In this series, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, chats to members of our community to find out more about them. Each fortnight she’ll be asking, what is the one regret that has shaped their past, and what is their one hope for the future.
This week Mona’s guest is David Farrier, Professor of Literature and the Environment in the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures.
Mona Siddiqui: David, first of all, can you start by telling us a little bit about your area of research?
David Farrier: I teach English and my main areas of research are both to do with the current challenges we are facing in the environment but from a literary perspective, if such a thing doesn’t sound too implausible. As a literary critic, I am very interested in how particularly poets but writers in general are responding to the climate crises, the many challenges that we are facing, the fact that the world is changing so radically and rapidly and how they manage, adapt literary forms and genres to, I guess, represent those changes and represent what it means for us.
MS: Do you think, on that point, that the arts and the humanities and literature specifically has not been as present in the challenges that we face with climate change and global warming as we tend to think of it as a science issue?
DF: I certainly think the humanities and the arts have roles to play. We aren’t lacking in facts or knowledge about what’s going on. It is wholly unambiguous that the climate is changing and that the reasons for that are to do with human activities and industries and that level of understanding is incredibly detailed. Perhaps what we have a need for is stories, of ways to think about this and ways to draw that knowledge, that understanding, into everyday life. I think that’s what the arts can do.
MS: Do you think that’s the richness of the contribution that literature can make? Through storytelling it can bring or shed light on a different aspect of the crisis?
DF: It can absolutely do that. It can change our perspective but I think what it can also do is it can be a place in which we can imagine otherwise as well. We aren’t limited in the arts to representing what is, we can also represent what could be, what is possible. It’s imagination. We are working with the materials and the products of the imagination.
MS: Do you see environmental humanities as a growing discipline?
DF: It is, very much so. As an interdisciplinary field it really isn’t very old. If you went back 10 years you would struggle to find many people who had heard of it but it draws on a wide range of disciplines from theology, philosophy, literary studies, anthropology and beyond. Increasingly, I think not just academics but students and the general public, readers and interested parties, recognise that there is great value to be had in this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking, this unbounded thinking, which is very much what the environmental humanities represents. It’s very much thinking across disciplinary boundaries rather than within them.
MS: If I was to ask you David, in your recent or distant past, what’s the one regret you have?
DF: I can’t get past, first of all, the regret that the world that generations younger than mine will inherit is not the world that I would want them to receive. That’s in terms of climate, it’s in terms of housing, job prospects and debt, opportunity and the increasing stratification of societies and ramping up of inequality and so on. We have an obligation to be good ancestors and that is partly the objective of another strand of my research, where I write more for popular audiences and try to find ways of telling stories about current crises and the world to come, as I do in my book Footprints. That helps people to think about what it means to be custodians of the planet and how to pass it on in a mindful manner and I don’t think we have been doing that and I think that’s a regret. It’s not so much a personal regret, it’s one that many people share, but it’s the one that I couldn’t stop thinking about today when I was reflecting on that question.
MS: And going forward, I suppose it might be linked, what’s the one hope that you carry forward?
DF: My hope is that we begin to take the climate crisis seriously and that involves acts of noticing and observation at all kinds of levels – very immediate noticing of the world around us, the environments we live in, but also on a larger scale noticing that how I live my life is connected not just to how somebody thousands of miles away lives their life or the kind of life that they can live but somebody who has yet to be born as well. My hope is that we realise through these acts of attention the greater extent and depth of our connectedness to other people.
Photography: Annie Farrier