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"Think like a forest": how forest literature can help us fight climate change by Robert Spencer, author of "Conjectures on Forest Literature" published in Forum for Modern Language Studies (OUP)

“Think like a forest”: how forest literature can help us fight climate change

Literary texts are clearly not the most potent weapons in the fight against climate change. Manufacturers of wind turbines are more important protagonists in that struggle, as are protest groups campaigning to leave coal and oil in the ground. But while this gargantuan task needs practical know-how and political militancy, it also requires a clear sense of its wider goals.

Full decarbonisation in the next 10 years will demand massive state-led investment in renewable energy and therefore a head-on confrontation with the overweening power of big banks and their political allies. It will necessitate the drastic restriction of commercial air travel. The subordination of virtually all other social and political priorities to the existential task of preventing the catastrophic, cascading effects of global heating may also require gigantic state-led investment in the atmospheric capture of CO2. The late EO Wilson, author of Half-Earth, urged the rewilding of vast areas of the Earth’s surface so that “carbon sinks,” principally fens, bogs, swamps and forests, might absorb anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions.

Around 15% of emissions are caused by the cutting and burning of forests, primarily for the purpose of clearing land for plantations and animal grazing (which is itself a major source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions). The fight to forestall or at least mitigate global heating will therefore require states, in the tropics and elsewhere, to police a ban on deforestation. The task that faces humanity is frankly mind-boggling in its scope and radicalism. How we do it is a practical and political question for activists and movements, as well as engineers, economists, agronomists, pioneers of new technologies and so on. Why we should embark on what would truly be, as David Wallace-Wells suggests in The Uninhabitable Earth, “the greatest story ever told” is in part a cultural question.

Apocalyptic warnings of drowned cities and biblical exoduses, record droughts and deadly heatwaves, roiling storms and crozzled forests, might just as easily embolden rising nationalist and fascist movements that wish to respond to the crisis by erecting border walls. I am convinced that the fight against climate change requires images of an emancipated, egalitarian, and sustainable future for human societies. My current research on world literature and the climate crisis, including my article “Conjectures on Forest Literature” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, aims to show how literary texts cultivate images of a desirable future after the climate crisis.  

“Literature is a vital resource in the era of climate emergency because it explores rival ways of inhabiting the living world.”

Literature is a vital resource in the era of climate emergency because it explores rival ways of inhabiting the living world. There are multiple ways of seeing a forest, for example. From the point of view of a logging company it is a stand of valuable timber. To a Brazilian cattle rancher, the Amazon is a useless wasteland to be cleared and made productive and profitable. To the seventeenth-century white settler in New England or what is now Canada’s Atlantic provinces, the forest was a sinful wilderness as well as a feminised space that ought to be domesticated and disciplined.

By virtue of their superior scientific and imaginative understanding of that same forest, the Mi’kmaq, the First Nations people of that region, have viewed it as a densely interconnected web of selves, according to Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016). In this extensive historical novel about deforestation in North America since the seventeenth century, the forest emerges as a battleground between rival ways of seeing the living world. For Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887), the wood in Little Hintock, a secluded dale in deepest Wessex, is a kind of holdover of “natural” social and ecological relations. There Hardy’s woodlanders preserve their age-old customs and their dependency on the wood’s bounty while chafing at the restrictions of property, money, and marriage. In the American speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972), the exceptionally perceptive and cooperative Athsheans on the distant forested world of New Tahiti wage a successful revolutionary struggle against grasping imperialists from a treeless Plant Earth. An allegory for the Vietnam War, this classic short novel also promotes the forest as a resonant image of our essential connectedness with the rest of nature.

Such texts teach us to “think like a forest,” in the words of the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, to esteem what the narrator of Proulx’s Barkskins calls “the wildness of the world,” “the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass.” A “barkskin” is a logger, so called because the axemen rapidly become covered in hardened sap. Humans resemble trees, the novel tells us, and are not separable from or independent of nature. Similarly, trees resemble humans, since they communicate with and sustain each other through invisible networks of thread-like fungi in their roots, a discovery related by the Canadian scientist and conservationist Suzanne Simard in Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021).

Novels, poems, plays, legends, and fairy tales about woods and forests (what I call “forest literature”) sometimes tell stories about the destruction of forests. They also engender emotional and intellectual attachments to the forest. They evoke grief and anger at felled or incinerated trees and exterminated peoples, cultures, and animals. They re-enchant the forest, not just describing but in their very forms, structures, and styles by purposefully evoking the mystery, complexity, intricacy, and magnitude of the forest. Forests, including representations of forests, are sites in which humans might learn to appreciate their essential connections with the rest of nature.

“Representations of forests provide us with exhilarating glimpses of a world outside a system of profit and plunder.”

There they might espy a distinctive and well-nigh revolutionary form of value. A tree is in one sense just a commodity or rather a primary commodity, the saleable material from which other commodities are made. It has exchange value and use value. But sequoia and oak trees, like Hardy’s woodlanders and the terrorised indigenous peoples of the Amazon certainly cannot be reduced to this impoverished definition of value. They are in truth what the Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi once called “fictious commodities”: they were not produced for sale.

Representations of forests provide us with exhilarating glimpses of a world outside a system of profit and plunder, of production for exchange rather than human and ecological need. Earth Day on 22 April, urges us to act, innovate, and implement a green revolution—boldly, broadly, and equitably. There is a cultural imaginary of oil, as the cultural theorist Imre Szeman has argued; oil and especially petroleum give rise to destructive fantasies of weightless freedom from social and natural constraints. Forest literature, by contrast, sketches the cultural imaginary of renewable energy and of sustainable forms of industrial and agricultural production; it points us in the direction of a coming world that is greener, wilder, more equal, and more just.  

Featured image via Pixabay (public domain)

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