A Q&A with Roy Scranton on climate change, Notre Dame’s Environmental Humanities Initiative, and ‘ethical pessimism’

Author: Carrie Gates

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Roy Scranton is an associate professor of English, director of the Creative Writing Program and founding director of the University’s Environmental Humanities Initiative. A novelist, essayist and climate philosopher, he is the author of five books, including “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization.” As we approach Earth Day, he reflects on why the humanities are essential to addressing climate change — and how the initiative’s efforts support the Notre Dame mission.

What does the Environmental Humanities Initiative encompass?

We’re doing a lot of great work with the Environmental Humanities Initiative. One of the keystone things is the Witnessing Climate Change course. It’s a large public-facing, writing-intensive course that I developed through a teaching lab fellowship at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. We had our first iteration last year, and we’re going to run again this fall and plan to run it every year. That’s been very successful so far. We’re also thinking about where it might go in the future and how we can support interdisciplinary graduate student work; build an engaging, innovative curriculum in the environmental humanities, particularly addressing climate change; and foster programming and conversation on campus. 

Why are the humanities important in addressing climate change?

The initiative is working to articulate and make visible for people again and again that while we often think of climate change as a technical issue or a science issue, it’s not just that. Not at all. It is a science issue, but it’s also a political issue, and it’s a social issue. It’s a human issue. 

We can talk about it in the context of Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ encyclical and the idea of integral ecology, but we also need to talk about the human cost and human impact of climate change — not just in the future, although the future is coming fast, but right now, with climate refugees and immigrants from Central America and from the Middle East and refugee populations’ displacement and impact on infrastructure and quality of life. 

All of the mission-related and ethical issues that are at the heart of Catholic social teaching at our University are only heightened and made more manifest by the problem of climate change. We think homelessness is bad — but what about homelessness when there’s five inches of rain in one day? Or when it’s 108 degrees out? It exacerbates every problem. And if we don’t start thinking about it now, in forward-looking, adaptive ways, it’s going to be unmanageable. We need to be thinking now about how to live ethically in a world of catastrophe. 

Why is Notre Dame the right place to be leading this effort?

It’s the right place because of the long tradition here of educating the whole student, thinking about character and the concern with Catholic ethics and the social mission of the University. You know, a lot of places say these kinds of things. But my sense with Notre Dame is that it’s not just rhetoric, it’s actually deeply imbued into the yellow bricks of the buildings, the character of the faculty and administration, and just the culture of the University. It’s a strange time for higher education in this country, particularly for the humanities. But I think Notre Dame is an exception because of its commitment to deep thought and spiritual reflection. And that happens not just through reflecting on religious scriptures, but also on accounts of spiritual striving and failures and efforts to think through the human dilemma — from St. Augustine to Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement” to Barry Lopez, who is a great exemplar of the Notre Dame spirit.


What do you hope students take away from the Witnessing Climate Change course?

The idea of Witnessing Climate Change is that it’s about witnessing in two senses: witnessing as in seeing and understanding and internalizing, and then also witnessing as in communicating. We look at issues of climate justice and constructions of wilderness and nature, and then the students work in the second half to build a rigorously researched, creative nonfiction essay that has a narrative element. One of my favorite parts of the course is when we workshop their writing together. I have a lot of STEM students, engineering students, architecture students, and they bring their own subject matter expertise into the workshop and into their topic. And the students are teaching each other about different aspects of climate change and the broader climate crisis. My job is to help them be rigorous with their research and figure out how to frame and communicate it.

I feel like this course is a success if I can help the students understand the gravity of our situation and internalize that, because part of the problem with climate change, particularly, is that every time we look at it, it’s so huge and scary that we want to look away. So part of the challenge of the course is being able to help them sit with that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the students or shut them off, but gives them the space to feel the fear, the grief and the worry, and then find a way to articulate that going forward.

There was a study a year or two ago that found that people just don’t talk about climate change, even when they’re concerned about it. A very small percentage of Americans have any kind of regular conversation about the issue. And so, in that respect, if students are talking about it, that’s a success.

You’re currently working on a book called “Endgame: Climate Change, the Myth of Progress and Ethical Pessimism.” How do you define “ethical pessimism” when it comes to climate change?

Well, most of us are optimistic by nature. And, by and large, that’s a good thing. When we’re facing an intractable and existential problem like climate change, however, that kind of collective optimism is profoundly dangerous and irresponsible. We need more people resisting that and making a space for pessimism. I argue that, actually, presuming the worst is in many ways a compassionate, resilient, responsible position. 

A lot of critics of pessimism conflate it with cynicism or nihilism or fatalism. It’s none of those. The weakest form of pessimism is simply a rejection or skepticism of the optimistic promise that things are going to work out fine. A stronger form of pessimism is maybe a belief that things will work out poorly — but it’s not nihilism because to the pessimist that matters. It matters because it means people will suffer. I think one of the most substantive criticisms that pessimists can offer optimists is that optimism doesn’t take into account human suffering. Pessimism insists that we sit with that, that we sit with our failures, our limits, and sit with our delusions and the fact that things don’t always work out the way we’d like. And that can help us — not to give up or throw in the towel or assume there’s nothing we can do, but rather it helps us make better decisions about what we can do.

Originally published by Carrie Gates at news.nd.edu on April 20, 2023.