I don’t know about you, but when I try to think about climate change, my head hurts. Maybe this is because it’s what ecocritic Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject:” a thing too spread out in space and time to be comprehended from the point of view of the human, and human-centric narratives of cause and effect. Maybe it’s because I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe I should drink some more water.
As a writer and researcher, I am just starting to probe this hurt, both in my fiction and as part of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leeds. My project looks at how formal experimentation with failure in fiction opens up new ways of thinking and feeling through the structural failures in which we all live – a phrase which has taken on a whole new layer of meaning in the wake of COVID. Sitting at the same desk, staring at the same screen, reading the different (but somehow also the same) news stories about the UK government’s latest failures in managing the situation, I ride a “coronacoaster” of emotions with which you are no doubt familiar, trying, and frequently failing, to resist the conclusion that nothing will change.
But things will change and already are; the trick is learning to see it. Seeing what we don’t see about climate change is exactly the focus of Jenny Offill’s novel Weather, which I spent the first few weeks of lockdown writing about for Alluvium journal. My article examines how the novel centers the ways in which climate change, and our inability to both think and feel it, intrudes during seemingly trivial moments in our lives. Writing it while stuck inside felt strangely appropriate.
It is within this context that I’m particularly excited, as both a writer and, well, a person, to be working with The Arctic Cycle, the organization that runs the Artists & Climate Change initiative. As explained by Thomas Peterson in this post, we are compiling a database of university programs, courses and syllabi which integrate the arts with climate change. While we are still very much at the beginning of this process, the response to our call-out for participants already demonstrates the depth and breadth of interdisciplinary learning taking place in this area, with programs bringing together theatre and sustainability, social justice and activism with artistic practice, fiction and the environment, to name just a few. The finished database will, we hope, be a site where researchers can share and exchange knowledge, as well as a source of information and inspiration for students, activists, artists, or anyone wanting to find new ways of learning and teaching climate change across and between disciplines.
Over the next two months, I will be investigating the philosophical, pedagogical and epistemological underpinnings of these programs in more detail. What sorts of knowledge are they aiming to produce? How are they grasping at what falls into the cracks between disciplinary boundaries? How might their graduates contribute toward meaningful action around climate change? Through engaging in open-ended, non-judgmental interviews with program directors, tutors, and students, I’ll tease out what makes each program distinctive. I’ll share my findings through regular blog posts, focusing first on individual programs, and second, on drawing out patterns, comparisons, and contrasts between them. I’ll not shy away from moments of mess and uncertainty, both in my own research process and in those on which I’m reporting. In doing so, I hope to stimulate further debate and ideas amongst those working in this exciting, if undoubtedly messy, area.
This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.
Clare Fisher is a novelist, short story writer, and researcher based in Leeds, UK. She is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. She can be found on Twitter at @claresitafisher.