What stories do both literary and scientific texts tell about the environment? This question motivated a “Reading with Scientists” unit that paired H. G. Wells’s famous novella, The Time Machine (1895), with four selections representing different aspects of environmental science: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2014), and the websites of two pedagogical programs, the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) at UC Santa Barbara and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) at Stanford. By directly placing a literary text beside works of science communication, a main goal was to highlight potential commonalities across disciplines. I also wanted to increase students’ awareness of the environmental humanities as a robust interdisciplinary field.
During our class session, I arranged the students into four teams, each focusing on a different text. (We grouped the two websites together as the province of a single team.) Each team was tasked with answering the same question: what story is your text telling about the environment and how is that story told? I asked students to focus on three key elements: character, plot, and narrative tone. On the board, I made a chart with a column for each text and a row for each literary element. After discussing among themselves, groups came up to the board to fill in their respective columns. The main premise that I wanted students to engage was that scientific texts could be read in a meaningful way according to a literary rubric. Though ostensibly factual rather than fictional, science writing still relies upon narrative.
We first considered The Time Machine as a story of ecological change. When the Time Traveler speeds forward to the year 802,701, he finds a warmer climate, a diminished food supply (“horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, had followed the Icthyosaurus into extinction” ), and the elimination of perceived pests like gnats or fungi, as a consequence of man’s desire to “move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature” (31). Against this backdrop of the centuries-long transformation of the natural world enacted over hundreds of generations, the Time Traveler effects rapid environmental change himself during his short stay by lighting a fire which wipes out an entire forest ecosystem overnight.1 The novella closes with stark scenes of environmental apocalypse: giant crabs on a bleak beach, a be-slimed sea, and an eerie silence, in which “all the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over” (85).
Wells’s silence echoes with Carson’s, though her dystopia is temporally much closer to home. Silent Spring opens with a chapter called “A Fable for Tomorrow,” which lays out an Edenic scene much like the Time Traveler’s first encounter with the future Upperworld, or like Ursula Le Guin’s description of the seeming paradise Omelas, which we discussed in last week’s post. We soon realize, however, that Carson’s “town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings” is afflicted with a “strange blight,” the product of poisonous man-made pesticides which have killed the songbirds and other wildlife and imposed “only silence” (1-2). Carson’s pivotal work of scientific communication, which catalyzed the eventual ban of DDT in the United States, contains many literary elements throughout, ranging from an opening epigraph from Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” – “The sedge is wither’d from the lake, And no birds sing” – to a closing chapter that invokes Robert Frost: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair” (277). Literary references thus frame Carson’s own storytelling, as she leads her reader from the once-upon-a-time “fable” of a town in distress to the hard facts of pesticide use that have produced such destruction.2
Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything, which details the intricately interwoven relationship between climate change and capitalist modes of production and consumption, similarly relies upon literature in key moments. A turning point in Klein’s own journey of what she calls “coming out of denial” (25) about climate change occurs during an act of storytelling. Klein recounts the moving scene of reading a book to her two-year-old son called Have You Ever Seen a Moose? and wondering whether moose will avoid extinction long enough to in fact be a part of her son’s life.3 The recognition that the humanities can play a crucial role in conversations about climate change is also a central premise of programs like the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). Students noted a heightened optimism in the language used to describe such programs on their websites, oriented as they were towards the pedagogical goal of improving the future through collaboration between disciplines.
Once students had filled in the large chart that we’d created on the board, with each team contributing and sharing details about their designated text, we took a step back to survey the finished product and compare across columns. What strategies of communication might science and literature share? Students noted that each text in our chart in some way interwove two stories about the environment. One is collective, played out by “protagonists” at a massive scale. In this story, climate change is the product of actors like Industrialism or Economic Inequality, accumulating power over centuries (think the Time Traveler reckoning with the hundreds upon hundreds of generations that had produced the conditions he found in the future, or the sweeping condemnation of “Capitalism” writ large that shines through on Klein’s title page). The other story about the environment is personal: both what an individual person can do (stop spraying pesticides, enroll in an interdisciplinary program) and what an individual person might feel as a result of climate change (the loneliness of the Time Traveler, or the sadness and fear that Klein experienced when reading to her son). The emotional resonance of such moments stood out to students as particularly powerful.
Students saw these two stories – the personal and the collective – as inseparable. We emphasized as a key takeaway from the class that science is built upon narrative as much as literature is. If we can understand what these narratives are, then we can retell them, adapt them, and change them. As a closing note, one student made the poignant comment that the real world requires optimism in a way that fiction doesn’t. Dystopian novels can certainly be motivating, but when it actually comes time to assess our own world, students gravitated towards the optimism provided by the educational models of EHI and E-IPER, which take as their premise that we can improve communication between disciplines, and as a result, improve the communities in which we live. In 1962, Rachel Carson identified the problem in this way: “This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits” (Carson 13). Education might have the capacity to make such specialization worse, either by isolating disciplines further from each other or by enacting the class divisions that the Time Traveler recounts in his explanation of how future humanity has grown into two distinct branches, the descendants of the poor and the descendants of the wealthy. In the Time Traveler’s reasoning, these classes are separated over generations by a “widening gulf – which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process” (Wells 48). Our goal as teachers must therefore be to inspire dialogue and exchange, such that an “era of specialists” becomes an era of collaborators and a “widening gulf” becomes a bridge.
- The timing of this reading was made more poignant by the fact that it coincided with the devastating fires in both northern and southern California.
- I excerpted the first two chapters of Carson (“A Fable for Tomorrow” and “The Obligation to Endure”) as well as the start of the final chapter (“The Other Road”).
- From Klein, I excerpted a short selection from the end of the introduction, p 24-28.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1962.
Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Stanford University. https://pangea.stanford.edu/eiper
Environmental Humanities Initiative. UC Santa Barbara. http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. London: Penguin, 2005.
This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course.
The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!