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Modernism, Eco-anxiety, and the Climate Crisis

 Great Smoky Mountains, 2017. Limited edition print.
Fig. 1. Hannah Rothstein, National Parks 2050: Great Smoky Mountains, 2017. Limited edition print. https://www.hrothstein.com/#/national-parks-2050/. Reproduction of original WPA poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises.

Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. . . . [S]taying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

—Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble[1]

I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire—because it is.

—Greta Thunberg, Davos World Economic Forum, January 2019[2]

Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress. . . . It is in this dilemma that new tools for noticing seem so important.

—Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World[3]

When In These Times launched in early 2017, it gave voice to a collective sense of shock, a need to connect scholarship with activism and “engage, engage, engage.” Since then, contributors have offered a range of thoughtful reflections on how to study and teach modernism and modernity in these catastrophic times. But until recently the forum has been unsettlingly silent on the climate crisis—even as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, record-breaking floods and wildfires proliferate, droughts threaten crops and ecosystems, glaciers continue to melt and coral reefs to bleach, and a million animal and plant species face extinction at heartbreakingly accelerated rates. This silence is especially problematic given that the climate emergency is essentially a crisis of technoscientific modernity. As ecocritic Kate Rigby points out in Dancing with Disaster (2015), the cascading impacts of global heating on human and nonhuman bodies give newly devastating form to Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s thesis that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.”[4] So why are we, as scholars of modernism and modernity, not talking about it?

The same unsettling silence was evident at last year’s MSA conference. There was an exciting new energy around questions of feminism, Indigenous modernities, engaged pedagogies, and ways to address employment precarity—all welcome developments that generated a renewed sense of purpose and community. But where was the discussion of climate change? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released its terrifying 2018 report warning that we have only a decade left to take drastic action to prevent global temperatures from reaching truly apocalyptic levels. As teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg said three weeks later in a speech at the twenty-fourth UN Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland, given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, you would think we’d all be talking about nothing else. So where was the interweaving of climate justice with aesthetic, cultural, and political concerns that the MSA organizers had called for by making “Energy and Ecology” one of the two topic streams and drawing attention to Joe Sacco’s work on Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life? Where were the roundtables on how to do modernist studies in a climate emergency? And why are we still not talking about it?

Granted, there are a lot of other things going on that demand attention and engagement. And we’re humanities scholars, not climate scientists or policymakers or environmental educators. But I’m increasingly troubled by the surreal disconnect between the debilitating eco-anxiety many of us feel when we’re paying attention to the climate news (or when eco-catastrophe lands on our doorstep) and the de facto state of denial we live in the rest of the time (in which we rank the climate emergency as a top concern but mostly continue to live as though it’s not). The worse the news gets, the more I think SueEllen Campbell is right that we need to find ways to make climate change our job. “We [humanities scholars] aren’t trained to help students understand climate change or prepare to cope with a disrupted planet—never mind how to transform economies, infrastructures, politics,” Campbell writes in her contribution to Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (2016). But if we really take seriously what the IPCC report tells us about the scale of transformation that needs to happen by 2030, then we have to admit that “sticking to [business as usual] is a kind of denial. We must imagine new job descriptions.”[5]  

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know how to do that. This isn’t a manifesto about how a transformed modernist studies can save the planet; if the state of the planet teaches us anything, it’s that this is no time for hubristic manifestos. And anyway, it’s hard to find the wherewithal to imagine new job descriptions when many of us are struggling to keep up with the jobs we already have (or don’t have, which is infinitely worse). But I have been trying to feel my way toward another kind of practice, one that feels more responsive to the times. The times clearly call for systemic analysis and collective action—including, crucially, loud public support for a rapid and just transition from fossil-fueled modernity to a post-carbon future. But given the state of quiet (or loud) desperation so many of us are living in, and the heartbreaking difficulty of building political will for meaningful climate action across political differences, it seems increasingly clear that the times also call for purposeful, embodied practices of listening, being present, and making space for what we can’t fully predict, control, or understand (or, sometimes, forgive), in human and more-than-human others and in ourselves: what Anna Tsing calls arts of noticing and Donna Haraway calls staying with the trouble, and Rebecca Solnit calls hope in the dark.

