Climate Change Textual Interventions

One of the most interesting books about teaching literature is Rob Pope’s (1994) Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies. Pope describes a strategy of textual intervention where students creatively “intervene” in class texts they are reading to make changes, changes that often end up illuminating aspects of the texts or society. Students might “intervene” by writing letters between characters, writing from the perspective of marginal characters, adding a missing scene, changing the gender of a character, changing the location or time period -- and then discussing and writing about how their “intervention” helps them see the original text or the society it portrays differently. This kind of intervention is all the easier in the age of digital texts as classic works found in on-line literary archives can easily be cut and pasted into student word processing programs (Rozema & Webb, 2008). Of course, texts do not need to be digitized for students to come up with creative interventions.

We believe textual intervention is a powerful tool to allow teachers to bring the cli-fi imagination and climate change inquiry to all kinds of texts already in the curriculum. After learning about climate change from research, short essays, or documentaries, students can then intervene in traditional works. Intervention can take the form of actually rewriting or adding to an existing text, or writing ideas about how that text might be changed. Students can work individually or in groups, to come up with ideas and to discuss and debate different interventions.

Students can take commonly taught texts and intervene in them by setting them into the future, a future where climate change is evident. Or they could anachronistically bring climate change to the past to explore characters’ thoughts, reactions, and strategies.

Climate change fiction sometimes involves climate change events happening while characters, at least at first, are not taking adequate action to avert them. Students could intervene in works by inserting various climate change events and explore characters’ thoughts as they react, or fail to react. As Huck and Jim move down the river they come upon Pap’s house floating along, broken loose by a flood. Students could intervene by imagining and writing up increasing evidence of floods and climate change, and characters like The Duke and the King, Tom Sawyer, Aunt Sally, the Widow Douglass, or the even Pap could be explored/contrasted for their reactions. Holden Caulfield could learn about climate change and be frustrated with other characters in his world that hold what he considers superficial attitudes about it, perhaps until finally he and Phoebe decide to take some action. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston, 1998) might trace a series of increasingly dramatic and realistic (to our present) climate change events impacting Janie’s life in Central and Southern Florida, including her stay in the Everglades.

Climate change fiction often looks at the events of climate change and how they impact different people or groups. Students reading Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, 1993) can focus on how climate change might impact farm workers like George and Lenny. Climate change events could start happening in Animal Farm (Orwell, 2013) with different consequences for different animals (some are more equal than others). Who knows, maybe the pigs would insist on their privileges at any cost or maybe they could join together with other farm animals to demand changes in the agricultural system that would address causes of climate change. The Outsiders might be set in a distant future climate dystopia where the greasers and the soc’s are competing over depleted resources.

Cli-fi can also look at how groups of characters band together to do something about climate change. Students could intervene in texts to explore characters acting in this way. The younger generation in Romeo and Juliet might come together to try to alert the adults about pending ecological disaster. Macbeth’s crime could be failing to address climate change and Banquo, Macduff and other thanes might unite to force action. Students reading To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1988) could write or imagine future chapters where Atticus, with the help of Scout, Jem and Dill anxious about their future, takes on environmental legal cases or advocates for laws to address climate change against powerful people with entrenched ideas. Or students reading Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 2012) could introduce climate change events and perhaps have Montag, Clarisse, and/or Granger attempt to educate and organize other characters like Mildred and Captain Beatty about dangers and harms of climate change by creatively using some of the new technologies or form a renegade group determined to draw their society’s attention to it.

From Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents forthcoming from Routledge & NCTE Press.