BY EMILY ZOU
In this interview, Pasquale Verdicchio, a literature professor at UC San Diego, answers questions about the synthesis of the fields of humanities and sciences in the climate change crisis. He also shares his thoughts on how COVID-19 will affect the way we think of ourselves and the world at large, and how we can take steps to make a difference in our daily lives.
Art by Jessica Kamman
Q: What do you view the role of the humanities as, in combating the climate change crisis?
A: Humanities and sciences have always been seen as separate entities, within the world and within universities. There’s not a lot of dialogue between the two, but recently with the environmental crisis, especially with climate change, I think the humanities are finding a renewed role in their relationship to other disciplines within the university. Environmental issues are the result of human action, so it makes sense. The humanities are the study of issues that have to do with what humans have done in history and art and expressive and creative pursuits. It makes sense to analyze those areas and show the links of those to the environment.
Climate change obviously comes out of our human activities. In the last decade or so, we have seen the rise of the environmental humanities, or ecological humanities. This includes everything like environmental literature or philosophy, or history, these are all new expressions within the disciplines. There has also been a widening in the scope of what the humanities mean. We also include the post-human and the non-human, we consider the animal and natural world. Humanities tends to refer very strictly to human beings, and more narrowly, to man. The action of men rather than women or other gender expressions. But it’s been expanding.
Our role in the humanities is to acknowledge and recognize the role that we, as humans, have had in the Anthropocene.
Q: How would you explain the urgency to include the humanities in the conversation on climate change?
A: I would refer to the role of storytelling, narratives, and how we begin to communicate issues related to the environmental crisis. There’s a whole new branch of literature called cli-fi, climate fiction. There are films like the “Children of Men,” which is about environmental, social, and existential issues. There are authors like Margaret Atwood and Joe Lancaster, who write novels that have to do with people involved in issues that involve the environmental and climate crisis. There are authors like Naomi Klein, who communicate those issues in conjunction with scientific proof.
A few years ago at Scripps, they had a workshop on climate change on how to incorporate climate change into different disciplines. For example in dance, how would you communicate how overwhelmed you feel with the pressure of climate change?
I would say climate change and environmental issues have a story. That’s what the humanities do, bringing out those stories. The humanities enable storytelling from the human and nonhuman aspect. They look at lives and give value, they give a voice, they allow people to speak for themselves.
Sometimes we mistake the idea of storytelling with fiction. It might be fiction, but that doesn’t mean it's not true or real. They come from experience. What you write about has links to real issues.
Q: That’s really interesting. So stories matter, the stories we tell about ourselves and others. What happens if we ignore them, though? What are the consequences if we ignore the humanities?
A: The human element, the animal element of the environment in general could survive. But if we ignore that side of it, the potential for an imbalance could manifest itself. It’s not that scientists don’t consider these issues, but the problem comes when science falls in the hand of industries, whose end is to make profit. There’s an ethical question there. Should we use scientific discoveries toward the disregard of everything else?
Sometimes, some of these solutions we talk about, like DDT, turn back on us and we find that the effects are more harmful than we ever thought. We tend to use solutions without thinking of possible problems that might arise. We tend to think toward a certain point and leave the rest.
Q: You mentioned (in class) that you worked in biology before switching to literature. I was wondering if you could talk about differences in how those who study the sciences and those who study the humanities approach problems.
A: To be a scientist, you have to be curious and creative. It’s the same thing in the humanities, there is not a lot of difference in how we approach things in the humanities and sciences. But, the main difference is the approach toward the certain end, how we express and present our findings. Science is more difficult because it has a language that is not understood by people in general. I think that that is where humanities comes in and opens up those venues by presenting certain aspects of science to the general populations, to those who are not trained in science, but in a way that still captures the essence of the arguments. A lot of people don't read science papers, you’re more likely to bring scientific findings to others through different narratives. I think working together, the sciences and humanities can make the job of communicating to the general population a little bit easier.
I worked as a field researcher. It was fun. And eventually, we had to write up reports, and those reports were meant to go to certain agencies, not for wide distribution. It’s all a matter of presentation. Listen, I can tell you a story about climate change, and that will close the social gap that we have between the haves and the have-nots.
Reading stories, hearing stories, seeing stories about what environmental catastrophes and climate change do in other parts of the world might help us understand and increase our empathy. It might help us change our ways and how we handle our day to day lives. And then, we might start requiring change in how we handle things.