Lately, while contemplating the fires in the Arctic and the Amazon, the depressing rise of petro-populist male leaders, the resurgence of white nationalism, the spread of fake news and barely disguised corruption, the cascade of hate crimes and terrorist violence and revelations of sexual assault, the consolidation of corporate power and the widening gulf between rich and poor, the valorization of competition, “productivity,” and profit over compassion and care, the migrant crisis, the mental health crisis, the climate crisis, the sixth mass extinction, and what feminist scholars like Eileen Crist, Tsing, Haraway, and Claire Colebrook have described as the “return of ‘man’” as the self-obsessed hero/villain of the Anthropocene, I’ve been thinking a lot about the female modernist writers whose work I’ve studied and taught over the years. I’ve reread Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook with a new urgency, and thought about H. D. in the ruins and Gertrude Stein in occupied France and Muriel Rukeyser in Barcelona, Scottsboro, and Gauley Bridge. (That modernism was a response to traumatic world events that shattered people’s faith in human progress should hardly have felt like a revelation. But teaching that in Modernist Studies 101 is different from living through the shattering ourselves. As Tsing has observed, we might have thought ourselves well beyond that naive nineteenth-century faith in modernity and progress, but even if it weren’t still alive and well in the tech industry’s cult of “innovation,” there’s nothing like contemplating planetary apocalypse to reveal how much our own political commitments and personal dreams are still invested in those ideas. “We imagine their objects every day,” Tsing writes in The Mushroom at the End of the World: “democracy, growth, science, hope”—all things that now seem under threat (20-21).

The bleached skull of a steer, South Dakota Badlands, 1936.
Fig. 2. The bleached skull of a steer, South Dakota Badlands, 1936. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve also been thinking about Rukeyser writing The Life of Poetry in 1949, a book that is both a rejection of New Critical scientism and an affirmative response to Charles Sarton’s essays on “the Life of Science.” It’s a book that, like quite a lot of Rukeyser’s work, can make me cringe with its embrace of a language that feels too self-consciously “poetic,” too evocative of sermons or self-help books—yet the worse our times get, the more I get where she was coming from, and the more I feel she was onto something with her insistence that poetry (in the broad romantic sense) is essential to social and (eco)political life because it challenges our fear of emotions (trite as that sounds) and “invites a total response.”[6]

This isn’t a manifesto about how poetry can save the planet, either. But I do see an affinity, and a possible alliance, between Rukeyser’s conception of poetry as a fully embodied and whole-hearted practice and the argument made by secular Buddhist activists today that embodied practices of mindfulness meditation can be powerful resources for social change. Although they’ve been commodified and co-opted into accommodationist forms of “McMindfulness,” these practices also have the potential to create space for examining unconscious prejudices shaped by privilege and positionality, nurturing self-acceptance for those wounded by structures of domination, and facilitating cooperation across political differences. As the state of the planet clearly shows—and as analysts of climate denial like George Marshall and Kari Norgaard have argued—you can’t change beliefs or behavior simply by insisting that your facts are the real ones or expecting people to be persuaded by rational arguments.[7] This is why it’s disappointing when people argue that the only way to combat climate denialism is with more and better science education (or, failing that, by mocking people who don’t believe the science). Yes, scientific and environmental literacy are critically important. But surely the current state of things also demonstrates the urgent need for more and better education in history, the social sciences, and literary and cultural studies too. What could be more important than learning to be curious about how things came to be the way they are, and why somebody else might see and hear and feel things differently than you do? And as scholars, activists, Indigenous leaders, and educators in a range of fields have been suggesting, what’s needed is not only engaged scholarship and intellectual curiosity but also attention to the embodied, affective, and relational dimensions of learning, communication, and social practice.

