years, advanced economies in the North have taken pride in their modest decreases in carbon dioxide emissions per capita, while at the same time completely ignoring the way in which this is possible because of the exportation of manufacturing to the global South.

“Vast disparities in income, as well as vast differences in the intensity of social and political systems from region to region, drive climate destruction in the present day and fundamentally restrict our ability to conceptualize the global ecosystem of tomorrow,” the Cornell professor writes. “These types of inequities are almost always accompanied by moralizing fictions. The industrialized North looks with nostalgia and admiration at the false image of the people whose labor and resources fund its comfort, imagining them to be somehow closer to nature.  Full partnership for everyone in a global ecosystem means redistributing the rewards that the developed world has already incurred by harming it.”

Like I said, this is all a tall order, and not everyone is keen to accept it.

“I’m circumspect about calls for systemic ‘reform’ of any art form,” a published novelist told me by email. “Calls for art or literature that portray or reflect an under appreciated truth are useful but I think that proposals like these are more likely to emerge as trends naturally, from the culture at and not likely to vault forward because
an academic or critic has articulated them.” Said another novelist, also via email: “Admussen’s essay is interesting, but ‘prescription’ for artists is not a good idea, and ‘reform’ in relation to the arts is always pretty sinister.”

The entire essay is published by The Critical Flame here.

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