Volume 7: Culture and Climate Change (2006)

In a recent edition of The Monthly, one of the country’s savvier magazines of Australian politics, society and culture, Robert Manne chose the topic of climate change for the regular ‘Comment’ column.[1] His focus was Australia’s dismal record amongst the international community in addressing this environmental disaster. He pointed out the political alliances that drive our nation’s position, and, coming out of the warmest year ever to be recorded in Australia, scathingly labelled the Bush-Howard stance on climate change as ‘an anti-Kyoto Axis, a kind of Coalition of the Unwilling, which is placing the very future of the Earth at risk’ (15). While Manne’s point of view is always worth a read, what is particularly noteworthy about his column is that, in the context of this publication, and from the pen of a public intellectual associated so strongly with humanistic journalism, politics and the contemporary culture, climate change is the focus.

Altitude 7 explores the relationship between culture and climate change at a time when the humanities, and those who study them, are commonly criticised for work that is abstracted from the ‘real world’. Environmental debate, as one significant ‘real world’ field of concern, is more often than not considered the purview of scientists and social scientists. Yet, as Manne’s small intervention indicates, there are voices beyond these disciplinary fields that are vital to the debate and that are active within it. Culture is not just a source of environmental ills that science can remedy: it provides a framework for their understanding, and carries the seeds of effective responses. As ecocritical theorist Greg Garrard states, environmental problems are an inevitable melange of ‘ecological knowledge and its cultural inflection’, and thus require analysis in cultural, as well as scientific, terms.[2] As a cultural issue, climate change informs cultural practices, products, networks and values, while culture itself operates as mechanism for climate change to be represented, debated and contested.

The last few years have seen an increased world-wide engagement of cultural producers and critics with climate change issues. The novelists Ian McEwan and Michael Crichton have both participated in public debates on these issues, from very different perspectives. Nonfiction writers such as Bill McKibben are writing on the topic for popular media, and online magazines such as Grist frequently dedicate space to discussion and news of climate issues. A UN-supported global photojournalism project on the impact of climate change is currently touring the world, while in our own country, the most recent edition of the journal of political and cultural writing, the Griffith Review, joins Altitude in turning its attention to our climate future, and its currency in the present. In a different register, Time magazine has come out in support of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s statements that the science debate is over, and, at a different end of the political spectrum, environmental campaigners have also cottoned on to the value of celebrity-based activism. It is clear that climate change has broken into mainstream cultural texts and media: what can be said about these, and other, recent interventions?

This collection offers a taste of the contributions that cultural analysis can make to our understanding of climate change causes, vulnerabilities, adaptions and solutions. What might climate change do to the cultures we live in, study and care for? How can the media and communications strategies promote cultural answers to climate change? And, in the mix of culture and climate change, now and in the past, where can we find cultural studies? The following pieces, in a range of critical modes, highlight the significance of cultural research for environmental questions, as well as, in the case of our interview with Clive Hamilton and Richard Eckersley, interrogating its limits. Tim Sherratt reveals the environmental damage embedded in Australian cultural history, and Jay Arthur’s reflection on her experiences of environmental communication, as exhibition curator, raises some central issues concerning the cultural contingency of our responses to the environment. Her insights extend beyond the limits of her exhibition to demonstrate the importance of keeping environmental problems, and our attentions to them, interconnected rather than compartmentalised. In our book reviews, Kate Rigby discusses Greg Garrard�s Ecocriticism, Paul Starr reviews Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, while Moya Costello takes a look at Sherratt, Griffith and Robin�s A Change in the Weather. A select annotated bibliography by Candice Oster and Paul Starr provides a useful insight into the offerings and, once again, the limitations, of writing [ scholarly and otherwise ] that address the overlaps and interplays between culture and climate change.

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