There seems to be an increasing recognition that the epidemic of anxiety among the iPhone generation, not to mention the polarization of political discourse, has a lot to do with the lack of space for slow, open-ended, nonreactive engagement with unfamiliar things, ideas, and people. There’s so much mental clutter and distraction, and so much pressure to announce instantly what one thinks about everything—and in academia, so little support for face-to-face discussion-based teaching—that students tend to be either overly opinionated or else reluctant to say anything if they haven’t figured out what their opinion should be yet. It’s a revelation to many when they realize that their job in a literature class is not to find the right answer as quickly as possible but to stay open to different possibilities, to pause over what resists interpretation, to attend to the feel of things as well as what’s explicitly stated; to get more comfortable with silence, and to see the space of uncertainty created by a challenging poem, an ambiguous or troubling passage, or a disagreement between classmates as something precious, because it’s in that unsettling space that habitual reactions and assumptions can be reexamined and new possibilities can emerge. Last year, I found myself pointing out to students in a first-year writing class how uneasy they’d been at times when we were being particularly exploratory and none of us knew exactly where the discussion was going, and suggesting that learning to be open to uncertainty is one of the most valuable things they can take away from the course, not only because it allows for a more complex understanding of a text, but also because it helps build the capacity to be present with other kinds of uncertainty they might feel threatened by in everyday life. (As Solnit puts it, “Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act.”)[8] Iwas surprised that quite a few of them seemed to understand what I meant; it was as though they were waiting for someone to point that out so they could nod and say yeah, that is a valuable thing.

Well, we’re all in the scary space of uncertainty now, and I increasingly feel that one thing I can do, if I’m not going to quit my job and campaign full-time for climate action, is to help students develop not just the knowledge but also the courage and compassion they will need to live through the precarious times ahead. This isn’t just my idea; I’m learning from colleagues in the environmental humanities, where integrating scholarship, teaching, and activism in embodied, action-oriented ways has always been a core part of the mission, and where scholars like Janet Fiskio and Sarah Jaquette Ray have written eloquently about the affective challenges of teaching climate change in ways that avoid both naive hope and debilitating despair.[9] Students around the world are holding weekly strikes for climate justice, and Fiskio writes that her students arrive on the first day of class “in anguish about the magnitude of the climate crisis,” but the ones I see in my classes are mostly in the same state of denial as the rest of us. Yes, they know it’s happening and it’s bad, but surprisingly few of them even know about the climate strikes happening every week on Parliament Hill, a 10-minute walk from our campus; astonishingly, some still tell me they rarely have conversations about climate change with family or friends because it never comes up in their news feeds; others are dealing with levels of anxiety that make it hard for them to show up for class, let alone march in a demonstration or think about how to help avert planetary catastrophe. And nearly all of them, as Fiskio points out, have trouble imagining themselves as social and political actors rather than just employees and consumers.

Minneapolis march in solidarity with People’s Climate March, April 29, 2017. Photo by Fibonacci Blue.
Fig. 3. Minneapolis march in solidarity with People’s Climate March, April 29, 2017. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our task, writes Haraway, is to “make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events,” but also to “settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.” To me this means showing up to fight for climate justice and working to repair the damage we’ve done to the earth, but also making room in our scholarship and teaching for the contemplative space that is necessary for us to really be present with the uncertainty and grief and anger and fear that these times inspire; to do new kinds of research and start imagining what a truly potent response might look like, and also to develop the affective resources that make it possible to leave our comfort zones, disrupt business as usual, and acknowledge the extent to which we’ve internalized capitalist modernity’s impoverished definitions of what counts as normal, realistic, responsible, desirable, and possible. For this reason, I’ve been experimenting with meditation exercises in my classes, as both a practical response to the anxiety epidemic and a more ecopolitically-oriented effort to complement critical thinking with the kind of open-hearted attention that might help us move from complacency and denial, helpless panic, apocalyptic fatalism, or counterproductive rage toward constructive and collaborative forms of hope.

But how do we make climate change our job as scholars of modernity and modernism? Obviously, many modernist texts are particularly good at providing occasions to practice being open to difficulty and uncertainty, and that’s generally been my reason for wanting to study and teach them. But that doesn’t mean they do so in ways that lend themselves directly to grappling with climate change. As Margaret Konkol points out in her response to the Weak Theory issue of Modernism/modernity, one reason we haven’t seen more concerted attention to ecological questions within the MSA is that the modernist writers we study were not ecologists or conservationists, but held “varying, inconsistent, and often unreflective notions about environmental conditions” that tend to register only weakly in their writings—and, of course, they were unaware of the problem of anthropogenic climate change, which had been theorized in the late nineteenth century but was not yet a matter of public concern. In other words, maybe the reason we’re not talking about climate change is simply that the objects of our study don’t give us much to talk about.

