Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Climate and American Literature

Michael Boyden

As I scripted the outline for this collection, the United States held the questionable honor of being the only country in the world to have withdrawn from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to date the most ambitious international effort to mitigate climate change. On June 1, 2017, President Trump officially announced that the US would cease participation in the Accord. Given that the US is historically the biggest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases, and currently still the biggest emitter with the exception of China, the American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was met with fierce disapprobation from other governments, international organizations, the scientific community, and concerned citizens the world over. What, beyond the divisive politics of the day, are the historical and cultural roots informing this ostensibly ‘unique’ American brand of climate change denial or realism?

Climate and American Literature explores the origins and manifestations of ‘distinctively’ American attitudes toward the climate. Alongside the Amerindian cosmologies that survive into the present in however mutated form, the book reviews the climate theories that European explorers and conquerors invoked to justify their appropriation of American lands, and which continued to shape US policies later on. In light of the current pandemic, the book further offers compelling reflections of historical climate conceptions in discourses of health and disease transmission. While showing how the emergence of a global climate imaginary is indissolubly linked to the history of US expansion, the collection equally highlights how American literature, from pre-colonial times to the recent present, has always resisted the currently fashionable ecomodernist narrative that reduces climate to a singular entity that supposedly affects all in like manner. Covering a wide range of literary and non-literary texts that illustrate the plurality of American climate perceptions and ideas, finally, the collection develops a reading methodology that foregrounds the material and atmospheric conditions from which such texts emerged and which they directly or indirectly thematize. Next to and apart from a global atmospheric system irrevocably altered by anthropogenic forcing, climate here thus functions as a heuristic for revisionist readings of American literary history.

Apart from the literary-historical chapters, the collection includes useful survey chapters that focus on the climate history of North America, and the climatic inflections of theories of civilizational development and racial formation. As a new world order is taking shape around an economy of climate credits and debts, the historical connections between assumptions about the climate and theories of ethnogenesis begs further scholarly investigation. The book concludes with some more polemical essays on the Environmental Humanities, Anthropocene Studies, the New Materialisms, and the links between global warming and neoliberalism. These chapters will prove useful to not only specialist scholars but also students who are trying to orient themselves in these quickly expanding areas of research.

As I write these words, five years after the Paris Accord, President Elect Joe Biden has declared his intention to rejoin the agreement. It remains to be seen how the new administration will shape American climate policy. Vicki Arroyo, Executive Director of the Georgetown Climate Center, has indicated that even with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress passing ambitious climate change legislation might prove to be a slow and tortuous process. Considering the emergence and circulation of specific expectations about the climate ingrained in US society might help to create a more solid foundation for bipartisan decision-making, and a more sustainable future.

Climate and American Literature
Michael Boyden, Uppsala Universitet, Sweden

About The Author

Michael Boyden

Michael Boyden is an associate professor of American Literature at Uppsala University, Sweden. He is the author of Predicting the Past: The Paradoxes of American Literary History (...

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