From science fiction novels, Prof. Anindita Banerjee, comparative literature, learned to dissect climate change through the lens of humanities, one that bridges together the scientific facts and storytelling.
Chairing the environmental humanities concentration in the Environment and Sustainability major, and as an executive board member of the Atkinson Center, Banerjee has gained much insight into the intersection of literature and environmental issues that ultimately led her to conclude that using scientific methods to mitigate climate change is not enough.
Banerjee then devised her own environmental courses, which aim to give students a broader, more interdisciplinary look at environmental engagement and action, in order to introduce and encourage different paradigms of thinking when addressing environmental issues, such as through literature.
“If you just read scientific papers, you will not learn how to think across space and time, connecting the dots between material facts and abstract values and ideas. Being able to do both is vital for dealing with the wicked problems of climate change,” Banerjee told The Sun in an interview.
The assigned readings in her environmental seminars, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and William Shakespeare’s Othello, expose deeper themes in the discourse on climate change, including colonialism, environmental feminism and environmental inequality. According to Banerjee, stories let us think about time in a continuous framework, rather than in periods that are partitioned.
“Stories serve as time and place machines and provide a complex view of things we think are only happening now,” she said.
These texts, Banerjee argues, allow us to view environmental degradation, climate change and natural disasters as things that have occurred in the past and could happen in the future.
“Very few of us are professionally trained in data literacy. Among the broader public, even fewer are equipped to translate data into the realities of their everyday lives and project its implications into our common future,” Banerjee said. “Stories give a certain shape to scientific evidence, lending it depth of field and breadth of perspective, allowing people to position and imagine themselves vis-à-vis material changes in the world around them.”
“We are looking at significant forces on the planet right now that we have so successfully managed to partition off into a terrifying yet distant future. Stories bring them into the ongoing present, forcing us to collectively engage in future thinking,” Banerjee said.
Banerjee believes that singular narratives function as pieces of a bigger puzzle. They shed light on environmental history, because we have to understand the past to fix the future.
“We need a different kind of fiction, one that is not narcissistically obsessed with human thinking and human feeling,” Banerjee said. “Science fiction offers an ideal bridge to environmental storytelling because its heroes are the things we dismiss as the background of realist fiction: landscapes, machines, infrastructures, ruins.”
Correction: A prior version of this article misspelled Prof. Banerjee’s first name.