On January 12th, the Ford Foundation hosted a live chat on Facebook with novelist and Art of Change Fellow Amitav Ghosh. The renowned Ibis Trilogy author has spent time during his yearlong fellowship to examine the intersections between literature and climate change, which he feels is the most important issue of our time. “But the subject has only a minor and marginal presence within the arts and literature,” he said. “The same is true of politics: people around the world turn out in hundreds of thousands for issues related to identity, belief and so on. Yet they seem to be indifferent to an issue that poses a threat to their very survival.”
During the discussion, Ghosh called on artists–and specially writers–to directly address these kinds of large and complex issues, in an effort to help others understand their impact. Here are some highlights from the Facebook chat:
Elizabeth Coleman:Hi Amitav, I am a big fan (starting with In an Antique Land). Do you think the problem might have to do with the difficulty in telling the human stories about such an enormous scientific issue?
Amitav: Thanks very much! I think you’re right – it is very difficult to convey the human stories sometimes. At the same time, this is not just a scientific issue; it impinges on all our lives. Just ask all the people, in India, the UK and the US, who had to cope with devastating floods in December.
Elizabeth Coleman:Then the issues seem to be: choosing a story to tell, and staying away from polemics or rather, creating a story based on real experience…?
Amitav: The time for polemics is already past in a sense. After the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change it is clear that the ‘world community’ is agreed that climate change is real and that human activity has played a part in it. Millions of people are experiencing this reality – and that means that there are indeed many real stories to tell. The question is: why are these stories so difficult to accommodate to the accustomed techniques of literary fiction and the arts?
In an effort to address the intersectionality of art and climate change, the Ford Foundation is committed to equitable development. Many vulnerable rural communities depend on natural resources—such as land, forests, minerals, oil, and gas—for their survival and livelihoods. The Ford Foundation seeks to ensure that indigenous and other communities have secure access to and control over those resources and can benefit from them fully. This includes support for efforts to reduce deforestation and human rights violations—which are too often results of natural resource extraction—so that the affected communities will be able to sustain their cultures and reap greater economic benefits. It also includes work to ensure that oil, gas, and mineral producers respect the rights of communities and act accordingly. They also work to ensure that climate change policies benefit rural communities.
Schatzie Gardella Dudee: Mr. Ghosh, I strongly believe that this narrative can, and must, be changed by people who understand the existential danger and threats we are causing, and which are, of course, creating a huge refugee crisis. The message and linkages must reach a much wider audience, particularly here in the US where there are strong opposing headwinds. An appropriate sense of urgency can be effectively conveyed through more mainstreamed communications (via works of fiction, the visual arts, the blogosphere, etc.) because our leaders here in the US are just sitting around, futilely hoping and waiting for the average American to conjure up images of what a much warmer world might “look like” to them. This is taking too long!
Amitav: The political landscape is indeed rather depressing when it comes to climate change, not just in the US but around the world. On the other hand, I take heart from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, which is perhaps the strongest statement on climate change made by any global leader. I think it has had, and will have, a huge impact around the world.
Emma Jean, Ford Foundation: In many cases around the world understanding climate impacts requires knowledge of interconnections between systems and issues (usually addressed by a single sector); just 1 example, climate system change is increasing risks of extendeddroughts and altered precipitation cycles in some places like Africa and India, which then effects agriculture (a primary livelihoods for rural poor). Public dialogue, media, art, social and political circles can help improve climate system change understanding by drawing links between climate, public health, livelihoods, population, sustainable development, and so on.
Amitav: You’re right: the interconnections between systems and issues is not always easy to see. But I think indigenous peoples, farmers in rural Asia, Africa and many other places have long been aware that their environment is changing. In these circumstances it’s not always the case that inputs from the outside are helpful. I think the text of the Paris Agreement is right to stress the importance of traditional knowledge and local knowledge systems.
Milissa Benson asked about science fiction and how this genre can be used to talk about climate change.
Amitav: Yes, I think science fiction has been way ahead of the curve on climate change! You’ll find many great lists on the Net if you google the subject. What is puzzling to me though is why literary fiction has been relatively slow to respond to climate change. However one exception comes immediately to mind – it is Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel ‘Flight Behavior.’
Philippa Rizopoulos: Have you seen any success stories where people have used art and culture in order to shift the conversation? Whether by drawing attention to the problem or changing the debate in some way?
Amitav: Shifting the conversation’ suggests that art and culture should be used as a kind of propaganda. There may be a place for that but it’s not what interests me. What interests me is rather the question of why the real experiences of the millions of people around the world whose lives have been affected by climate change figure so little within culture in general
Gaurav Desai:While climate change affects us all, I wonder whether they also encourage new solidarities based on shared geographies rather than shared histories. Whenever I teach The Hungry Tide in the vulnerable city of New Orleans, my students are always quick to draw the parallels between the coastal erosions and disappearing wetlands of Louisiana and the situation of the Sunderbans that you so beautifully describe. Your fiction has often helped us think through matters of colonialism and history — does an engagement with the anthropocene encourage us to think differently?
Amitav: It’s wonderful to know that your students feel a direct connection with ‘The Hungry Tide’ – and I think it’s true that Louisiana and the Sunderbans share a common plight. It is also true that they are linked by histories of colonialism – both these areas came to be settled because of colonial practices. I think the Anthropocene does force us to re-think the geographies that were created by colonialism – and these also evoke linkages between places that are separated by great distances.
Ghosh continues to speak about the connection between art, literature, and climate change, with multiple upcoming talks and lectures.
Amitav: I am just getting to the end of a book on climate change and its implications for fiction, history and politics. It should be out later this year. Thanks for letting me know about Maya Lin’s work – I did not know about this project. I am sure it will be really exciting – her work always is!
We will be celebrating the work of these 13 Fellows at The Artists of Change, a creative forum on January 15, 2016 from 9-5pm ET at the Ford Foundation. During this day-long interactive event, they will share their work and spark lively conversation around the ideas they are exploring. We will be live streaming everything here at artofchange.is, and at partner screening sites around the world. Tune in here and on social media @FordFoundation to participate.