Writing environmental ruin, or how to write an obituary for an embattled planet
Until recently, Princeton University junior Anne Merrill wasn't aware of how time and distance can dampen a person's awareness of the pervasiveness and the toxic endurance of environmental degradation.
As someone who is well-read on environmental topics and active in environmental clubs on campus, Merrill, a comparative literature major, was shocked upon enrolling in the course, "The Literature of Environmental Disaster," to learn about environmental crises of which she'd never heard or realized the scale.
Decades of rapacious oil drilling in the distant Niger River delta that has laid waste to the environment and decimated local cultures with corruption, violence and pollution. A chemical leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984 — long before Merrill was born — caused by an American company's negligence that killed thousands and continues to sicken local populations more than a quarter-century later.
"Before this course, I would have told you that my knowledge of environmental issues was quite broad and, in some areas, deep," Merrill said. "I was unprepared for the number of significant environmental disasters I didn't know of, or had glossed over as having occurred long ago or far away."
It was not news reports of people suffering, or scientific studies on residual pollutants or cancer clusters that brought these events to life for Merrill. It was literature.
The course, taught by Göran Blix, associate professor of French and Italian, is part of an effort underway at Princeton to merge literature and the humanities with environmental consciousness. Three classes this fall semester, including two by Rob Nixon, Princeton's Thomas A. and Currie C. Barron Family Professor in Humanities and the Environment and professor of English and the Princeton Environmental Institute, explored how humankind's most expressive art forms can address society's most pressing issue — the environment.
"I feel strongly that this is the predominant issue of our times and the more people from different perspectives that can get on it, the better," said Blix, who taught the class for the first time in 2014. "We need not just scientists, engineers and politicians, but ethicists, philosophers and eco-critics."
Literature — fiction and nonfiction — possesses a unique ability to transcend time, and the emotional agility to impart the suffering of people whose worlds have been rendered inhospitable, Blix said.
"It's about an empathetic connection with the people who live in those situations. You see their faces, you learn their names and you feel a connection you wouldn't get from a scientific or media report," Blix said.
"Literary writing forces the reader to slow down, reflect, deliberate, decipher symbols, imprint images and reread. It is writing that resists 'consumption,'" he said. "If our consumption patterns got us into this fix, then fostering a type of deep, slow, qualitative attention to the problem has to be part of the solution. If the cameras race from crisis to crisis to feed us an unending drama of ecological catastrophe, we risk succumbing to a sensationalizing of the crisis as a kind of unreal spectacle to be consumed passively in the safety of our homes."
One of several books Blix assigned was Nigerian writer Helon Habila's 2010 novel "Oil on Water," in which a young journalist encounters the social and political complexity of the Niger Delta, a volatile mix of government soldiers, oil-company expatriates and insurgents. At the center is a bleak environment where the only remaining hope for people in it is to secure a portion of the vast oil profits that invariably fall into the hands of a select few.
"You get a multi-voiced perspective on the tragedy. It enriches our understanding of what's going on there without this monolithic plea for justice with no other voices in it," Blix said. "We're narrative animals — we're primed to respond to stories, and stories always have an element of drama. That's what brings things home for us and allows us to connect with characters and events in a meaningful way."
Raw facts and figures, while crucial to know, can become lost in the information glut of modern life, said Nixon, who this semester taught "Writing the Environment Through Creative Nonfiction" for undergraduates, and the graduate course "Literature and Society." Next semester, Nixon will be part of a new environmental studies course, "The Environmental Nexus," which seeks to address multiple aspects of the global climate crisis from various disciplinary perspectives.
The arts and humanities "put flesh and bones on scientific models and give them life that regular people are moved by," Nixon said. "The data clearly have a vital role to play, but in a sense we're drowning in data," he said. "The idea has been that if you produce enough environmental data, humanity will follow it. But we now know that there are societal forces that will block those channels."
Environmental fallout is especially hidden when the victims reside in the global south. In his 2013 book, "Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor," Nixon discusses how poverty, corruption and the developed world's indifference collude to veil the consequences of oil exploration, nuclear disasters or the proliferation of arms made from depleted uranium. The extended time and spatial scales over which these tragedies often play out run counter to modern society's frenetic transfer and consumption of information. Under these circumstances, Nixon writes, corporations and governments can easily subvert the public narrative to obscure the horrifying environmental effects of profitable wars and industries.
Art, however, can create a sensory, human-level experience that circumvents disinformation. "The power of writers and artists and filmmakers to make visceral an event where the real effects may still be 50 years in the future and halfway around the world is very powerful," Nixon said.
