Stephanie LeMenager’s essay “Notes on a Civics for the Sixth Extinction” rhetorically navigates the condition of “living climate change.” Here, living climate change refers to responses in the “ambitious cultural project that writers, artists, scholars, and activists have been undertaking” in creating public awareness and procedure in climate change. While LeMenager focuses on the US as a global superpower that is also a climate change denier, recently I have also thought of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his lack of action in the Australian bushfires (started in September 2019 and ongoing as of this publication date in January 2020).
Australia is burning. I woke up this morning to images of koalas begging for water from humans and a young kangaroo burned alive, having gotten tangled in a wire fence while trying to flee oncoming fires. These are upsetting. But it does not feel right to introduce LeMenager’s essay about “living climate change” without addressing its happening-right-now urgency as I type. We are indeed living climate change and are also unable to talk about it without varying degrees of despair, anger, or denial.
When it comes to climate change and climate crisis, language seems capable to both make impotent and to foster antagonism. One of LeMenager’s concerns is that propaganda-led ideologies resist climate science and data language, with research from The New York Times showing that “conservative white males [who are] highly averse to the facts of climate science … are aware of climate change but do not embrace the term ‘climate change.’” They must therefore be fed the data through non-threatening language related to the weather, including that of “agricultural work, maritime work, or even gardening.” Clear language seems to fail.
Against “fake news” LeMenager proposes a civics for the sixth extinction through “fictionality”–acts of fiction that “refuse the explicit ideological agenda of propaganda and commit themselves to the infinitely messier representational problem of living in the present, which means–among other things–living climate change.” Fictionality encompasses speculative works that can hypothesize, etch out, and articulate possible outcomes and proposed changes. Here, LeMenager uses Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (2004) and its alter-Benjaminian figure of the “angel of alternate history” to point out the cultural value of playing through speculative histories with atrocities that could have happened but did not happen. Other texts that she refers to include James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). In detail, LeMenager examines Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited (2012), which imagines a future adapted human race, the atrocities of whom are inspired by their innate anger and bitterness towards today’s humans for not taking action when they had the chance.
Are such examples of fictionality enough to start conversations among disagreeing groups? Perhaps; perhaps not. But when even science can’t dissipate closed-off world views, utterances must bubble up elsewhere to gesture at what horrifying futures are possible.
Futures? No, they are now.
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