Climate crisis: what is the role of the arts and humanities in defining the relationship between people and nature?

Kate – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Year 12 student Kate writes expertly here in response to the Newnham College (Cambridge) Modern & Medieval Languages Essay Prize. All female students currently in Year 12 at a UK school may enter the annual essay prizes. The level of academic research and skill in written communication on display here is truly remarkable. CPD

‘The study of texts written in other times and/or in other languages shows how the arts and humanities have a vital role to play in the context of today’s climate crisis where there must be a fundamental and urgent change in the relationship between people and nature’. Discuss.

An undeniably prevalent topic in modernity, knowledge of the mechanics of the changing climate is now simply another aspect of cultural capital. To live a day in which it’s unheard of may for some, feel like a respite. Nevertheless, this global predicament seemingly will not change unless its inhabitants do- such a term, “inhabitants”, contestably covers every being on our planet: regardless of language, age, gender, race, or species or any other difference there may be.

Despite such inhabitants’ centuries of disaster dramatization, the very first moment in which we have been given an opportunity to legitimately avoid an international crisis, we’re struggling to convince general populations to amend their behaviours. Even a century ago, we were beginning to consider the future of Earth’s capabilities, with a book from as far back as 1928, “The Shadow of the World’s Future” suggesting that if the global population were to reach 7.8 billion, there would have to be much more efficient use of its surface. [1] Such a conclusion arrived before the majority of significant Climate Change information, in which truly consequential events didn’t occur until as recently as 1988. Then-current climate scientist James E. Hansen concluded bluntly, “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and is changing our climate now”.[2]  Yet, despite such a plainspoken scientific claim, there is a seeming lack of social processing that action must be taken. We can see just how our depictions of these events, and the way we have chosen to encompass their relevance into our current lifestyles, will soon exert a larger influence on our society. This insatiable human need to study our own actions and its repercussions on our society, the Arts and Humanities, plays an increasingly vital role in our prevention and mitigation of the omnipresent threat that is Climate Change. Not only is there a sufficient human need to highlight tangible links between the two concepts, but also, the way our means of documentation contrive these ideologies with no specificity to juncture or language.

The way in which we view our planet is something of a historical trope, linking strongly into theology as its origin. This is particularly true as the concept became less sectarian following the development and combination of various beliefs. Environmental stewardship, even today with religious decline, remains a key part of many faiths, heedless of the standing of unspecified religion, which is what permits it as a useful discussion point in terms of global warming. The expression of this ideology is generally analogous within many religions, and the incorporation of schismatic roots into such far-reaching social ideas, like Climate Change, demonstrate that religious beliefs and language are independent variables.[3] Contrary to conventional beliefs, the vast majority of changes are not due to modern faith leaders, but rather encompassed into older theological texts. One key event in recent Islamic history for example, which references historic texts as its source, is the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, which was recently adopted by the Islamic Climate Change Symposium in 2015.[4] Similarly, Professor Al-Jayyousi, a Muslim member of the UN Global Scientific Advisory Panel, is eager to revive the holistic view of Islam, which is founded on the notion of harmony and “Natural State”.[5] The Declaration, alongside Al-Jayyousi’s proclamations, singlehandedly rely on the fact that the Qur’an is originally inherently conservationist.[6] The incorporation of key quotations within the Declaration demonstrates a lack of specificity to one particular Islamic branch- after all, the Qur’an is widely believed to emphasise moral, ethical and spiritual values for everyone.[7] The quotations are also usually referenced in the Islamic mother tongue of Arabic, in which the entirety of the Qur’an is originally written.

“Corruption has appeared on land and sea, by what people’s own hands have wrought.”

Such a specific quote may pragmatically imply a financial or even a social sense of greed. Such recent usage of theological lexis highlights clearly a feeling of necessary change. The existence of the Declaration itself acts as a verification to Muslims that there is still a deficiency of taken action. The role played by Muslims, who remain a part of the second most populous religion worldwide, has not yet been sufficient to warrant an unacceptance of responsibility. In fact, hundreds of quotes within the Qur’an outwardly discuss stewardship and the almost Gaia-like link between Allah and the Earth. Islam thus presents as a vital example as to why linguistic, cultural and alternative humanitarian aspects are not reasonable justifications for lack of global campaign for change.

