Can 19th-Century French Literature Help Us Fight Climate Change?

By Andrew McCullough - French literature’s Decadent movement emerged in the late 19th century, depicting societal decline caused by human excess and overindulgence. Benjamin Morgan, professor of English at the University of Chicago, visited the Environments and Societies colloquium series on February 8, 2017 to discuss the ways in which the movement can inform our thinking about the current climate crisis.

The title of Morgan’s forthcoming book (Fin du Globe: On Decadent Planets) refers to a moment in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, when, in response to a mention of the century’s imminent end (fin de siècle), a character laments the impending end of the world.

After Morgan briefly summarized his book’s final chapter, discussion turned to the fact Decadent authors offered a view (albeit not a particularly uplifting one) of planetary totality generations before anyone would actually see the planet from such a perspective. Decadent authors’ ability to shift the perspective of the general public was akin to the impact of the “blue marble” pictures taken by Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969. Those first images of Earth set against the black background of space invited the viewer to imagine the Earth in totality, and served as an early catalyst for mainstream thinking about the Earth’s vast ecosystem and climate.

The human difficulty in thinking across scales makes confronting the current climate crisis particularly challenging. The scale of geological time (millions and billions of years) is difficult to reconcile with the scale of a human lifespan, while a single person’s environmental impact is equally difficult to reconcile with the scale of the Earth’s ecosystem. Morgan proposes that the world of fiction can help us find imaginative solutions to our current problems by helping us understand the more general problem of bridging scales of time and space.

For example, just as the Apollo images allowed us to view Earth on a different scale, illuminating the planet’s frailty, Morgan writes that the Decadent authors made it clear that “at the very moment when the planet and its history are imagined in their totality, what must be simultaneously witnessed are their ends.”

Technology won’t save us

Much like the apocalyptic views of characters in decadent literary works, people today sometimes struggle with the idea of an unavoidable climate apocalypse. But while the apocalyptic view may be counterproductive, Decadent literature suggests that a strong belief in technological salvation may be equally so. The two perspectives share a common consequence—inaction. Thus, neither is particularly useful.

Ultimately, the group agreed that a perspective of medium-scale thinking may be the most productive both for the short-term future of our society, and for the long-term health of our planet.  In the present, a medium-scale perspective will help us develop specific actions that individuals and groups can take to mitigate their impact on the climate, and for the distant future, the same perspective will help us to limit the scope of the effects of climate change on the vast ecosystem of our planet.

Learn more about Benjamin Morgan.