Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: In the introduction to I’m with the Bears, a collection of fictional stories about climate change, climate campaigner Bill McKibben says that “science can only go so far…it is the role of artists to make us feel.” You’ve also said, “Humans need things warm to the touch, and writers need to create that temperature.” While not speaking of climate change specifically, there is an obvious coincidence here: scientific reports are often cold and abstract and need to be imagined and enlivened. Could you explain the role that you think literature has in supporting these realisations?
Jay Griffiths: I think what’s really difficult about it is that if you’re an artist, and a good artist, it seems to me that you’ll almost inevitably have a hinterland of politics in your work. I don’t know how it’s possible to be oblivious to what happens in the world, or to be without a sense of some kind of political responsibility. And at the same time, when issues are approached head on, like climate change and the like, the result is often really, really poor and ineffective art. It seems to me that both of these things need to be honoured—but actually what art can do and what art has to do is the thing which is unexpected, the thing which is passionate and the thing which is looking askance. One of my favourite lines is from Emily Dickinson when she says, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” That’s where you get virtue and the tension of the tangent.
JGF: Dougald Hine recently wrote that the attempts of many British novelists to confront climate change over the last decade, have been “generally disappointing.” He puts this down to traditional literary approaches and their incapacity to ‘tackle’ climate change as a theme in the arts. How does creating new myths and rescuing old ones, as Dark Mountain sets out to do, enable us to reframe and reconnect with the world?
JG: I don’t think I can answer for anyone else. I think it’s one of those things where if you let the information about climate change and issues like that dwell with you, they will come out in your work. But how I might do something is very different to how somebody else will. So it’s quite a hard question to answer. In a sense, in all the language of re-finding, re-discovery, re-connection, I think I stick with the idea that there is something absolutely timeless and eternal in the things that still fascinate people. People are still curious about human emotions, about the human mind, about conflict, about hope, about glory—what is as intoxicating a thousand years ago still is intoxicating now.
JGF: Literature’s role in political change is often and always contested: Are worst-case scenarios useful in mobilising change or do they paralyse? Or should we present ‘positive’ and possible alternatives to what you call the “eco-pornography’ of environmental apocalypse? As an author concerned with these issues, what approach do you find useful?
JG: I think if anything, it’s grief. A grief for this precious world that we live in. I wouldn’t say something like ‘all civilisations will fall,’ but they will be threatened and significantly weakened. And also it will hit the poorest nations hardest and the poorest people in any nation harder. But it is less a matter of guilt than of grief, because that involves an appreciation of the preciousness of what there is.
JGF: In Kith—an exploration and defence of childhood—you write about the detachment of our lives from nature and the wild and the immiseration it causes. We need to not only rewild the land, but “rewild ourselves” as George Monbiot has argued, and “decolonise our minds” as we decolonise the land as Alastair McIntosh suggests. But how does this ongoing dialectic between ourselves and nature happen?
JG: I really dislike that idea of ‘we humans are not part of nature,’ a view which suggests either we only ever screw it up or that we’ve somehow moved beyond nature into a kind of cultural artifice. I don’t really like either of those. I know the evidence does point to the fact that what humanity has done since the beginning has been very destructive towards the natural world. But we’re also the knowers of the world, the perceivers of the world, the appreciators of the world. It would be a species solipsism to say we’re the only ones who find joy and appreciation in the world. But certainly one of humanity’s greatest skills is to sing the world. And that is less to do with guilt and more to do with positive emotions.