Nixon's "Writing the Environment" class serves as a workshop for young writers — this semester representing seven majors — compelled to take up that mantle, said William Lathrop, a senior studying religion and environmental studies. (Lathrop read "Slow Violence" his sophomore year and said it "has guided most everything I've read, thought and wrote about the environment since.")
"It's important to tell environmental stories, and it's important that our environmental storytelling is vivid and clear," Lathrop said.
"It's been really interesting to learn how to dramatize environmental ideas. We've done a lot of thinking about how physical, personal writing can give life to huge and nonhuman ideas like geologic time," he said. "It's cool when we workshop pieces to see how our individual work fits together and reflects the environmental issues that are on all of our minds."
Engaging the environment in the classroom
On Nov. 17, students in Nixon's class came together in a sunny room in McCosh Hall. Mariana Wu, a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, read a short essay she wrote about a car fire she experienced as a firefighter, one in which she invoked the smell of burning flesh: "Humans don't burn well, but does any animal burn well?" The students seized on the detail as the essay's most evocative line. "Smell is the sense that's most neglected, but the one that can pull us into a scene most immediately," Nixon said.
Senior Zoe Sims, from Hawaii, read her essay about an effort in her state to build a large telescope on a culturally significant island, one Sims could see from school. Opponents of the project cite a legacy of repressing native-Hawaiian culture. "The fact that you were born there and can see this from your schoolroom is a big pull," Nixon told her. "We've discussed how to use personal information without producing a narcissistic essay, and I think you've done a great job of doing that."
Sims, who is majoring in ecology and environmental biology with a certificate in environmental studies, said later that one of the most valuable aspects Nixon's course is the exposure to her classmates' individual experiences with the environment, be it conserving butterflies in California or raising orphaned baby raccoons at home.
"Everyone's background gives us different, important perspectives about nature," Sims said. "Everyone from Montana to Manhattan has experiences interacting with nature. Environmental writing — and environmental activism — is about learning to recognize this.
"This class was an inspiring reminder of the role writing can play in bridging environmental science and societal consciousness," Sims continued. "The environmental crisis is the most important challenge facing my generation. Change is difficult, and, as the recent election taught us, positive change on environmental issues is not inevitable. We have to keep writing, keep working, keep doing science and keep thinking critically and interdisciplinarily."
Fiona Furnari, a junior majoring in philosophy, said that Nixon's class challenged her to think more deeply about the environment, her place in it and how people relate to it.
"Instead of just thinking about animal facts and environmental tragedies, I feel like I have a broader perspective," Furnari said. "I'm thinking a lot about our relationship with the environment, how we depict the environment, and how those two things have changed and are changing."
"Each time I've written a piece for the class I've found myself considering my place in the environment," she said. "Before I thought that the environment mattered and I thought I knew why it mattered. But I never really thought about how we see the environment and the different modes in which we appreciate nature."
In Blix's class Nov. 22, the discussion was of Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 book "Silent Spring," which exposed the environmental destruction caused by pesticides, particularly DDT. "Pesticide" itself is a corporate-created misnomer, Carson said — the poisons are more accurately "biocides" that target all life, even human.
"In some ways, fairy tale itself is the enemy here," Blix says. "The 'dream world of technology' created by companies and PR are a fiction that we can't trust."
Konadu Amoakah, a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said that a consistent theme in environmental abuse — and one Carson sought to counter — seems to be the delusion that humans are separate from the natural world and immune to the repercussions of our own technology.
"She's trying to spur outrage among the uninformed," Amoakah said. "I think the point is that you can't remove humans from any other environment. We have to get used to thinking of humans as we do other organisms. You can't remove something without having unforeseen consequences for us."
For Merrill, books such as Indra Sinha's 2007 novel "Animal's People" underscore that people cannot simply depart from a ruined environment — the long-term social and physical aftermaths are theirs to keep. Set nearly 20 years after a Bhopal-like disaster, the book centers on Animal, who walks on all fours due to a severe spinal deformation the chemicals caused. Asocial and angry, Animal and those in the town of Khaufpur are physically, mentally and socially unable to move on from the disaster, unlike the outside world that ignores or pities them and the American company that escaped justice.
"Professor Blix's class has been unsettling, quite honestly," Merrill said. "Accidents of birth — the country one's born in, the social class — are depressingly determinative of direct exposure to environmental ills, but, ultimately, we're all at risk, and we all bear responsibility to stay aware of environmental concerns."