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Narrating our way out

An essay by the New York Times featured journalist and novelist JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS.

Von Jessi Jezewksa Stevens

For the past few months I, an American novelist, have been shadowing climate economists in Berlin. The project started with a concern, with a question: What can any one individual do–what can a novelist do–to dissolve global gridlock on energy transition? With nearly eight in ten Europeans reporting climate change to be a “very serious” threat, chances are a similar question has crossed your mind, too.

This much I know: as individuals, we tend to approach problems through the lens of our own, specific points of view. Geoengineers recommend carbon capture; economists promote a global carbon price; activists organize mass demonstrations. And so it should be: There is no one-size-fitsall solution to climate change, and so addressing it requires a combination of tools and strategies—from economists, from scientists, from policymakers, from activists…maybe even from novelists.

Yet this gives rise to a secondary puzzle. Over the past decade, researchers across disciplines have come to the conclusion that part of the di_ - culty of forging a path to carbon neutrality stems from the very diversity of approaches. That the feasibility of adaptation measures and alternative energy choices vary by geography, culture, and social and political structures fractures the global imagination for a sustainable future. The rise of populism and its polarizing demands drive yet another wedge into an already crowded and controversial discussion.

How can thought leaders lend unity to a problem that’s on the one hand very simple – we need to halt carbon emissions – and yet so mind-bogglingly complex? Maybe this is where the perspective of the novelist comes in.

I hesitate to suggest that novelists are experts in ‘storytelling’ in the same way that, say, atmospheric scientists are experts in measuring carbon levels in parts per million. This isn’t to imply that novelists are without a certain finesse or aptitude. But viewed as a craft, storytelling is at once fundamentally democratic and fundamentally elusive. We all tell stories. Yet it’s another thing to tell the right story, in the right way, at the right time.

Back in America, where I teach creative writing, I tell my students that, on the most rudimentary level, ‘storytelling’ is the art of setting, frustrating, and occasionally meeting audience expectations. That is to say it’s a delicate process of making narrative promises, some of which are kept, others of which, if not exactly broken, are allowed to be left unresolved.

A famous Anglophone example hides this principle in plain sight: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” begins Virginia Woolf’s famous novel. The low-stakes “promise” of buying flowers gets us out the door. Once we’re on the streets of London, however, we may not mind so much whether or not the anticipated bouquet is actually purchased. A storyteller may break her narrative ‘promise’ as long as she offers other narrative rewards in return.

It’s interesting to think that this very ambiguity—the play of making narrative promises that are concrete yet open-ended—is crucial to drawing a reader in. After all, much the same could be said for politics and markets, spheres in which ‘real-world’ stories about climate change unfold. Markets make promises about how much pork bellies or carbon credits are worth today, tomorrow, one year from now. Politicians make promises about how they’ll meet present and future energy needs—as long as you vote for them, that is. As in a novel, deviating too far from these promises can cause the audience to revolt. And when trust in the validity of the narrative promises made collapses, so does the story, the market, the regime.

My students can tell you that the novelist who manages to strike the correct balance between the concrete and the open-ended succeeds in establishing narrative authority. That is, the reader ‘suspends disbelief.’ Trusting that the story she’s reading has been constructed with intention and care, she excuses unresolved questions in the short-term, certain that the author has larger, longer-term plans in store. Questions will be answered in ways she cannot yet anticipate.

There‘s something in this idea – wielding ‘authority’ in order to shape audience expectations – that sounds more than a little manipulative.

Such is the particular challenge of storytelling with integrity: How do you make open-ended narrative “promises” that don’t ring false, or that aren’t downright exploitative? Promises intriguing enough to conjure a sense of anticipation, drawing the reader into the story, yet flexible enough that those promise still can be ‘kept’– even broken – in creative and unexpected ways? If authorship is indeed a way of establishing authority, it’s a kind of authority that knows its own limits, and which seeks ultimately to expand, rather than restrict, the horizon of possibilities for the characters in the story to act: “[N]o one can ever have made a seriously artistic attempt,” the novelist Henry James wrote, “without becoming conscious of an immense increase – a kind of revelation – of freedom.”

In the real world, these lessons about setting, managing, and revising audience expectations with an eye to expanding long-term social possibilities applies most immediately to the way politicians have handled the pandemic. Last September, in Austria, headlines announced “Pandemie für Geimpfte vorbei!” on the strength of Bundeskanzler Sebastian Kurz’s promise that for those who’d followed the advice to Lassen Sie sich impfen!, coronavirus was a thing of the past. On November 15th, 2021 unvaccinated Austrians were placed under lockdown; on November 22nd, restrictions were extended to everyone, regardless of vaccination status. In a plot-twist my creative-writing students might dub a bit too “on-the-nose,” Kurz has since left his post as Bundeskanzler to take up a position with American tech billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel.

This kind of overreaching promise, while potentially highly motivating in the short-term, proved too strong to keep, putting long-term narrative trust at risk. You can see signs of the resulting breakdown everywhere in the pattern of our political debates, where attacks have become increasingly ad hominem. “The pandemic is your fault for not wearing a mask!” Or, from the other end of the political spectrum: “Our economic woes are your fault for overreacting to a virus that doesn‘t even exist!” As trust in our authorities declines, so does the attitude— insofar as there ever was such an attitude—that we are ‘all in this together.’ Collective action is replaced by individual blame, shifting the focus away from challenging the social systems that give shape (or fail to give shape) to the ‚narrative‘ of public life, and alighting instead on the behavior of your immediate neighbor. Public conversation fractures, and culpability is privatized. What is the role of the university in this state of affairs? After all, part of the Kepler Tribune‘s mission is to counter the atomization of a public sphere increasingly shaped by highly specialized science and tech. Its publisher, Kepler University, is about to establish the Institute for Transformative Change, an interdisciplinary school dedicated to the study of the complexity of current problems and its solutions in the world, climate adaptation and mitigation, and whose founding is part of the reason I‘ve been asked to think through narrating our way through climate change in these pages.

