Literature Enlivens Predictions
New Perspectives on Climate Change.
By Katrin Koster
Our future – doomsday scenario or heroic story? When literary texts, essays, or social media posts treat climate change, they operate with strong ideas. They’re more captivating than mathematical models. The cultural studies research project ‘Just Futures? An Interdisciplinary Approach to Cultural Climate Models’ is now taking a close look at these texts. It is receiving 750,000 euros over the course of three years and is located at UDE as well as the Universities of Cologne, Klagenfurt, Leeds, and Sheffield.
The project is receiving support from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) as a cross-border, top-level research project. It demonstrates how productive interdisciplinary humanities and social science approaches are – by going beyond abstract findings to examine how conceptions and scenarios for climate futures are depicted in the media. Researchers have long demanded such a perspective in view of the dominance of quantitative models.
Literary studies, linguistics, media sociology, science and technology studies, and subject-specific pedagogy are collaborating on the project. These disciplines analyse how text types oscillate between descriptive statements on climate change and conclusions that point the way ahead. The researchers are examining novels, plays, essays, social media posts, and educational materials, particularly from the last decade.
‘One much-discussed novel is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, published in 2020. It starts with a heat wave in the year 2025 that claims millions of lives and describes into the 2050s how the world succeeds in creating a more sustainable future. A novel is not simply a set of instructions that tells you how to do something. That’s not how literature works,’ explains Prof. Dr Jens Martin Gurr from English studies. ‘It’s rather a thought experiment that plays through options for action – including illegal ones – without taking sides. So even if such a text asks what could happen rather than showing what exactly has to happen, it still creates the link between urgency and hope for the future that is so important for climate communication.’
Gurr investigates the impact narratives have on public debates. A second focus is interdisciplinary model theory in cultural studies, which serves in this project as a key linking element: ‘We study how texts function as alternative models to describe a complex reality differently than can be done with natural science models,’ says the literary scholar. Models are always models of something, that is, simplified descriptions of reality, and models for something, future scenarios or even instructions for action.
The focus is on intergenerational equity: How can we live well today without ruining younger people’s prospects for the future? How are intergenerational debates conducted in social media and staged in literature? How are these texts discussed, and how do these discussions differ from reviews in the feuilleton? Three subprojects examine corresponding debates in 1. English-language plays and essays, 2. social media, and 3. the reception and communication of literature.
It should be noted that these genres do not follow the same conventions and that they function in different ways. A novel presents climate futures differently than an essay, for example – and posts in social media have an effect that is different once again.
How do the genres contribute to an intergenerationally equitable approach to the topic by helping to develop new ideas? How do they negotiate intergenerational conflicts? And how can the results and models be applied to other disciplines? An artistic website (www.cultural-climate-models.org) accompanies the process, documents results, and serves as a medium for the different target audiences.
Main image: © AG Gurr