Understanding the complex science of environmental change is one of the most crucial tasks our generation faces

By Professor Joanna Page

In New York’s Union Square, the Climate Clock counts down to the deadline at which zero emissions need to be reached to keep global warming below the critical threshold of 1.5°C. The clock, replicated in Berlin, Seoul and other major cities around the world, computes the destiny of the planet in a single, homogenized, universal time. Yet climate change is not a linear phenomenon; nor is it being experienced evenly across the world. Indeed, the future tense often used to herald climate apocalypse ignores the fact that human-generated environmental catastrophe has been visited on millions of indigenous people for centuries, in the widescale destruction of forests to make way for mines and plantations.

Understanding the complex science of environmental change is one of the most crucial tasks our generation faces. But it is to the humanities that we must turn to understand the political and ethical demands of the crisis, and to enlarge and diversify the debates it should provoke. Humanities scholars warn that climate change has become a “post-political” phenomenon: a challenge to be managed within the current order, with debate limited to questions of how to interpret the scientific data or which technologies or levies to be implemented. Dominant responses to climate change in the West have been confined to a search for technological and economic solutions that do not disrupt global capitalism – and in fact will surely extend its reach.

Thinkers from Latin America – a region whose landscapes and habitats have been dramatically transformed since the arrival of Europeans – have insisted that today’s ecological crises have very little to do with ecology. Instead, they are rooted in the separation between humans and the rest of the natural world on which Western modernity was founded. Many philosophers, artists, writers, and activists in Latin America are calling for a different kind of environmental knowledge. This would draw on the insights of Western science but complement these with traditional indigenous knowledge, which is derived from an integrated understanding of the natural, the social, and the spiritual realms, binding humans to their environment in relationships of reciprocity and care.

We also need to scrutinize the gloomy stories told by environmentalists, which often cast nature as a passive victim of human agency, ultimately reinforcing a belief that nature is somehow separate from us. In the West, the most typical responses to environmental crisis oscillate between proposals that would dramatically increase human interventions in the natural world (in vast geoengineering projects to reverse the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide) or entirely remove humans from areas set aside for conservation. There are few visions of the future in which humans find new ways of cohabiting with other species in healthy ecosystems. Political ecology in Latin America, which brings together academics and activists from a wide range of disciplines and practices, seeks to reconstruct cultural imaginaries of sustainable societies. This work situates environmental concerns in a greater struggle for political emancipation, the recognition of cultural diversity, and the decolonization of knowledge. Environmental science will help us to predict and – possibly – to control environmental change; economists may measure its consequences and model the effect of carbon taxes. But only the arts and the humanities can address the enormous political, social, and cultural challenges and opportunities it presents us and, importantly, help us imagine different environmental futures.