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.

To read the rest of the interview, visit New York Institute for the Humanities.

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