Climate change: How Scottish literature can help understand the biggest existential crisis ever to face humankind

Can literature and the arts help us understand and tackle the biggest existential crisis ever to face mankind?

It sounds like a tall order, but a new show being staged in Edinburgh this week will discuss how Scottish books, poetry and other writings can play an important role in the battle against climate change, by helping people explore in a creative way the origins of the crisis, its impacts and what the future could hold.

The show, Big Ideas, is the sixth and final performance in the Figures of Speech series of events, which brings together writers and artists to take audiences on “a road trip through Scottish literature”. Previous themes have been Music, Friendship, Future, Love and Place, with each presentation exploring a mixture of literary blockbusters, hidden gems and modern classics.

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Big Ideas centres around a conversation between author and academic David Farrier, professor of literature and the environment at the University of Edinburgh, and Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, a Swedish-Colombian writer and climate justice activist whose debut novel was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

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It will also feature a special performance by writer and psychiatrist Zebib K Abraham, entitled Alien Landing, which will combine storytelling, short film and audio narration to explore the idea of identity in the fantastical tale of an extra-terrestrial visitor to Scotland.

Johannesson said: “When David and I were invited to host the final event of the series, we agreed that it would make most sense to centre it around the climate crisis, in part because both our work largely revolves around it, but mainly because the climate crisis is the result of so many of the 'big ideas' that have shaped western capitalist society – from colonialism and empire to individualism.

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“To me it also feels important to unpack the very idea of climate collapse as a big idea – a huge, ungraspable thing, impossible to get your head around, as it is so often presented. It's only ungraspable for those who haven't felt it yet. It's not theory, but felt reality, not a story set in the future, but in the present and in our histories.”

Literature is such a useful space in which to reflect on these ideas, according to Farrier. “It’s not a place where we necessarily need to look for solutions, that’s not what it’s about,” he said.

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Award-winning author and academic David Farrier, professor of literature and the environment at the University of Edinburgh, will be discussing Scottish works which help understanding of the climate crisis as co-host of the Figures of Speech: Big Ideas event. Picture: Anneleen Lindsay

“But I feel that the climate crisis is, amongst many other things, a challenge to our imaginations.

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“Our whole relationship with the planet and the natural world is being massively changed and distorted and literature can help us to reckon with that imaginative challenge – how we see ourselves in the midst of this, and knowing we have a kind of planetary influence now in a way that no other species has had.

“All of the material traces of how we live our lives now – in our plastic, our cities, our carbon in the atmosphere. These are stories that we’re telling to future generations. Far in the future, when they are only really archaeological remains, they will still tell stories about us, and we have a say in what we want that story to be.”

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Figures of Speech: Big Ideas is on Wednesday, 7.30pm,at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High Street, Edinburgh

Swedish/Colombian writer and climate justice activist Jessica Gaitán Johannesson is co-host of Figures of Speech: Big Ideas

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