The sublime, the climate and Eleanor Catton


After a bad experience with Wolf Hall, I resolved never to buy door-stopper novels, not even those strewn with accolades, without first trying out their authors in shorter form. Tuesday’s Man Booker prize for The Luminaries left me unmoved as soon as I saw Eleanor Catton struggling to hold up her 800-page tome for the cameras.

By Friday I was having second thoughts, my breakfast routine suspended by the riveting 1500 words that Ms Catton had delivered to The Guardian, describing her childhood in Christchurch. If such a treat of descriptive memoir could be dashed off in the 48 hours of post-award euphoria (surely it was dusted off the shelf!), what riches might there be in a polished novel?

The Guardian article explores the inadequacy of language to describe sublime human experience, taking the visual example of unspoiled landscape. As a native of New Zealand’s South Island, Eleanor Catton has had more opportunity than most to take up this artistic challenge.

Catton’s purpose here was confined to professional reflection on the boundaries of her craft. Inevitably, my own reaction jumped to the consequences. If our universal tool of communication is unable to capture the essence of humanity’s relationship with the natural world, is it any surprise that we’re trashing the place? If Eleanor Catton can’t articulate the ecstasy of natural beauty, how can we expect earth scientists to convey the significance of its loss?

Efforts to answer such questions are in full flow in the aftermath of the latest IPCC report on climate science. The UK Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Wolpert, lamented the “sense of ennui” amongst mainstream public reaction, warning a Royal Society meeting that “science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”.

My former colleagues, Anuradha Vittachi and Peter Armstrong, continue to engage with this topic through the lens of empathy, that most elusive human quality. For me, the empathy deficit arguably accounts for all catastrophic group behavior in our species, past and present. Can we learn more by teasing out its contribution to the failed response to climate change?

I’m not sure – but here’s the climate section of Anuradha’s interview with Sarah Woods, the playwright who performed her solo production of The Empathy Roadshow at the South Bank Centre last week. “It all boils down to space and time” she says about the ostrich tendencies of people and politicians.

It’s curious that Eleanor Catton’s article invoked this same concept of “time and space” in her striving to make linguistic sense of natural beauty. This is difficult terrain, grappling to hook up the fruits of our clever rational minds with the dark matter within, with too little time for the task.

We could do no worse than commission Eleanor Catton to tackle the embryonic genre of climate fiction.

Sarah Woods in conversation with Anuradha Vittachi at her London Empathy Roadshow. Click on YouTube for the full interview. From Hedgerley Wood.

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Eleanor Catton: The land of the long white cloud from The Guardian

‘Science is not finished until it’s communicated’ – UK chief scientist – from RTCC

Climate Justice Tread Softly briefings

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