On the last day of my Environmental Literature class this semester, I learned that our president-elect had named Scott Pruitt as his director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, an avowed climate change denier, is as well a man who has asserted that he is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Pruitt, like ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, is beholden not to the American people who elected Trump but rather to the fossil fuel industry that has dumped millions upon millions of dollars into generating the bogus science behind climate change denial.
Here's your president, "blue collar millionaire," declaring that the Trump way to live is the only way. Those people under the billboard are in Mumbai. And they are homeless.
I don’t really have the patience or the stamina to trace the narrative of how these guys have funded scholars producing bunk science that denies climate change, a tactic undertaken to support their bottom line. I don’t have the patience or stamina because the facts that prove my point have been readily available for some time. You can read about how the fossil fuel industry, led by Charles and David Koch, manufactured an inaccurate and dangerous narrative that maintains that the jury is still out on climate change. My education into nature of Koch Brothers’ the dark money began when my university accepted a $2 million gift from the Koch Foundation for the establishment of a so-called center for the study of Free Enterprise and my opposition to that money lead to this.
Koch Bras, beatch.
With regard to climate change, the jury is not out: it’s real, and we are causing it.
I’m an English professor who has done National Science Foundation grant-based work with three scientists to develop a teaching module that uses both literature and science to talk about the reality of global warming. Literature and science give us different kinds of truths about the situation: science gives us the facts, and fiction gives us narratives of the potential toll of those facts.
In my Environmental Literature class, I had a mix of students from a variety of disciplines including nursing, business, economics, anthropology, and criminology, all of whom were required to read works of literature that examined humanity’s relationship to the natural world. My class was made up of mostly first-year, first-generation students, a mix of Republicans and Democrats, students of various socio-economic backgrounds, people with complex and varied life experiences.
I began the semester with the white men, the conservationists and creators of the narratives of the American wilderness and its virtues: Emerson, Thoreau, and Bartram, a writer who recorded his travels throughout my native state, North Carolina, where my family has lived since the 1700s. The class moved then to my colleague Ron Rash’s 2008 novel Serena, a Depression-era historical novel about clear-cutting, timber barons, and the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Serena shows us the power of capital to foment environmental damage and the power of art – in this case, the writings of Horace Kephart and the photographs of Jim Thompson – to counter that destruction. But the story is not that simple, not just a narrative of conservationists defeating capitalists; for the national park to come into being, people living on the land that became the park had to be evicted from it. The loggers, who function as a chorus in Rash’s novel, work to understand their role in the devastation, the creation of the park, and the displacement of people:
“We had to feed our families.”
“Yes we did. What I’m wondering is how we’ll feed them once all the trees is cut and the jobs leave.”
“At least what critters are left have a place they can run to.”
“The park you mean?”
“Yes sir, trouble is they ain’t going to let us stay in there with them.”
“Running folks out so they can run the critters in. That’s a hell of a thing.”
One of Jim Thompson's photos of the land that became the park.
There were native peoples here first, of course, displaced first; they show up as shadows, working on the logging crew, voiceless, abject.
After losing all of his money during the Great Depression, my father’s father worked to clear-cut the mountains where I live and work. The narratives of environmental destruction and salvation are never simple, never just a matter of preservation in the face of needless consumption. My father told me that his father made one dollar per day in the early 1930s doing some of the most dangerous work imaginable. He lived in a logging camp, away from my grandmother. He never put his money in a bank again.
In Rash’s novel, after the logging crew cuts down the last tree, as the men stare at the devastation, one says, “I think this is what the end of the world will be like,” and none of the other men “raised his voice to disagree.” My students noted over and over again that this is a novel about the end of the world, the apocalypse it must have been for the southern highlanders. And we discussed the notion of apocalypse, the almost but never arriving end, the most powerful metaphor of the environmental movement that is still, it seems, not powerful enough to stop the devastation that continues to happen all around us.
After Serena, we read Edwidge Danticat’s 1998 work The Farming of Bones, a novel about the historical Parsley Massacre in the Dominican Republic in 1937, a five-day period that constituted the genocide of 20,000 plus Haitians at the hands of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the dictator who pedaled fear of the Haitian immigrant population to the residents of the DR.
Here's an image of Trujillo. I'll spare you pictures of the massacre.
