ITHACA, N.Y. – We see the ravages of climate change every day. Wildfire wreckage haunts California. The blackened Amazon landscape offers a charred reminder of the hazards of deforestation. Hurricane Dorian levels his Category 5 power at the Bahamas, then languishes there for a record-breaking 36 hours. The storm changes the physical landscape of a tiny island nation for likely decades to come.
How the humanities—or literature, more specifically—add to the conversation?
Karen Pinkus, Professor of Romance Studies and Comparative Literature, is a pioneering humanities scholar who has balanced her work in Italian literature and culture with a focus on climate change for over a decade. Her upcoming lecture, “Thinking Decarbonization With Literature,” will be held at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 24 in Goldwin Smith Hall, K142.
The first in a new Romance Studies Faculty Lecture Series, the talk will draw on texts from the dawn of the fossil fuel era as Pinkus interrogates what roles narrative and language can play in thinking the climate emergency in all of its immense complexity.
“I argue for the impractical humanities, for thinking about anthropogenic climate change as something quite unique, not just another environmental issue, and not one that we can solve with greener technology inserted into old paradigms or cleaner fuels inserted into old infrastructures,” Pinkus told an earth101 audience in Iceland in 2015. “And not one that we can solve, at least not in the sense of those other disciplines, but rather one that requires us to think radically and imaginatively.”
Often relegated to the roles of storytelling, chronicling, or pathos-wielding, the humanities can offer more to combat the climate threat than simply breaking scientific jargon down into more manageable chunks for the public to consume. It’s a process where you can begin to speculate and then inhabit an entirely different worldview.
Pinkus’s lecture at Cornell is related to her forthcoming book, Down There. The Subsurface in the Time of Climate Change. As a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes, any hope of keeping global average temperatures below 1.5 or 2 degrees C will require something more than transitioning to non-carbon based fuels in a very short window.
That “something more,” including solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal, can be termed geoengineering, for the sake of shorthand.
“Rather than simply critiquing geoengineering on ethical grounds, as some humanists do, I take various technologies and forms of finance seriously, assuming that will be implemented once scaled up, in a very near future,” Pinkus said. She asks, “What do net-zero targets or carbon pricing have to do with the way Jules Verne crafted his 19th century tales of adventure for boys?”
Pinkus does not suggest that the humanities can solve the climate crisis, but instead questions the very notion of “solution,” through what she terms a form of “intellectual activism.” Pinkus brings a philosophical, cultural and historical dimension to her work that has also found her collaborating with scientists, including her course, Humans and Climate Change, co-taught with Natalie Mahowald; and artists, including her installation/film on the scale of geothermal energy, with Hans Baumann, for the 2018 Cornell Biennial.
Pinkus is the author of Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary and Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence, among other books. She is also the editor of Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism, founded in Romance Studies at Cornell in 1971.
For the 30th anniversary of the journal’s well-known “Nuclear criticism” issue Pinkus edited “Climate Change Criticism” and she is also excited about forthcoming special issue on “Terraforming” she is co-editing with Derek Woods.
Pinkus has been a senior fellow at Rice University’s Center for Environmental Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, a Cornell Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future fellow, and a Leverhulme Distinguished Visiting Professor at Cambridge University, among other honors.