I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I have been struggling a bit to justify my investment in literary modernism at this moment, when in environmentalist circles both modernity and modernism are routinely used as synonyms for the energy-intensive, technocratic, colonizing, and human exceptionalist discourses and practices that produced the current state of planetary catastrophe. As Stephanie LeMenager points out in Living Oil (2014), the 1920s to the 1950s were a defining period of American fashion and style whose aesthetic and emotional power has contributed to the difficulty of thinking beyond forms of modern life made possible by cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels—which means we probably need to reexamine our willingness to be seduced by modernist aesthetics.[10] In Carbon Nation (2017), Bob Johnson explicitly rejects the distinction between cultural and aesthetic modernisms and the materiality of economic and technological modernization that we fans of modernism like to uphold.[11] And we also have to confront the fact that, whatever our aesthetic and political commitments, as academics we continue to participate in the class-specific, resource-intensive models of modernity, progress, and professionalism we inherited from the twentieth century. (See the cult of “productivity,” for example, or the fact that despite recent efforts to reduce academia’s carbon footprint, air travel is still a routine part of academic life, even for most ecocritics, and is still viewed by many academics as essential to professional success.) To the extent that literary modernisms participated in the twentieth century’s investment in petromodernity—that is, in the forms of freedom, personhood, creativity, and professionalism made possible by plantation agriculture and the oil economy—and to the extent that modernist studies is motivated by nostalgia for those cultural forms, it’s hard not to share Paul Saint-Amour’s worry that modernist studies might actually be little more than an appealingly retro brand of globalizing business as usual. Maybe what we need now is to divest from the modernist brand and turn our attention to other forms of cultural activity that more definitively reject modernity’s anthropocentric, colonizing and technocratic dualisms and offer more ethical and sustainable ways of understanding and becoming-with multiple, heterogeneous human and nonhuman others. Or, if we do continue to study something called modernism, we should aim primarily to critique it.

But I’m not ready to abandon modernism yet, though I’m still trying to figure out why. It occurred to me recently that I still haven’t really figured out how to make ecocritical and climate justice concerns integral to my courses on modern American literature. Those courses, I realized, have tended to focus on getting students to see what’s affectively powerful and ethically valuable about modernism’s aesthetic innovations, and on resisting the tired narrative that modernism was all about grumpy white men lamenting the collapse of Western civilization. Mainly, I think, the story I’ve been telling is the other story of modernity and progress: the one about how modernization and modernist aesthetics offered new opportunities for women, African Americans, and queer people, for example. My courses do consider the environmental effects and class and racial politics of urbanization and industrialization, but the story I’ve been telling hasn’t left much room for thinking about nonhuman agency or the planetary impact of petromodernity, or reflecting on what it would mean to really unsettle the notions of agency, humanity, and progress that underlie even feminist, antiracist, and queer histories of modernity and modernism. This disconnect between what I was doing in my modern literature classes and what I do in my courses on ecocritical theory and ecopoetics is a problem, and I’m still working on what to do about it.

Dust Bowl, Dallas, South Dakota, 1936.
Fig. 4. Dust Bowl, Dallas, South Dakota, 1936. United States Department of Agriculture, photographer unknown. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

