Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Writing for change

Oxford’s Literary Festival included a panel on writing and climate change last week with an interesting range of speakers: non-fiction writer Jay Griffiths, diplomat and policy maker John Ashton, novelist Philip Pullman and director of Tipping Point Peter Gingold.

Of these Ashton was the most outspoken on the need for cultural discussion of climate change. He deployed the now familiar comparison between climate change and war (that this emergency needs to be approached in the same way). He warned, ‘if it doesn’t feels like a war, that’s because we’re not winning’. He said we needed ‘weapons of the imagination’ in our mobilisation, not propaganda but attention to the human condition through the dilemmas of climate change. According to Ashton we need one thing to see the enemy in this war, a mirror, and ‘art makes the mirror’.

Some members of the audience were uncomfortable with the war metaphor but he defended it in terms of the need for single-minded deployment of resources and because it clarifies that dealing with this problem involves confronting power. Ashton was highly articulate on this and other subjects discussed. It was heartening to encounter an individual like this at the heart of our government (he’s Foreign Office Special Representative for Climate Change), although also puzzling given recent priorities.

The writers were diffident about the subject. Griffiths described her artistic side as ‘disobedient’ (it will not be told what to do) while Pullman felt that artists can’t use opinions. (Not even atheism?) He claimed to see creativity as a process of solving technical problems. It’s an interesting dilemma.

My own feeling about this is that today’s artists can’t actually avoid this subject because it permeates so many aspects of the way we live now. If a novel includes a flight, any weather, a shopping trip, a description of trees then the subject is in some form present. In literary studies we’ve long been used to analysing the way writers approach gender. It doesn’t matter whether the writer studied thought they were conveying opinions about ‘feminism’ since inevitably they wrote about men and women and it’s how they did so that’s interesting. Similarly writers must represent people in their environments so their work will necessarily be relevant to climate change (becoming Ashton's mirrors).

It just so happens that right now we are experiencing a crucial moment in our relationship with nature, which is why it could be such an exciting subject in twenty-first-century culture. Gingold’s Tipping Point looks to be a forum in which this is happening by bringing together artists and scientists – as Ashton put it, an enlightenment project.

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