This issue we’re mixing things up and have decided to review an event instead of a recent publication. Rosa Lia reviews a talk with author Margaret Atwood and Sir Brian Hoskins organised by the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society.
So, what happens when you confront a scientist with an artist? Do they find that their perspectives are at such far ends of the spectrum that they don’t see the same world around them? In a talk called A Problem Shared: Securing A Future For Our Planet, Margaret Atwood and Sir Brian Hoskins found themselves united by one of the most crucial issues of our age: climate change.
Do We Write In A Literary Bubble? by Rosa Lia
As a renowned climatologist, dynamical meteorologist and Fellow of the Royal Society among other things, Hoskins seemed the more likely candidate to be addressing the audience. Atwood, a charismatic Canadian with a dry sense of humour, proved that science is not only relevant to scientists. Literature is about the real world, even if through the imagined. Atwood has always been around environmentalists, as she puts it ‘You English like the phrase cutting edge. My parents were on the lunatic fringe edge.’ Literature is not just a form of escapism, the artist informs our world view at least as much as the scientist. In the words of El Doctorow ‘The writer isn’t made in a vacuum. Writers are witnesses. The reason we need writers is because we need witnesses to this terrifying century.’ When Hoskins was asked if there is a part for the writer in addressing climate change, he replied ‘Yes. As a scientist you can’t be an activist.’ The artist can extrapolate from the evidence and show the potential results of our actions in order to make us question them. The artist can take a bias and call people to action in a way the scientist cannot. As Margaret Atwood reminds us of the most devastating consequences of climate change, as shown in her recent The Year of the Flood, ‘So far it’s still a book, you can close the covers.’ So does the writer write to keep the issues at a safe distance, out of our fears and into fiction? ‘No. But as I like to tell people, it is the most fun filled, joke ridden adventure you can read about the elimination of the human race.’ Stories engage people with issues in a way that graphs do not. People are more involved when we see events through people, through a character we become attached to and empathise with.
REVIEWS Of course, science sets out the issue before the author can write about it. And climate change is an area where people can too easily become driven by emotion, where the importance of science is often underplayed. Hoskins said ‘Science is about evidence not truth or belief. I don’t believe in global warming, the evidence points towards it.’ He built upon this, very honestly admitting that ‘we’ve done a bad job at keeping the argument rational. There’s been such polarisation that it’s hard to have proper scientific discussion.’ Understandably, people react strongly to the possibility of the annihilation of the human race. As Atwood says, ‘Nobody likes to hear that kind of bad news, it’s discouraging. You’re most inclined to believe the person who says there’s no problem.’ Yet, as Hoskins points out, there is. A real problem. He compares it to the fact that he insures his house when the possibility of fire is tiny; surely we ought to ensure our future when the possibility that climate change isn’t real, is tiny (1 to 5% according to him). Perhaps the real issue here is human nature. Science has already put before us the tools with which to live a sustainable lifestyle, from ways of producing zero carbon energy to carbon capturing. As Hoskins said, ‘the possibilities are there. It is human action that is required.’ And human action is driven by a desire for gratification, often through creativity and invention but also through doing that which we know we should not. In Atwood’s words, ‘We always pick the low hanging fruit.’ An idea that was repeated through out the talk was that science is a tool; its use depends upon who uses it. To quote Atwood: ‘We never make things that are not utterings of our ancient desires and fears. You can tell these things from faerie tales and myths. The wish for the purse full of gold – I think they call that the stock market. We wanted to go faster, the automobile was invented, and it has side effects. All these things have side effects.’ The root of the problem is not selfishness, but it’s certainly going to require selflessness to sort it out. And the question of whether or not we can, turns a lot of people off. If we can, that is a massive burden of responsibility to bear and if we can’t, what’s the point in trying or caring? Both Atwood and Hoskins ended the evening on a note of encouragement. Atwood asserted that ‘We’re very creative and inventive; we’re capable of problem solving if we know what the problem is. So there’s a few words in favour of the human race.’ Hoskins added, that we should look at the progress we’ve made, ‘The Ozone hole is in process of going out. It’s great technologies that give me the optimism. As they develop it could really, excuse the phrase, snowball. I’m an optimist; we’re going to do it.’ So, does all this optimism mean Atwood’s next book will be utopian not dystopian? ‘No. Utopias are very nineteenth century.’ In the end though, it doesn’t fall upon the scientist or the author to tackle the problems of our age. As Atwood reminds us, ‘It’s no more my role than it is yours. Sure we can write books and people can read them. But cutting down carbon – that’s your role as voter and citizen, as an individual.’