Q: In 2021, this modern, oversaturated age, there are so many stories that we see everyday. How can we exercise empathy when there’s just too much?
A: That's the big question, isn't it? How does social media help us and hinder the whole process? It's a very distracting outlet for so many people. It sways us from focusing on issues. We tend to read headlines without going deeply. I don’t know. I have no solutions there. Not even a hint for myself.
It's a part of our consumer society. We are asked to consume these sites and the information on it and we fall, hook line and sinker. Not only does that create a distance between us and others, in our society, but more distance from us and other societies and the natural world itself. By sitting in front of a computer or phone, we are not looking out and seeing what is, where we’re standing, what's standing beside us, what is surrounding us. It's a huge problem I don't know how to solve. I guess we shouldn’t look for solutions, but for small baby steps toward resolving this. It starts at a personal level, with consumption, it starts in realizing some things we consume are harmful to us and others.
Even the very use of technology contains material that is exploitative of human bodies, the earth itself, and the environment in general. It’s a big cycle that we are involved in, and we must become aware of that cycle, we must become aware of our place in the cycle. Sometimes we think we’re just one person, “I’m not going to change anything”, but we all have groups of people that we are influenced by and we influence. That's what we work on, by example, and the groups we interact with.
Q: You talked about creativity. Maybe there are benefits with social media and how we’re all connected. For my generation, a lot more people are becoming aware of issues because of people like Greta Thunberg, and we see it and more people start caring. Maybe there’s a creative way to use technology in a helpful way.
A: Definitely. I can do so much research from home now. The advantages to technology are immense, and at the same time there are aspects that can be detrimental because they tend to push us into separate rooms. And even though we seem to be communicating across the miles, we are not communicating in person. Being locked up and being at home for all these months hasn't helped that, we are too dependent on it.
Q: Speaking of COVID, during the past year, the whole issue of climate change has taken a back seat in the general consciousness. After all, there is another global threat to worry about. How do you think COVID affects how we think of ourselves, each other, and changes the stories we tell? How can it be applied to climate change?
A: COVID offers a good lesson because it reflects this underlying anxiety and fear with being close with other people. What we are failing to do is to link the coronavirus crisis to climate change. This comes directly out of that: our mismanagement of the environment, our inability to think beyond a certain point, or unwillingness to do so.
I think a lesson to be taken out of COVID are the stories that will emerge from COVID. In the beginning of quarantine, I did a little book of COVID photographs of things just around the house and in the garden. And what it did, and what COVID does, is it opens our eyes more to what is immediately around us and we begin to see things a little more in detail. We begin to appreciate what is around, what we have, without going beyond and trying to bring more things in. We appreciate our surroundings and being distanced from each other makes us appreciate each other a little more. Those are a couple of lessons that will come.
Q: I have one more question, you talked about groups that we influence and influence us. For me, and any students that read this, what are some ways that we can make our difference when it comes to climate change?
Being aware. Being aware of your actions, of the things you consume. Being aware of what's in products, and attempt to do the least harm possible. We have a choice. We are able to make choices. We are intelligent beings and we can choose to be ignorant, even after we know, we act ignorant. It’s up to us to investigate who we are, where we are, and what our actions are doing.
Start at the level of consumerism. What are you eating, what are you consuming, what are you buying? Can you affect change at that level? That's the most basic level at which we can act.
You are at the beginning, your generation is much more of a consumer generation than past generations. You hold the future in your hands…. and in your wallet. Be aware of what you use, what you do, what you consume, be aware of our nation's actions abroad and require that these things change. Going back to what I said before, it’s hard because we feel like we’re the only one doing this. But again, your circle of influence is much larger than you think. Starting with your friends, family, and on from there. Spheres of influence. People say it's up to the government, companies, and institutions. But they will not change unless they are pressured.
It’s slow, it takes time, it takes investigation, it takes willingness. We have a choice. We can do it. It takes effort. We can also volunteer our time to support associations and groups that are taking action. It's a way for us to find out things that we don't know and are possible to do.It’s a way to gain more information and in turn disseminate that. That’s where you get to tell your stories.
Professor Verdicchio recommends these books if you’re interested in climate change literature:
The World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
On Such A Full Sea by Chang Rae-Lee
The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble
The Wall by Joe Lancaster
The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh