Early on in one of my environmental humanities courses at the University of Toronto, I ask my students to imagine that they have entered a time machine and traveled fifty years into the future. They emerge into a Toronto in which environmental problems have been resolved. Wandering into an elementary school, they stumble into a class where young children are being taught about the creation of the world. Their assignment is to answer one question: what is the story the teacher is telling these children? This may seem like an odd way to begin a course on environmental issues. What, after all, do creation myths have to do with creating a carbon-neutral economy? My answer is, stories matter.
I was an environmental activist for at least a decade before I began teaching and researching in this area. And for so much of that time, I felt intensely frustrated as I watched well-meaning, hard-working scientists struggle to convince people that climate change was a real emergency. The science was absolutely clear but people were not (and still are not) responding to the calls from scientists to do something with the kind of life-changing urgency the news demanded.
I felt alarmed by this as a private citizen. But as an English Professor, for a long time I assumed confronting this issue just wasn’t part of my job description. I’m not a physicist or a geographer or an economist. How could my skills in literary analysis or my knowledge of cultural history possibly help in this crisis?
But as I began to immerse myself in the field of the environmental humanities, I came to understand that our environmental crisis is not just about energy use and economic indicators. The way we behave in relation to the world around us is driven by culture, and our environmental crisis is therefore, at its root, a cultural crisis, specifically a western cultural crisis, rooted in the foundational myths of western culture.
That helped me to understand why so many of us still don’t really hear what the scientists are saying, and why we don’t change. We don’t act because we don’t really believe that our bodies, our lives, are actually dependent on the health of the earth on which we live. And why should we? In Western culture we have been taught that we humans are separate from and superior to nature. That our minds are invincible, that our super powered brains control our bodies and the earth. We don’t change our behavior because the warning from scientists doesn’t fit the story of who we think we are in the world.
This realization that the environmental crisis has its origins in culture — troubling as it is— has led me to feel some hope. And it showed me how I could help and how my English literature students (contrary to what they’ve been led to believe) could make a real difference in the world. If our problem is rooted in the stories we tell, then an important way to make real, meaningful shifts is to tell new stories.
As I make clear to my students, telling the kind of new stories that will change our environmental imaginations is not as simple as sitting down and writing a book or a screenplay and hoping people will be convinced. I’m not talking about literature, about individual works of art, although they can be an important part of the solution. To truly change behavior, we need something more deep-seated and radical: a shift in cultural mythology, in the foundational stories that underlie our understanding of who we are in the world. This kind of shift is a collective process. New stories begin to become a new culture when they are embodied, when a whole group of people actually live within the story, when it becomes the new truth of a culture.
This year, in a course called “The Environmental Imagination,” my students began to make this shift in remarkable ways — in their writing, their conversations, and ultimately in their lived experience. I was floored by the power of their creativity and passion and I hope you will be too. Over the course of the spring and summer, through a series of guest posts, I am excited to share with you the many ways in which one group of university students has begun to shift their environmental imaginations. I hope they will inspire many others to do the same.