However specialized academic departments may have become, most contemporary universities—including, most obviously, my patient host institution of Humboldt Universität in Berlin—have arisen from what‘s known as the Humboldtian tradition. From this angle, the storyteller’s impulse toward summary, her very status as a generalist, is more integral to the history of the contemporary university and to environmentalism than a cursory glance at today’s debates might suggest. An enthusiast of Lernfreiheit and polymathic synthesis, now revered as the Western world’s first environmentalist, Alexander von Humboldt was so famously interdisciplinary that early in his career other scientists figured him for a dilettante, possibly even a dud. Yet it was the very unclassifiable nature of Humboldt’s interests that enabled his greatest discoveries. The Naturgemälde is famous for its brilliant simplification of a complex, dynamic natural world: here‘s an entire mountain ecosystem on a single sheet of parchment, detailing variations in plant life, gravitational pull, the blueness of the sky, and other measurements by altitude. Humboldt’s model of vertical thinking would later establish grounds for global comparative climatology.

A particularly tired cliché from my own discipline is the imperative, Be specific! So have many writing instructors advised their students, insisting that the storyteller’s authority lies in the well-chosen detail. There’s something to be said, too, for retaining the Humboldtian spirit of moving from the specific to the general, especially as it offers an antidote to the sort of individuation and privatization of both blame and virtue—a move from the general to the specific—that currently characterizes Western politics: Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the energy transition herself.

In emphasizing broader social forces, I don’t mean to ignore the importance of individual action in times of crisis. Of course better social outcomes rest on individual contributions. Of course everyone bears her own share of our collective responsibility. There’s even space for attack and vitriol. (As a novelist, I myself wouldn’t get very far, dramatically speaking, without a dash of revenge or pettiness.)

The core fiction that holds democratic societies is the social contract, which codifies compromise between individual and collective decision-making: supposedly, we’ve been sold on the promise that we’re collectively better off when we give up some private freedoms in the name of publicly guaranteed ones. Historically, the most stable way of maintaining this compromise was through broad regulation–the very creation of a state. It used to be socially acceptable not to wear masks on trains; in much of Europe today, it’s not only socially unacceptable, it is, more importantly, illegal. There’s a reason climate deniers on the American right tend to resist regulation and state intervention, especially the regulation of petrol, coal, carbon markets, and face masks—and it‘s not because the state has often brutally abused its powers in the name enforcing the law. The most obvious answer is that it’s more politically expedient for power-hungry cynics to dismiss the existence of a climate crisis or a pandemic than it is to implement politically di_ cult solutions. But a more deeply rooted reason is the dogma of individualism. At the heart of this school of thought is the belief that individuals are responsible for shaping their own fates, and that markets automatically corral individual preferences toward socially optimal outcomes. The state therefore has little role to play. It is this same church of neoliberalism that led to the deregulation of financial markets through the 80s and 90s, setting the stage for the 2008 Financial Crisis. From this view, it’s not governments who shape or plan the future, but individual actions. The market, constantly churning individual decisions into averages, gets to tell the story.

One of the more ingenious sleights of hand of our petrol-dependent, individualist culture is to establish grounds for ecological blame while pushing the root cause—the pipelines, the refineries, the oil rigs—far from the average consumer’s view. It isn’t always easy to access, personify, or even visualize the central antagonist, and so there’s a temptation turn to on one another instead—to narrate individual citizens into the role of enemy. This has always been a part of politics. Overindulgence in this internecine, ad hominem style, however, collaborates with the neoliberal philosophy that led to ecological disaster in the first place. It’s compatible with the close-minded, hyper-specialized academic arrogance that would preclude someone like Humboldt from transfiguring the Western view of ecological systems, or that did in fact preclude neoliberal economists from anticipating the housing market crash in 2008. As a worldview, it deemphasizes the kind of narrative synthesis that is necessary at the highest levels of policy. In particular, the power of policy to reduce the harm that social transformation poses to the very many who, in the short-term, stand to lose.

The fact remains that coal miners are no more individually responsible for the climate crisis than are citizens of low-lying atoll nations fighting for sovereignty against sea level rise. Lobbyists and CEOs who spread misinformation or block fossil-fuel phaseout are, as are the politicians that lie in their sphere of influence. How to get at them? These are also individuals, sure, but the unelected and disproportionate power they wield matches if not exceeds the power of the state itself. It’s a vicious cycle: the weaker the state, the stronger the ability of these unelected policymakers to protect their own interests.

And among billions of other vulnerable people, it’s workers, not CEOs, who stand to absorb the short-term costs of transitioning away from fossil fuels. A vision that fails to account for this friction, or that metes out blame to individuals who are struggling to keep their jobs and homes, leaves a narrative vacuum that can be easily exploited by cynical opportunists. By this point, Austrians and Americans know the type all too well. They are those who would ratify compromise as victimhood solely to weaponize it for what I‘ve come to see as the insidious antithesis to political narrative: the ideological brand.