Can stories save the world? Can history make sense of climate change?

Can stories save the world? What can history literature, film and art teach us to make sense of the contemporary environmental challenges we face? Trinity Long Room Hub’s latest Behind the Headlines public discussion series, which took place last week, looked to the arts and humanities to face up to and address climate change.

As scientists warn us of the consequences of human impact on the environment, the arts help us visualise the consequences of climate change and natural catastrophe, eliciting emotional responses that prompt action. By looking to the past, we can understand historical examples of conflict and climate and the unintended consequences brought about by attempts to mitigate the effects of climate warming.

This multi-disciplinary and international panel examined cultural interpretations of global environmental issues and disaster; bio-technology and geopolitics; climate and conflict in the ancient period as well as early modern narratives of climate change, when people still didn’t believe.

At the event Francis Ludlow, Assistant Professor of Medieval Environmental History, Trinity, discussed his work in climate history to explore the lessons the past can offer us as we attempt to face up to the reality of climate change. The exciting field of climate history combines evidence from natural archives such as tree-rings and ice-cores with historical records and climate modelling to understand how climate has changed in the past, and how society responded to these climatic changes. He shared with the audience his research on Ancient Egypt which has found that major revolts in ancient Egypt’s famous Ptolemaic era may have been triggered by volcanic eruptions that resulted in the suppression of the Nile summer flooding, which was a critical support to the region’s agriculture. He also outlined the relevance of this research to contemporary concerns including the fraught hydropolitics involved in access to Nile waters today and learnings from climate history as we continue to explore means of mitigating future climate change, including through geoengineering the climate by mimicking the cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions.

Also speaking at the event, Ailise Bulfin, Research Fellow, Trinity shared her research which explores the dark side of the human imagination from the nineteenth-century to the present day, particularly focusing on representations of catastrophe, war and trauma. In her presentation she discussed how current fiction and film is increasingly saturated with narratives of climate change and environmental catastrophe – from mega-tidal waves to carbon-depleted dystopias. She examined how these narratives help provide a framework for how we think about real environmental issues and explore the kinds of effects these works have on their audiences. These range from misinforming audiences by reiterating detrimental disaster myths to making sufficiently powerful emotional connections with people to inspire them to take positive steps towards tackling climate change. She argued that effectively tackling climate change is a matter of reframing our perspective from one of disaster and paralysis to one of cumulative action and potential hope and that stories have a powerful role to play in this.

Christopher Pastore, Associate Professor of History, University at Albany and Trinity Long Room Hub Fellow, discussed how climate and efforts to define it shaped the early modern Atlantic world. During the age of exploration, climatic expectations rarely matched climatic realities, as deep cold and searing heat vexed European efforts to colonize new lands. This prompted much speculation about atmospheric phenomena. If storms, auroras, and rainbows were once imagined as supernatural “wonders,” in time they began to pique “curiosity,” a way of knowing nature through systematic investigation, he explained. Weather watchers who engaged in careful observation and notation shared their findings through far-reaching scientific networks, according to Professor Pastore. In the process, they changed the way climate was understood. Yet, old beliefs died hard. Then, as now, political and economic expediency made many reluctant to acknowledge inconvenient climatic realities.

Jumana Manna, filmmaker and artist, talked about her feature length film, ‘Wild Relatives’, currently on view at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, which tells the story of seed preservation in the face of war and climate change. The film focuses on the relocation in 2012 of an international agricultural research center from Aleppo to Lebanon due to the Syrian Revolution turned war, and the subsequent process of planting their seed collection from back-ups stored in a vault in the Arctic island of Svalbard.  In her talk, Jumana Manna focused on the geopolitics of seed-saving and modes of nurturing, storing, ‘improving’ and capitalising upon the natural world around us.

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