Principal Invistigator: Benjamin Morgan, Associate Professor, Department of English

In the past decade, scholars in the Environmental Humanities have often argued that anthropogenic climate change is an object of knowledge that upsets conventional distinctions among disciplines. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s 2009 Critical Inquiry essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses” influentially asserted that the advent of the human species as a planetary force destabilizes history’s disciplinary orientation toward events in human rather than natural history. Literary studies has witnessed a similar upheaval, as scholars have inaugurated a second wave of ecocriticism that is more scientifically literate and more closely engaged with disciplines such as human geography, geology, and environmental ethics. In the wake of these developments, scholars of literature and culture have persuasively argued that their knowledge of nonhuman nature is conditioned by the stories that they tell about it—stories that draw on narrative templates of decline or of hope, of nature’s inevitable vengeance or humanity’s innate heroism. And yet, the major figures in literary and cultural studies of climate change—Ursula Heise, Rob Nixon, Donna Haraway, and others—have almost all focused on post-1945 culture in industrialized nations, analyzing art and literature created after the mid-twentieth-century “Great Acceleration” in fossil fuel use and anthropogenic impacts. This presentist focus obscures the deeper origins of environmental crisis in the nineteenth-century shift from biomass to fossil fuels in Western Europe, Great Britain, and the U.S. Morgan is embarking on a new project that takes a literary-historical perspective on ways of knowing about nonhuman nature, which explores precedents to the contemporary literature and culture of climate change. A central claim of the project is that nineteenth-century writing about nature challenged distinctions between the literary and the nonliterary, between the humanities and the sciences, even as this field of writing began to formulate some of the important genres—from science fiction to popular science—that continue to mediate our knowledge of climate crisis. Morgan's inquiry is oriented by two broad questions:

1. How have imaginative literature and literary writing created distinctive forms of knowledge about anthropogenic impacts on the natural world?

2. How is the contemporary imagination of our planetary future constrained and/or conditioned by pre-existing templates and cultural narratives?

In the first phase of this project Morgan explores these questions in three contexts:

1) Ecoutopia and eco-apocalypse

In nineteenth-century Britain and the United States, the rise of industrial society fostered a large body of fiction that imagined either an idyllic return to nature or the disastrous consequences of trusting new technologies. Although these works were commercially successful on both sides of the Atlantic, only a few have received significant critical attention—works such as William Morris’s News from Nowhere, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. The Glenn R. Negly Collection of Utopian Literature at Duke University holds over 1,000 volumes related to the history of literary utopias; providing access to fully explore how utopian and speculative fiction mediated responses to industrialization.

2) Arctic voyage narratives

Nineteenth-century accounts of polar exploration, authored largely by British and American explorers, were widely-read texts that combined quantitative results of meteorological and geographical research with breathless tales of adventure. These texts dramatize competing attitudes toward the natural world: on the one hand, as a site of sublime and terrifying beauty; and on the other hand, as a resource to be rationalized, dominated, and exploited. Given how quickly cultural narratives about the Arctic have shifted—it once signified the region of Earth most threatening to humans, but it now signifies the region most threatened by humans—these voyage narratives represent a largely untapped resource for exploring a history of anxiety and ambivalence about the natural world. In order to tell this story, Morgan plans to visit the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, which holds unpublished material critical to understanding the genre of the scientific voyage narrative, including photographs, glass lantern slides, and correspondence related to published narratives of Elisha Kent Kane, Sherard Osborn, and Albert Markham (among others).

3) Coal narratives

The rise of coal-fueled industry generated a large field of paraliterary writing explaining the origins and nature of coal: primers, popular science books, articles in mass-audience periodicals, and many other genres of print culture. Such writing often placed the geological history of coal in relation to industrial society, comparing the staggering age of the mineral resource with the speed at which it was being consumed. Coal narratives can be understood as the advent of western society’s geohistorical awareness at the vexed intersection of earth history and human history. Many of these texts have recently been digitized, and with the help of a research assistant to identify and organize this material, Morgan hopes to tell a larger story about how the rise of coal catalyzed a new mode of historical self-consciousness.

Through these case studies, Morgan hopes to challenge the assumption that the narratives and tropes that mediate our awareness of anthropogenic impacts on the environment are a twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon. Morgan's hypothesis is that this material will yield an important but underexamined backstory to contemporary scientific and popular writing, ranging from climatechange fiction like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) to general-audience explanations of climate change like Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Earth After Us (2008).