Featured Fellow: Dale Jamieson

Dale Jamieson's new book Love In The Anthropocene, a collaboration with Bonnie Nadzam, uses fiction and essay to create a vivid, personal vision of a world impacted by climate change. We spoke with him about the power of storytelling, where we are now in the climate change conversation, and his work in the emerging field of environmental humanities.

In your forthcoming book Love In The Anthropocene, you use fiction and essays to imagine a future where the environment has been profoundly altered by climate change. What made you want to explore this topic through fiction and essays?

The first climate change paper I wrote in 1988 talked about how bloodless and abstract scientific concepts such as "global mean surface temperature" are, and said that if you want people to understand what it would be like to live in a climate change world you would have to write stories. It took me about 30 years to get to it, but finally the stories are here!
Stories can do many things that my academic writing cannot do nearly as successfully. The two most important to me are these.

First, climate change is happening in a world in which lots of other things are happening, too-technological change, growing inequality, political unrest, and so on. What happens to professors is that we fixate on the particular topic of our own research (e.g., climate change, ethnic conflict, whatever), and then act as if that's the only thing that's going on in the world. That's part of why so many of us are bores at parties ("Enough about me," says an academic at a party, "what do you think of my book?"). Writing stories forces you to think more holistically.

The second thing I'm especially interested in is what you might call "the banality of climate change." It was the psychologist Daniel Kahneman who first got me thinking about this. He's talked and written a lot about why it is that disabled people tend to report higher levels of subjective happiness than non-disabled people would imagine. Part of the answer, according to Danny, is because, disabled or not, most of us think about love, money, jobs, and so on rather than our disabilities or lack of them. Our abilities and disabilities are things that we mostly take for granted-they are part of the baseline from which we judge our happiness. On the other hand, when you ask people to imagine what it would be like to be in some other physical state than they one they are actually in (e.g., paraplegic), they focus laser-like attention on that state, and so exaggerate its importance. I started thinking that something like is true when we think about climate change. For most people climate change will become part of the baseline. In a climate change world, middle class people will think about what they think about in this world-jobs, status, money, and so on, with of course love being at the center. It might be harder to get these things in the world we're creating-and for people at the bottom the suffering will broaden and intensify-but unless the absolute worst scenarios come true, for many well-off people climate change will just be part of the background of their lives. This is very hard to express outside of fiction in a way that is both compelling, and also conveys how truly horrifying this really is, at least to me.

The essays are there to introduce people to the central topics-the anthropocene and love. These are not simple notions and it was fun thinking through them with Bonnie.

The book is a collaboration with the novelist Bonnie Nadzam. What was your collaboration process like?

It was enormously fun and felt enormously creative. Writing with Bonnie put a smile on my face (though sometimes we spent days arguing about a single word). Bonnie and I think about many of the same things from a broadly similar perspective, but we have different points of emphases and different skill sets. I learned an enormous amount from her and not just about writing.

I asked Bonnie for her take on this question and she said this: "Working together was like driving with no hand on the wheel or in a car with two steering wheels, with no particular destination in mind." She makes it sound like a literary On the Road experience, which isn't too bad an image (though I'm not sure who is Neal and who is Jack).

Your book Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle to Stop Climate Change Failed-and What It Means For Our Future, you explore the reasons we've missed the mark on preventing climate change. How has the conversation progressed since your book came out last year? In your view, where are we now in the climate change discussion?

Not much has substantively changed, which doesn't surprise me, since in my book I was reflecting on the evolution of this issue over decades and centuries. Something would have had to have been deeply wrong with my account if the course of this history would have radically changed in a year.
What has happened is that some major actors who had been on the sidelines (e.g., the US and China) are now acting to moderate the extent and pace of the warming. This is very good news and let's hope it continues. But if we succeed in reducing greenhouse gas emissions-which we still have not-this would only mean that we're putting fewer climate changing gases into the atmosphere than we were, not that we've stopped putting them there in the first place or that the atmospheric concentrations of these gases have started to come down.

In addition, two of my main worries remain. The first is the cyclical nature of the attention that people pay to climate change. Each international meeting (such as the one coming up in Paris in November) is treated as the last chance to save the world. When nothing world-historical occurs (as it won't again in Paris), the issue goes dormant until the next last chance to save the world. The second worry is that while we have pretty strong majorities in most countries in favor of reducing emissions, we have very little support for helping those who are being damaged by climate change largely through no fault of their own. This dimension of the issue is as important as reducing emissions.

You've been a leading figure in the field of environmental humanities that has emerged over the past decade. How do you see this loosely defined, interdisciplinary terrain developing in the future, and what sorts of directions do you see the field taking in the years to come?

At the moment the environmental humanities is a perfectly agreeable version of the Wild West. Lots of smart, creative, often rebellious people are doing interesting things. The threats I see to this wonderful circus come from opposite directions. But in an odd way, like the extreme right and left, these threats have a way of leading to much the same place.

From my point of view there is little reason to write if you're not communicating with someone who in some important way is not like you. Unfortunately many academics seem quite happy to write for themselves and those who are extensions of themselves. This becomes very apparent in the tortured writing and neologistic vocabularies you all too often find in academic writing. What makes this even worse is the decline of careful broad reading in the academy. It takes too much time and energy, and detracts from writing for ourselves and those most like us. Where this threat leads is to an array of mutually unintelligible linguistic ghettos, all classed together as the "environmental humanities." The second threat is that the field effectively gets taken over by a discipline, and the paradigm becomes work that conforms to the conventions of that discipline. This scenario is very much like the first except that in this case, rather than anarchy, one of the linguistic ghettos exercises power over the others.

How does your writing feed into your approach as a professor?

I've always thought that the most important thing that I do is to teach. Writing is itself a form of teaching, and all forms of teaching are way of learning. Sitting in my room writing is where, on a good day, I actually develop some thoughts that are worth talking about.

Interview by Molly Long