Imagining Climate Change: From Slow Violence to Fast Hope (2020–21)

Organized by Lily Gurton-Wachter, English Language and Literature, and Michele Wick, Psychology

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”
—Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Project Description

A recent article in Nature Climate Change examined the impact of marine heat waves on ocean life. The swelter, fueled by an excess of greenhouse gases, has killed coral reefs, sea grasses, and kelp forests. These foundational species feed and shelter a plethora of aquatic creatures. The impact of their loss is a far-reaching emergency; but for humanity, their demise is mostly out of sight and mind.

In his 2011 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon compares conventional depictions of violence as explosive, immediate, and visible, to the effects of climate change, which can be distant and indistinct and thus hard to perceive and imagine. Despite these representational obstacles, Nixon insists that we view climate change’s incremental calamities as violence. His plea comes with an urgent question. How, he asks, “in an age when the news media venerate the spectacular, when public policy and electoral campaigns are shaped around perceived immediate need, can we convert into image and narrative those disasters that are slow-moving and long in the making, anonymous, starring nobody, attritional and of indifferent interest to our image-driven world?”

Taking our cue from Nixon, this yearlong Kahn seminar will bring together scholars from across the disciplines to ask how climate change forces—and inspires—us to shift our habits of thought, representation, and communication. We will develop a conversation between students and faculty from across the curriculum to rethink both the complex histories of how we have gotten here, and the urgent question of where we are going. How, we will ask, have we understood and represented the causes and effects of climate in the past? How does climate change both come out of, and ask us to rethink, a long tradition—in science, literature, economics, philosophy, and art—of conceptualizing and observing the relationship between humans and the natural world? What have our accounts of environmental change—in the media, in popular culture, in scientific discourses, and beyond—missed, and what have they revealed? What tools do our various disciplines offer for conceptualizing environmental calamity, uncertain futures, and potential solutions? What might we all gain from moving beyond our disciplinary comfort zones and approaching the environment from an inter- or multidisciplinary view? How is climate change inextricable from other crises—social, economic, political, or scientific? How does it draw our attention to the world’s most vulnerable populations? How does it intersect with questions of race, class, or gender, and with a variety of political and social histories?

We believe that recognizing the slow violence of climate change is urgent work. However, clarity can prompt a retreat from the heartache and hopelessness inherent in socially and scientifically complex problems with uncertain futures. Our wish is that, during this yearlong interdisciplinary conversation, we will probe the magnitude of this slow violence while daring to envision and nurture the hope that turns indifference into action. For if slow violence prompts us to transform our thinking, this project is inspired by the wish that such a transformation will also allow us to imagine new futures and offer a starting point for hope.

Project Fellows

Lily Gurton-Wachter, Organizing Fellow, English Language and Literature
Michele Wick, Organizing Fellow, Psychology

Vanessa Adel, Sociology
Shannon Audley, Education and Child Study
Alice Bell '21, Government
Reid Bertone-Johnson, Landscape Studies
Anna Botta, Italian Studies
Samikshya Dhami '22, Environmental Science and Policy
Julie Brigham-Grette, Geosciences, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Mia Fuentes Deonate '21, Environmental Science and Policy
Bosiljka Glumac, Geosciences
Niveen Ismail, Engineering
Andrea Lawlor, English, Mount Holyoke College
Bridget MacNeill '21, Study of Women and Gender
Javier Puente, Latin American and Latino/a Studies
Frazer Ward, Art


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