Adeline Johns-Putra and Kelly Sultbach (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022) 300 pp. £66.05 Hb. £22.99 Pb. ISBN: 978-1316512166
This authoritative and academically rigorous collection of essays offers valuable insight into the relationship between literature and climate change. It positions itself within a field of research which is rapidly growing, particularly across interdisciplinary networks, yet has much scholarly merit given its wide provision of knowledge, across differing modes of representation (theatre, fiction, film) and via a range of diverse cultural perspectives.
The texts are divided thematically and genealogically. They start by considering ‘Historical Shifts in Climate Consciousness'. Sarah Dimick investigates the way in which seasonal norms have slipped due to anthropogenic climate change, and Thomas H. Ford examines the nuanced relationship between ideas of atmosphere, both literal and literary. Jennifer Mae Hamilton then discusses the different readings of notions of climate and weather via a critical scrutiny of two canonical texts, Wuthering Heights (1847) and King Lear (1606) and of how ideas of the meteorological and the climatological work within them.
In Part Two, thought is given to ‘Current Issues in Climate Change Criticism’. Derek Woods analyses the way in which climate relates to embodiment and of how the issue of scale demands attention given the vast difference between the germinal and the ‘superorganism.’ In ‘Capitalist Cultures: The Taste of Oil’, Elizabeth Mazzolini considers ideas of labour and class by investigating petroculture narratives, such as those portrayed in Deadwood, Dallas and the popular 1960s series, The Beverley Hillbillies. Fiona Probyn-Rapsey re-appraises the value assigned to the larger animal world in her essay on ‘Animals and Extinction’. She highlights the extreme weather evident in Eastern Australia as she composed her chapter and focuses upon the estimated three billion non-human animals that perished during these bushfires. Zoological climate fiction, she argues, is of pivotal importance because it allows readers to acknowledge that the non-human animal has its own ‘point of view’ irrespective of human consideration. The issue of ‘Climate Justice and Literatures of the Global South’ is investigated by Chitra Sankaran as she discusses the uneven impact of anthropogenic climate change. The poorest Global South nations are most likely to experience the destructive environmental effects of greenhouse gas production by more industrialised nations, she contends. Global South nations, who have already borne the brunt of imperial colonisation and enforced slavery, thus face further climate and social injustice.
In Part Three, the focus is shifted to the varying ‘Ways of Telling Climate Stories’. Theresa J. May looks at the possibility that drama can enable a cultural imagining of a different future, thereby addressing the issue of entrenched climate change denial. John Parham employs a similarly novel perspective, by considering the way in which data provided by citizen scientists, online communities and social media might provide a more multifaceted method of assessing climate change. Human stories transmitted via digital climate fiction add another dimension to the conversation he asserts. In ‘Climate on Screen: From Doom and Disaster to Ecotopian Visions’, Alexa Weik Von Mossner investigates the medium of film and the nature of its affective impact upon viewers. Although many films focus on the dystopian and apocalyptic when telling stories about the environment, many overlooked films are more nuanced and even utopian she considers and are worthy of further scrutiny.
In Part Four, enquiry turns to ‘Dialogic Perspectives on Emerging Questions’. Science fiction and fantasies of the future are discussed by both Gerry Canavan and Gregory Lynall. Canavan examines the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson and its imaginary of off-world colonisation, precipitated by ice-sheet collapse on planet Earth. Lynall also considers intra solar system options, although his focus is on the possibility that the energy needs of humankind could be entirely provided by the sun. He further investigates the potential technological and societal implications of such a transition, basing his essay on the work of Isaac Asimov in 1956’s ‘The Last Question’.
The important collective action of Indigenous peoples and of black feminists is considered by Shelley Streeby in her essay. She examines the contribution of such figures as Robin Wall Kimmerer and Alexis Pauline Gumbs to climate action debate and of how ancestor knowledge and more-than-human relationships provide holistic insight. Kelly Sultzbach similarly reviews the issue of collective climate action, this time investigating the more-than-human interconnections as illustrated in Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Overstory and in Vandana Singh’s ‘Entanglement.’
In the next sub-section Thomas Bristow and Isabel Galleymore provide ‘Love Letters to the Planet', in the form of texts which bring concepts of empathy, affect and psychological climate anxiety to the fore. Issues of connection and perspective-taking within ecocritical thinking are analysed. The dynamic issues surrounding cultural memory and social psychology are scrutinised using such works as Gabrielle Lord’s novel Salt (1990) and Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017) as texts through which to work such ideologies.
Extending the field of enquiry further, diverse Indigenous voices are heard in essays by Hsinya Huang (‘Climate Change and Indigenous Sovereignty in Pacific Islanders’ Writing'), and Jenny Kerber and Cheryl Lousley (‘Literary Responses to Indigenous Climate Justice and the Canadian Settler-State’). Huang focuses on the worldview of Pacific Islanders and asserts that the alternative ontologies of such Indigenous peoples provide us with an opportunity to consider more resilient strategies in response to climate change. Kerber and Lousley approach the overlapping issues of colonisation, utilisation of Indigenous lands and peoples and climate justice within their chapter, shifting the geographical focus to Canada. Storytelling, they argue, helps by making the abstract issues surrounding climate change more concrete and they demonstrate this via Indigenous texts by peoples such as the Inuit.
Drawing the anthology to a close, Adeline Johns-Putra and Sam Solnick seek to redefine ‘The Real’, as Johns-Putra discusses ‘Transtextual Realism for the Climatological Collective’ and Solnick investigates ‘Critical Climate Irrealism’. The interface between the real world and the storied world are studied, with particular emphasis given to the way in which science fiction (again Kim Stanley Robinson), can intervene in climate change debate. Critical irrealism is also proposed as an aesthetic device by which potentialities of socio-ecological change in the future can be interrogated.
The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate is a wide-ranging and highly utilisable text providing many new avenues of enquiry for ecocritical scholars. A particular strength of the publication is that it includes essays which focus upon a wide range of cultural media, from the dramatic play to the digital and AI to film and social networks.
Jenny Harper, University of Reading