I’m fascinated by how we talk about nature and how we imagine it. Contemporary stories about nature are the topic of my new book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel.
The way we think about nature goes beyond new nature writing or documentaries of the kind that became popular after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In the building where I work there’s a “green pub” about which there’s very little “green” other than the ambitions of the designers to create a “green” building. The cafeteria – “the green house” – aims to serve only organic food, providing different kinds of smileys for each product showing whether foods are healthy and sustainable or not.
There’s many other ways in which narratives of nature shape our culture – from ideas about which landscapes we find pleasing, to clothing trends and architecture.
21st-century fiction offers an especially exciting space for such narratives. The novels written today reflect how we think about and how we try to come to terms with events and developments, including environmental crisis. In the coming months I’ll be working on my new book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel which will appear with Bloomsbury Academic in their Environmental Cultures series.
My focus is on how widespread awareness of environmental crisis plays out in the stories we tell about nature, the ways we frame and imagine it. Four narratives of nature are central to my book: pastoral nature, urban nature, climate change nature and polar nature. They form two sets of companion chapters: pastoral and urban are typically seen as opposites, but they also flow into each other. The other two chapters are also companion chapters: the climate change chapter is concerned with many narratives that imagine a warming world, whereas the polar narratives of the fourth chapter are about very cold environments. The poles are also a powerful image of climate change.
Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel is the first book to explore natural environments and narratives in 21st century fiction. It is also the first ecocritical book that looks at this combination of narratives and takes a broad approach to the literary forms that climate change narratives take, outside of science fiction. It discusses the meaning of traditional narratives such as pastoral for a contemporary setting and traces the development of new narratives. While my approach is predominantly ecocritical, I’ll also be using econarratology, urban studies, rural studies, food studies and other sociological and geographical fields.
I’ve deliberately chosen to discuss books that are not first and foremost about nature – although in some form or other it resurfaces in all of them. Particularly books that are not nature writing or cli-fi are interesting to me because they show how contemporary ideas about nature, informed by climate crisis, resurface everywhere, not only in explicit discourses about nature. It also allows me to see the four narratives I’ll be exploring in the broadest sense: the chapter on urban nature that I’m working on right now for example has a section on food and how alternative food practices create a connection with nature that people often believe does not exist in the city.
My aim in Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel is to show how pervasive environmental crisis has become in the early 21st-century, so pervasive that it pops up in many different places, and outside of stories devoted explicitly to nature. Understanding this pervasiveness, I believe, also brings us a step closer to understanding environmental crisis and imagining responses to it.
More about the book and a full list of the novels I’ll be discussing here.