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Storytelling and enviromental catastrophe / I

As long as there have been people there have been stories. Indeed “our world is still shaped by stories.”1 They are how we make sense of ourselves, our experiences and of the world around us. As Marina Warner writes “all the wonders that create the atmosphere of fairy tale disrupts the apprehensible world in order to open spaces for dreaming alternatives. The dreaming gives pleasure in its own right, but it also represents a practical dimension to the imagination, an aspect of the faculty of thought, and can unlock social and public possibilities.”2

All stories are told from a perspective, this includes news stories and our own histories, both the personal and the political. Who is telling the story and their motive for telling it is important; how it is received depends on the context of when, where, and who is hearing it. Our environment conditions how we understand stories: culturally, socially, geographically, and politically. Stories are a product of their environment.

We are living in a time of increasing awareness of the ongoing environmental catastrophe with rising sea levels and global temperature. As a planet, we have moved into the geological era known as the Anthropocene. But even this name is but one version of a story.

In 2008 members of the Stratigraphy Commission of The Geological Society of London ran a statement in the newsletter of The Geological Society of America acknowledging the Anthropocene and its suggested beginning, “in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watts design of the stream engine in 1784.”3

While scientifically it would be absurd to argue that the planet is not physically changing, the name of this new era Anthropocene is contested. The clause ‘Anthrop’ meaning human being not only highlights human self-importance but also suggests that all humans are responsible for the increasing rate of geological change. However, as Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses, “If, indeed, globalization and global warming are born of overlapping process,”4 it is the capitalist and colonialist societies of the West who are responsible. The name Anthropocene unfairly attempts to spread the blame to all societies acting as geological agents of climate change. After all, it is a British geological society and an American geological newsletter that promote the name Anthropocene.

Just as the word Anthropocene comes from our colonist, capitalist, patriarchal society it must be considered that our written history is also colonialist and patriarchal and the stories we tell about the past ultimately affects how we visualise the future. Even our geographical understanding of the earth from mapping to time is plotted from Greenwich Mean Time because of British dominance of shipping during the 19th century. This reflects how even now our society and understanding of our environment have evolved from western colonialist legacies. The evolution of our society and how our history has been written and is perceived has strongly been influenced by enlightenment philosophy, particularly Descartes’ enlightenment theory of Cartesian Dualism.

Descartes’ thinking, “I am a thinking thing, not a body,”was based on the idea that the mind is what separates humans from animals and makes them superior. It is this thinking that considered bodily instincts animal and thus lesser than the mind, hence creating binaries: mind/body, male/female, civilised/uncivilised. With these binaries came a process of ‘othering’ where everyone and anything that isn’t white, western, male, and straight becomes the othered body. Throughout history, the othered body is second class, unmentioned or forgotten. This thinking extended to women who were perceived as being bodily because their purpose was for reproduction whereas men were intellectual and philosophers and therefore of the mind and superior. Women became strongly identified with nature.

In Disney films such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella the protagonists have relationships and can commune with animals. They are at one with nature; in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles (1891) Tess is not just at one with nature, she is nature. But men can destroy nature just as the planet is being exploited and destroyed by humans. However, both are capable of renewing themselves in the face of such threats, including societal and cultural shifts brought about by advances in technology.

Technology has changed our view and indeed our narrative of how we perceive the earth by showing us what cannot be seen or mapped by the human eye. Take for example the famous image of the blue marble earth. Cold War technology allowed the planet to be seen as a global entity from a perspective inaccessible to the human eye. Yet this is an American image from American military technology used in capitalist advertising and presenting the planet as one global entity. Rather than expressing the freedom of extra-terrestrial spaces from colonial western mapping as other forms of storytelling do, this image encases the planet in more recent globalisation, capitalism and its colonialist past. Here technology does not allow the freedom of storytelling to imagine different worlds with different ontologies but in fact, prohibits. It creates “an experience of the world that is unheimlich, or unhomely,” and a “second consciousness,”6 an emotional distance from the image that people are unable to connect with.