One thing we can do is make the catastrophic events of twentieth-century environmental history more central to our histories of modernity and modernism. It’s surprising that we haven’t done more of that already, given that in public discussions of the climate crisis, the Dust Bowl is routinely invoked as a harbinger of the global desertification we will face if current climate trends continue, and climate activists have been calling for a Green New Deal as well as a “World War II-level mobilization” to fight climate change. (In August of 2016, climate activist Bill McKibben wrote that global warming isn’t just like a world war, it is a world war, and compared public relief over the signing of the 2016 Paris climate agreement to the misguided enthusiasm for Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time.”) Equally importantly, Indigenous scholars have pointed out that current concerns about climate injustice are not new, but part of a cyclical history of environmental transformation, forced displacement, and disruption of place-specific human-nonhuman relations through which modernization interfered with Indigenous peoples’ ability to cultivate landscapes and adapt to environmental change.[12] These invocations suggest that the rise of fascism isn’t the only feature of early twentieth-century modernity that anticipates our current state of global precarity, and that if the modernist texts we teach don’t register any awareness of the ecological crisis of the 1930s—and if modernist studies doesn’t address the ways in which, as Hannah Holleman has argued, that earlier crisis is both analogous and antecedent to our current one—then we probably need to recognize both as forms of climate denial.

So, I agree with Tim Wientzen that we need a strong theory of modernization to account for the devastating impact that technoscientific capitalist modernity has had on our planet. But I think he’s also right to suggest that reading modernist texts solely for what they fail to recognize about modernity’s ecological impact results in a hermeneutics of suspicion that doesn’t allow for “affectively satisfying forms of political engagement.” As Wientzen suggests, weak theoretical methods might allow us to read mid-century modernism’s anxieties about atomic weapons (or for that matter, its grief at the destruction wrought by conventional ones) as affective resources for our own confrontation with mass extinction and the threat of global ecological collapse. But I also think modernist texts are worth grappling with for another reason. Somewhat like a difficult conversation with a political adversary or cantakerous family member, engaging with modernist texts doesn’t offer a direct route to climate action. But the modernist texts I value the most may be valuable, I suspect, precisely because it’s often hard to know, not only what to make of them, but also how to feel about them. Certainly, they need to be situated within critical histories of technoscientific capitalism, racist imperialism, settler colonialism, and petromodernity, and put in dialogue with contemporaneous and later sources that offer alternatives to modernity’s technocratic, colonizing, and human-exceptionalist narratives of progress and ruin. But in their ambivalence about and disruptions to modernity’s progressive narratives and authoritative identities; in their attention to the embodied and affective dimensions of experience; and because they are so often perplexing and even objectionable, I think modernist texts may offer both models and occasions for staying with the trouble: for finding ways to be in relation with others (people, institutions, beings, phenomena) we will never fully understand or accept; for reflecting on how to address our own investment in modernity’s freedoms as well as our entanglement in its deadly legacies of social and ecological injustice, mass extinction, and accelerating climate change; for doing the learning and unlearning we all need to do. What I’m working on is how to teach these texts in ways that mobilize their capacity, in Adalaide Morris’s words, to foster forms of attention that “think about thinking” and “think toward action.”[13]


[1] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 1.

[2] Greta Thunberg, “Our House is On Fire,” World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2019.

[3] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 24–25.

[4] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1979), 3, quoted in Catherine E. Rigby, Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, Narratives, and Ethics for Perilous Times (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 4.

[5] SueEllen Campbell, “Making Climate Change Our Job,” in Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, ed. Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, and Stephanie LeMenager (London: Routledge, 2016), 21.

[6] Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (1949; repr., Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1996), 11.

[7] George Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); Kari Norgaard, Living In Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

[8] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2016), xiv.

[9] Janet Fiskio, “Building Paradise in the Classroom,” in Siperstein, Hall, and LeMenager, Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, 101–109; Sarah Jaquette Ray, “Coming of Age at the End of the World: The Affective Arc of Undergraduate Environmental Studies Curricula,” in Affective Ecocriticism: Emotion, Embodiment, Environment, ed. Kyle Bladow and Jennifer Ladino (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 299–319.

[10] Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 68.

[11] Bob Johnson, Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014), xxii.

[12] Kyle Powys Whyte, “Is It Colonial Déjà Vu? Indigenous Peoples and Climate Injustice,” in Humanities for the Environment: Integrating Knowledge, Forging New Constellations of Practice, ed. Joni Adamson and Michael Davis (London: Routledge, 2016), 88–105; Lawrence Gross, Anishinaabe Ways of Knowing and Being (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014).

[13] Adalaide Morris, How to Live/ What to Do: H.D.’s Cultural Poetics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 2.