Dystopian visions of our ecological future are extremely popular these days. But many of these dystopias foster fear, despondency and hopelessness about the fate of our planet. Apocalyptic environmental scenarios often encourage survival modes, promoting violence and laissez-faire individualism along the way. They claim to be “realistic,” but actually train us into accepting the inevitability of a catastrophic, earth-ending future. I think this makes people very susceptible to manipulation. Despairing and depressed about what’s in store for us—or focused on how to be “tough guys” in a bleak future—how can we reasonably take on the climate politics of the present?
The answer is not simply to generate mawkish “counter-utopias.” Climate change involves facing the facts and taking responsibility where we can. But I think it also entails imagining a thriving future and taking steps toward it. What kinds of narratives, then, might feed “thriving imagining”? What kinds of music? Art? Poetry? Films? Stories? As one reviewer of my work put it: how do we think through what it might look like to translate our eco-activism into imaginative art forms?
To my mind, engaging with both our love for the natural world (biophilia) and fear of the natural world (ecophobia) is of paramount importance—especially since both love and fear go together in human experiences of nature. While my own emphasis has always been on developing more loving and compassionate relationships with nature, I am also curious about the role of fear. How do we relate to a natural world which inspires awe and reverence, and yet also can generate aversion and even terror?
Literary scholars have suggested that one of the things that most often frightens us about nature (especially the “us” of a Western worldview) is its “aliveness.” The Gothic tradition has always played with fears about the agency of nature, drawing our attention to the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of ourselves as human beings. Where does fear of nature take us? What are the trajectories of our fear? How are these fears manipulated and directed…and toward what?
Moreover, is becoming aware of our fear part of learning how to respect nature? Does it help us to understand not only our interdependency-with but also our dependency-upon the natural world? What aspects of the Gothic tradition speak to these questions?
My current work weaves together historical fiction, the concept of a sentient landscape, and a new literary genre called the ecogothic. Given that our conceptions of the past profoundly shape how we envision what lies ahead, I feel historical fiction has a unique and important role to play in imagining a flourishing…sentient…future.