How the extra-terrestrial is used in storytelling demonstrates storytelling’s ability to connect society and its importance in encouraging people to think differently. The extra-terrestrial, in all its many forms, is the lands that humans have been unable to plot or inhabit – space, the deep sea, the Antarctic, the realm of the imagination and indeed the future – is an important political tool in storytelling. It is in these dimensions that we are freed from the western mapping of the planet, the socially conditioned outlook and strongly male view of the world that comes with it. Much of the literature and popular culture that explores alternative ontologies is set in these extra-terrestrial spaces.

Science fiction (sci-fi) is most widely accepted to have emerged around the 17th to 19th century with scientific revolution and technological advances. Sci-Fi’s significance when looking at how storytelling can enable us to think differently about environmental catastrophe is how “it considers our present with a view to a future…a view to more equitable future” with the “ability to speculate, to sketch out the possibilities of different kinds of ‘elsewhere’.”7 It is Sci-Fi’s ability to consider the experience of our past and present to imagine other futures that make it so significant in encouraging critical thinking.
Perhaps this is why feminist sci-fi took off in the 1970s and onwards with the rise of second-wave feminism. Feminist sci-fi embodied a need for change and enabled women to think freely and inhabit other spaces where either they could operate outside the realm of patriarchy or in the case of Margaret Atwood, offering a magnification and reclamation of what it means to be othered. These new narratives – Angela Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber (1979), typified a desire to reclaim ancient stories originally told through an oral tradition by women but collected and written down by men—resulted from the impact of second wave feminism. This movement, at a time when technological and scientific advances meant that women could for the first time control their own fertility through developments in contraception, was driven by a desire for equality not just in the workplace but also in the home.

In A Cyborg Manifesto (1983), Donna Haraway discusses how the rise of women’s careers created a homework economy with women running both the household and bringing in an income. But as Haraway discusses this homework economy has led to women into many low-wage jobs. Indeed her bleak predictions from 1983 of less stable employment have been proved correct with the rise of Zero Hours contracts in our society. The Office for National Statistics recently reported that the unpaid economy—this mostly means cooking, cleaning, and caring is growing faster than the paid economy and “females were notably more likely to be unpaid carers than males.”8 Many women remain in low paid jobs and both work in the home doing most of the domestic chores and in minimum wage jobs outside the family.

However for some educated middle-class women control of their fertility allowed for the possibility of delaying childbearing and having careers. This change—more apparent from the late 1970s onwards has seen “intensified machine body relations…particularly in relation to reproduction,” and with this “intensified reproductive politics.”9 This creates a closer relationship with technology and science where they are utilised to facilitate what nature cannot do. As always with technology and science, there becomes a market and reproduction becomes a commodity for the affluent and privileged. In some countries, such as the United States of America, IVF and surrogacy are already lucrative private industries. This intensified technology and bodily relationship sees a shift in the boundaries and binaries that are traditionally accepted and raises issues around the theme of reproduction.

1 Hine, D and Kingsnorth, P. (2009) The Dark Mountain Manifesto, [Web] http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/
 (Accessed on: 26/03/16)
 2 Warner, M. (1994) From the Beast to the Blonde on Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. (1995) London: Vintage, P.XVI
 3 Chakrabarty, D. (2009) ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses.’ Critical Inquiry, Vol 35, No. 2 (Winter 2009). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. P.209
 4 Chakrabarty, D. (2009) ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses.’ Critical Inquiry, Vol 35, No. 2 (Winter 2009). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. P.200
 5 Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy. (1986) New York: Cambridge University Press, P.108
 6 DeLoughrey, E. (2014) Sattalite Planetarity and the Ends of the Earth. Public Culture. [Web] http://www.academia.edu/6948435/Satellite_Planetarity_and_the_Ends_of_the_Earth_Public_Culture_2014, P.264
 (Accessed on: 05/02/16)
 7 Grebowicz, M and Merrick, H. (2013) Beyond the Cyborg Adventures with Donna Haraway. New York: Columbia University Press, P.120
 8 (2013), Full Story: The Gender Gap in unpaid care provision, The National Office of Statistics. [Web] http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/articles/fullstorythegendergapinunpaidcareprovisionisthereanimpactonhealthandeconomicposition/2013-05-16.
 (Accessed on: 23/04/16)
 9 Harway, D. (1983) ‘A Cyborg Manifesto.’ The Cybercultures Reader. (2001) London and New York: Routledge. P.309

Image: www.globaia.org