In Danticat’s novel Trujillo speaks: “Tradition shows us a fatal fact . . . that under the protection of rivers, the enemies of peace, who are also the enemies of work and prosperity, found an ambush in which they might do their work, keeping the nation in fear and menacing stability.” The Massacre River, the environmental space between the two countries on the island of Hispaniola, is the space of the genocide: the wall and the safe passage. The Haitian pronunciation of “pési, perejil, parsley” was the shibboleth that determined whether one was killed, cut down with machetes, or lived. The similarities between Trujillo’s pronouncements of the Haitians and Donald Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants were not lost on my students who wondered if such a thing could happen here.
One of my students is from the DR. Her grandfather was tortured by Trujillo’s regime; she told us how while interrogating him, Trujillo’s men pulled out her grandfather’s fingernails. “My grandmother has more stories, if you want them,” she said.
Such a thing could happen here, I said.
And here's why it could happen here.
We ended with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a 2003 novel that feels all too real right now. Atwood’s dystopian work of speculative fiction engages with catastrophic human-made crises that are already happening: mass extinction, global warming, and human trafficking. Crake, the evil genius who, via a bioengineered virus, brings out the near end of humanity, tells his best friend Jimmy, “break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it's game over forever.” And that’s what he does: breaks the link, destroys a generation, and rewrites the rules for human civilization.
Let me get to my extremely problematic point: such a link is being broken now – not as the result of a physical virus, but as the result of viral misinformation, fake news, and propaganda. Scott Pruitt and other politicians denying human-caused global warming aren’t denying it because they actually don’t believe it; they are denying it because they know that the fossil fuel industry and our consumption of fossil fuels is causing the earth to warm, but they simply don’t care. Your life, my life, our students’ lives, the lives of every other human and every other nonhuman being on the planet don’t matter one iota to these guys so long as one already-rich man in the western world can be made richer by our continued dependence on an industry that is ruining our planet and killing us.
The denial is not based on bad data; it’s not based on actual belief, either. Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, and the rest of Trump’s anti-fact, white supremacist cabinet are denying facts to convince the rest of us that global warming is not happening, that we are not implicated in its happening. They are doing so because they don’t care about your life or the lives of your children, your students, your friends and family. They don’t care about you. At all.
The DAPL protestors. He doesn't care about you either, but you already know that.
So: to be clear, the denial that this incoming administration is perpetuating amounts to the sanctioning of genocide. It is a tactic taken by those who deny the holocaust, the deadliest genocide in history, an event that claimed somewhere upwards of 10 million people. This genocide is different; it is what Rob Nixon calls slow violence of a kind that is and will continue to happen over a long period of time; it’s harder to see and, therefore, easier to ignore. There are seven billion humans on the planet at present. What does the climate change denial genocide look like? How can we even comprehend it? In Atwood’s novel, Crake tells Jimmy that “Homo sapiens sapiens was not hard-wired to individuate other people in numbers above two hundred, the size of the primal tribe.”
He’s right, of course. This is why we have trouble processing the enormity of past genocides: 10 million people in Germany, 20 thousand in Haiti. These numbers are beyond our human ability to comprehend. But I can understand 200. This is roughly the number of students I teach in a year. This is the number of people in my tribe; these are my charges, the people for whom I am in many senses responsible.
Let me assert once again that reality is actually reality: human beings, via their production and use of fossil fuels, are causing the earth to warm at an alarming rate. This is a fact, whether we live in a post-fact world or not. Not believing it doesn’t make it less true, even as, for now at least, it’s been easy for those of us in the so-called developed world to ignore this reality; global warming is a slow moving monster, and we are the frog in the pot, coming to a slow boil without realizing it. For the last eight years, we have lived under an administration that has worked to protect us, to set in place some limits on the amount of carbon that we are producing. But such limits are not good for the bottom line of billionaires who only want more, so now that we’ve put one of those in office, strap in and wait for the pot to boil with all of us in it.
Next semester, I will teach this course again to a new tribe of students. And next semester we will read Octavia E. Butler’s 1998 novel The Parable of the Talents, a tale of an apocalypse – the Pox – that begins in 2015, a calamity brought about by “our own refusal to deal with the obvious problems” in “coinciding climactic, economic, and sociological crises.” In this novel, Butler’s narrator writes of a presidential contender with marauding bands of murderers. He’s a narcissist who tells his increasingly violent and disenfranchised followers to join him: “leave your past behind and become one of us! Help us to make America great again.”
Science shows us the facts; literature shows us the future when we disregard them. As educators and as global citizens, we should pay attention to both, particularly now.