Our study of primarily cited causes of Climate Change throughout history, such as Britain as the first industrial nation[8] demonstrates its significance simply through being a mandatory part of our national history curriculum. However, it is not necessarily just within history as a subject matter that we can learn from the past. Akin to the topic of textual pieces from alternative times, it is necessary to discuss the idea that even older narrative pieces can offer us insight into how such a radical change occurred, despite not being entirely expository.  The study of much older, even fictional texts, although lacking the thorough understanding of the planet we have now, can educate us in the some of the primary impacts of Climate Change. In fact, it is within this methodology that we have learnt, and were able to document, the roots of the industrial revolution within the UK. Victorian readers especially were big fans of the novel, and fiction was widely believed to have the capacity to influence its readers.[9] Contestably, this is true- the application of our knowledge and our findings within past novels, novellas, and even poetry to more modern scenarios helps to educate us on how to change. This is something of a continuous global motif, regardless of language. Our ability to learn from the past provides many opportunities alongside our obsessive concern with planetary health, and almost acts as an attempt to prove to ourselves that learning truly is a change in behaviour as a result of experience[10]

By studying past relevant literary pieces, we can educate ourselves in the preceding and detailed understanding of society’s role in the climate crisis alongside the world around us- The intertwining artistic aspects of narrative illustration in combination with the humanitarian element of history present to teach us a valuable lesson in a much more modern causal sequence of global warming. The prevailing issue of Climate Change is not the original mistake made by man, but rather, a consequence of a series of prior actions, which we can primarily discover the stem of within British Victorian literature- the profound economic and social changes[11] manifested by this revolution acted as an inspiration for many. Its impact on the Romanticism movement especially, which encompassed inspirational persons such as poet Lord Byron[12] and the iconic novelist Jane Austen[13], remains a signpost to the dwindling significance of nature even in what we can consider to have been the orientation stage of global industrialization. Our studying of such texts also assists us in understanding how our current cultural attitudes towards the environment developed[14]. The knowledge that we have previously valued the natural world, in a period in which this idea could certainly be much more valued than at current, provides us as a society with our own hopeful venture that perhaps our relationship with our Earth may change once more.

Moreover, we can conceptually assume that our study of current informative texts may remain as a guideline for the future protagonists in the lead against the changing climate. Our recurrent analysis of present-day articles, didactic pieces and educational compositions, in any accessible language, demonstrates to the future what our study of pieces in the Romantic Movement and other literary productions were able to demonstrate to us today. However, in the modern era, Climate Change works seemingly still exist as “Invisible Literature”[15]; buried within a paper trail. It seems near unbelievable that such a large topic casts such a small shadow within the landscape of literary fiction[16]– something that is seemingly already dwindling, with the adult fiction market losing $0.83 million in sales between 2013 and 2017[17]– but not when in comparison than with more formal articles. Of course, there is an obviously small chance that Climate Change alone has influenced literary sales. Regardless, more significance can be found in what this shows us pragmatically that when taken literally: that our education relies on our engagement with such “hidden” literacy- as opposed to more modern texts, which seemingly hardly discuss climate- and literacy thus affects our consideration of Climate Change. In turn, we may be able to presume that the more people who are literate, the larger the anthropogenic concern and consideration of Climate Change. Yet, geographically, only 86% of the world are able to read and write[18].

Another interesting factor to consider is the access to computer mediated communication- the development of online, largely permanent software provides us as a global community with a new way of documenting thoughts, opinions, facts, and even the publishing of important expository pieces. Of course, the global online access rate is still only 53.6%[19], but remains a valid point of discussion. From this, what can truly be said about our community commitment to the mitigation of the climate crisis? It is clear in this case that not only is language incredibly relevant, but physical infrastructure and global links are as well. Reduced communication rates, in a sense, leave a metaphysical gap within our climate history. Those who cannot defend themselves in historical transcription can be held responsible for the climate that was largely ruined by first world countries. Yes, there must be a fundamental change between the natural world and our populations, but primarily, there must be a change between groups of people. The undeniable role of the first world in this global crisis is incredibly significant, but if we isolate communities who are unable to communicate in a brazen act of self-concern, then we will be potentially subjecting billions to their own independent tackling of climate after effects. We may even miss key climatic events- to restore a change with the natural world, it appears vital to provide every society with the opportunities for self-education and communication. Climate Change is not simply a first world issue.

