Environmental Literature

Robert MacFarlane on literature that inspired action

There was a great article on Edward Abbey by Robert MacFarlane in the weekend’s Guardian.  [I’m inclined to superlatives here, as MacFarlane generously bigged up the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre and our fellow organisations TippingPoint, The Ashden Directory and Cape Farewell in the article].

Anyhow, to the point.

MacFarlane writes about how Abbey’s gloriously rambunctious novel Monkey Wrench Gang became the inspiration for the Earth First! environmental movement in the US, who set about turning Abbey’s fiction into non-fiction through a series of direct actions. Climate change, suggests MacFarlane,  requires not just a technological and political shift but a cultural one too – which is what Abbey’s writing set ablaze for the American conservation movement.

But then MacFarlane starts to ponder where that’s going to come from in relation to climate change. American authors, from Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Bill McKibben, Gary Snyder, Cormac MacCarthy and others have produced significant passionate works which have indeed had a galvanising impact on environmental movements. But where, he wonders, are the British equivalents? The British equivalents, he suggests, have an emotional distance which doesn’t “kick your arse off the page” in the way that Abbey’s prose does. But there’s something else too:

Perhaps the key ethical principle of British environmental literature has been that making us see differently is an essential precursor to making us act differently. So it is that each new generation of British environmental writers finds itself trying to design the literary equivalent of the “killer app”: the glittering argument or stylistic turn that will produce an epiphany in sceptical readers, and so persuade them to change their behaviour. I used to believe in the possibility of this killer app, both as a reader and a writer. But I’m increasingly unsure of its existence. Or, if it exists, of its worth. At least in my experience, environmental literature in Britain gets read almost exclusively by the converted to the converted, and its meaningful ethical impact is minimal tending to zero. As Vernon Klinkenbourg noted with glum elegance last year, most documents of environmental literature are “minority reports – sometimes a minority of one. The assumptions, the hopes, the arguments [of such literature] are contradicted by the way the vast majority of us live, and by the political and economic structures that determine that lifestyle … sceptical readers so seldom pick up this kind of writing, or submit to its evidence.”

The point is that Abbey’s fiction was in many ways hackneyed, fed by the cliche’s of the western pulp novel, but it was great because of the scope of its passion and the sureness of Abbey’s vision. In comparison, are European artists and writers just trying too hard to be clever? Does this create a kind of parochial vision that hobbles artists, blunting their chance of having the kind of impact Abbey did?

One of the things that I hope Arts for COP15 will be able to produce is some idea of how effective the various events are at doing what they all, presumably, set out to do, which us change minds.

Illustration: Robert Crumb-designed sticker for Edward Abbey’s book (1985).

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