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Borrowing the World: Climate Change Fiction and the Problem of Posterity

Johns-Putra, Adeline (2017) Borrowing the World: Climate Change Fiction and the Problem of Posterity Metaphora.

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In 1971, activist-author Wendell Berry, writing about the Red River Gorge in his beloved Kentucky, invoked the trope of a natural world not granted by our forebears but on loan from our descendants—the biosphere held in trust, as it were, for generations to come (Unforeseen Wilderness 26). The re-publication of part of Berry’s work in Audubon magazine soon after (Berry, ‘One-Inch Journey’ 4) led to a mis-attribution of them to John James Audubon, and, in 1973, when Dennis Hall, an official at Michigan’s Office of Land Use, adapted them without citation, he was erroneously credited also. Similarly, Australian Environment Minister Moses Cass’s use of it in a speech to the OECD in 1974 (qtd. in O’Toole) meant that the adage has sometimes been ascribed to him. From the 1980s onwards, the phrase was quoted in speeches and reprinted on book-jackets and in report by-lines—by, among others, representatives of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Wildlife Fund (Talbot 495). Paul and Anne Erhlich attributed it to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (26) and an article in the Christian Science Monitor (Jones 23) assigned it to environmentalist Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. The Los Angeles Times asserted that it was an Amish saying (Riley 5), United States Secretary of State James Baker named Ralph Waldo Emerson as its author (qtd. in Keyes L10), and the United States Council on Environmental Quality claimed the source to be Chief Seattle (qtd. in Keyes L10). 2 I have described these mis-attributions in detail not simply to offer an object lesson in the portability of provenance, but to suggest that this pithy aphorism has been so durable, so willingly and wishfully assigned to a range of wise and venerable sources, because it strikes a deep and resonant chord. The idea that our relationship with the biosphere is automatically a matter of posterity is a powerful one, and this quotation in particular achieves several important rhetorical tricks. It collapses a web of obligations—the interspecial and the intergenerational—into a single immemorial and apparently unthinkable strand of time. We are not simply construed as guardians of the environment for the environment’s sake; we are explicitly called on to steward it for this vastly distant future, while being reminded of our debt to those in the past. We are thus placed in a grand historical chain of obligations. This is a different version of posterity from John Passmore’s ‘chain of love’, which reads, rather, as a kind of pass-the-parcel conception of intergenerational concern: Men do not love their grand-children’s grand-children. They cannot love what they do not know. But in loving those grand-children—a love which already carries them a not inconsiderable distance into the future—they hope that those grand-children too will have grand-children to love. By this means there is established a chain of love and concern running throughout the remote future. (88) For Passmore, we ‘cannot love’ what we ‘do not know’, and thus future generations are cared for vicariously, since it is the receipt by a given generation of the love and care of immediately preceding generations that positions and motivates it to care for the next. Unlike the chain imagined by Passmore, the rhetoric of environmentalist posterity brings those future generations into the immediate purview of parental love. The call to stewardship seems to trail off into the reaches of time, but its use of synecdoche—the modelling of our attitude to future generations on our responsibilities to our offspring—replaces the terror of sublime infinity with the intimacy of parental caring, sheltering, and nurturing. From Berry’s original 3 expression of it through its many incarnations, the primal, emotional punchline is that the (every)man loves his children. In this essay, I first consider the prevalence of the notion of posterity in popular climate change discourse, scrutinising its appeal to ideas of parenthood, which leads to a consideration of this discourse’s appropriation of the figure of the child. I argue that not just this preoccupation with posterity but the use of the child as a particularly emotive shorthand conceal a collective angst about the cumulative effect of human activity on the planet. In a time of dire destruction of the biosphere at large, this anxiety is exacerbated by the intractable ethical dilemmas that underlie our obligations not just to future humans but to nonhuman species. In the final analysis, the climate change novel emerges as a space in which this angst is aired, shared, and—most importantly—queried, as countless such novels place parent-child relationships under emotional and intellectual scrutiny. Ultimately, I contend that many climate change novels’ use of apparently sentimental parent-child imagery is, paradoxically, part of a vital critique of the human exceptionalism that underwrites such imagery.

Item Type: Article
Subjects : Literature
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > School of Literature and Languages
Authors :
Date : 2017
Copyright Disclaimer : Metaphors follows the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities: 'The author(s) and right holder(s) of such contributions grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship (community standards, will continue to provide the mechanism for enforcement of proper attribution and responsible use of the published work, as they do now), as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.' License: cc-by
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 12 May 2017 10:20
Last Modified : 16 Jan 2019 17:14

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