It is also important to remember the sheer number of subjects classed under the arts and humanities, and how they each play their own definitive role in certain elements of environmentalism, depending on the time and language of origin. One of the most important, if not the most relevant and poignant in terms of impact on how we view Climate Change, would be the political ventures. In regards to law and politics, we are often so far drawn from reality that even false information is ultimately enough to disprove it altogether. Naturally, current US president Donald Trump comes to mind- quotes like:

“The concept of global warming was created by… the Chinese”[20]

Are designed to mislead populations for fearmongering purposes. For some, even cooler weather may be all it takes to lure them into a false sense of security. On a similar topic to collective false belief, political manifestos evidently act as groundwork texts in their own rights. The study of environmental values held by current political parties in power, especially in comparison with previous political claims, provides valuable information into the changing power dynamic between ourselves and our natural resources. Leading from dictatorship to democratic, Spain’s environmentalism movement within politics demonstrates how eco-friendly changes can be made quickly, and have a significant impact. The later industrialisation of Spain, delayed due to the early reign of Francoism, meant that it wasn’t until the 1960s that the economy began to develop its secondary and tertiary sectors. The environment in Spain had always served without consequence, and, it was thought, it would continue to do so indefinitely.[21] The migration to major cities in this period, and few relevant laws, meant that Spain’s “Belleza Paisajistica”[22] (Beautiful Landscape) was soon exploited. General Franco’s death in 1975, arguably one of the most relevant events in modern Spanish history, brought around a new constitution, which had far-reaching political, economic, social and environmental changes.[23] In a stark contrast, the modern Spanish manifesto signifies a clear development- the representation of environmental concerns, embedded within its own sections of the manifesto, demonstrates a clear representation of change within the highest level of national and international power, something incredibly significant in the fight against Climate Change. Contained within the manifesto of the current political party in power, PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) are the words:

“Impulso a una fiscalidad medioambiental que desincentive la contaminación, impulse el proceso de descarbonización de la economía y favorezca la transición ecológica.”[24]

“I promote environmental taxation that discourages pollution, drives the process of decarbonizing the economy and fosters the ecological transition.”

The Spanish understanding and consideration of change be it through the climate or politically, validates the idea that Climate Change is something to be tackled globally- merely restricting ourselves to English concerning ideologies would be foolhardy. In terms of time, Spain’s 60-year transition environmentally remains similar to that of England’s 200-year cycle, in which we rediscovered natural value. Not only does this show us how easily changes can be made, but how we may make these changes moving forward.

To conclude, our environmental studies, encompassing every aspect of the arts and humanities (Geography, law, politics, philosophy, etc.) can only develop further through what is, effectively, outsider’s input, regardless of language or time difference. Without our appreciation, or development, of/for alternative idiomatic pieces, we would not be able to develop the interpersonal skills required to promote environmental and humanitarian change. Its true- there needs to be a fundamental and urgent change in the relationship between people and nature, but primarily through our connection with other human beings. The work as a collective in religion, the study of past texts, the anticipation of further study of current texts and the political manifestos formed as distinguishing community bodies demonstrate that working in harmony and as a synergy is vital for the future of Earth. Should we access nothing but our mother tongue or the present, we lose the incredible opportunity to study 6,500 versions[25] of change, or around 200,000 years[26] of humanitarian errors. 

Kate 033155        


[1] Cumming, V. (2016)

[2] Revkin, A. (2018)

[3] Barro, R. J., McCleary, R. M. (2002)

[4] UN Environment Programme (no date)

[5] Al-Jayyousi, O. (2018)

[6] The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science (2015)

[7] United Religions Initiative (no date)

[8] Department for Education National Curriculum in England (2013)

[9] Flint, K. (2014)

[10] (No date)

[11] W.W. Norton and Company (no date)

[12] Marchand, L. A. (2020)

[13] The Romantic Period Blogspot (2011)

[14] Higgins, D., Somervell, T. (2020)

[15] Macfarlane, R. (2005)

[16] Ghosh, A. (2016)

[17] Rowe, A. (2018)

[18] Roser, M., Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2016)

[19] Clement, J. (2020)

[20] (2012)

[21] Del Carmen de Andre Conde, M. (1986)

[22] María Serrano Martínez, J. (1997)

[23] Spain, 13 Int’l Envtl. Rep. (BNA) (1990)

[24] Programa Electoral PSOE, “Elecciones Generales 2019” (2019)

[25] Infoplease (2017)

[26] Chan, E. K. F., Timmermann, A., Baldi, B.F.

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