The Connection Between the Environmental Crisis and World Literature

In her new book, Professor Jennifer Wenzel challenges readers to imagine the lives of characters in places like Nigeria or India.

Eve Glasberg
February 20, 2020

How do literature and other cultural forms shape how we imagine the planet, for better or worse? In The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature, Professor Jennifer Wenzel tackles such key questions by showing how written works, films, music and other types of artistic expression can help us understand global crises like climate change. Wenzel will join other scholars to discuss the book at the Heyman Center on February 24.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. I wanted to challenge three problematic assumptions: that environmentalism was a unique invention of the West, to be shared with the rest of the world; that globalization is a recent phenomenon, beginning only in the 20th century; and that European imperialism is "over," in both its material effects and its relevance for analyzing the present.

Q. What can world literature, film and other cultural forms contribute to our understanding of the environmental crisis?

A. I understand world literature as one example of a broader phenomenon of "world-imagining"—situating one's local experience within larger scales. I'm interested in texts that challenge readers to connect the dots between their situation and those of characters in places like the Niger Delta in Nigeria or Bhopal in India, to break through what I call “quarantines of the imagination.” But I also see literature as shaping our very understanding of what is "natural," or just. What counts as nature (or human)? What counts as environmental crisis? Nature becomes known to us partly through narrative and other patterns of imagining, so that literature (and cultural forms like song, film and other visual arts) can also be complicit in environmental crisis and environmental injustice, the unequal distribution of nature's benefits and burdens.

A book cover with a photo of green trees.

Q. What books would you recommend for gaining insight into global warming and climate change?

A. Swedish human ecology professor Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital convincingly traces the origins of "business as usual"—i.e., the relentless pursuit of self-sustaining economic growth (and greenhouse gas emissions)—to the shift from water to steam power in 19th-century English textile mills. The "History" and "Politics" chapters of Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement are similarly insightful, even if I disagree with his analysis of the challenge that global warming poses to the literary imagination. Taken together, Ghosh and Malm offer an important historical account of the role of capitalism and European colonialism in our current predicaments. Columbia Law School professor Jedidah Purdy's After Nature is an indispensable guide for thinking (and acting) on climate change as a citizen of the United States.

Q. What books are currently on your night table? 

A. Traveller to the East, a translation of a novel by the southern African writer Thomas Mofolo, written in the Sesotho language and published in 1906; it's often identified as the first novel written by an African author. Also, Cara Daggett's The Birth of Energy, about thermodynamics as a scientific breakthrough linked to broader economic and geopolitical forces in the 19th century, with implications for how we think about humans, nature and work.

Q. What’s the last great book you read?

A. Probably Malm's Fossil Capital, a thick scholarly book that reads like a 19th-century novel. As for an actual novel: Richard Powers' The Overstory, which will change the way you look at trees.

Q. Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

A. Comfortable chair, daylight, reasonable quiet, reading anything without a looming deadline attached to it. Probably a pencil in hand, though. I don't have a cat right now, but a cat sleeping in my lap would complete the scene.

Q. Are you an e-reader or a reader of actual books?

A. I'm definitely attached to actual books: the feel, the smell, the multicolored layers of inscription in a re-read book, facing pages as a mnemonic (I can visualize where on the page an important passage is). However, I've turned to reviewing other scholars' manuscripts on my iPad, and I read a lot of journal article PDFs electronically. (For teaching, however, I'm lost without printouts.) I have boxes upon boxes of photocopies from my first book, compared to about a foot-tall stack for this book. My new book project lives almost entirely on my computer.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. In the short term, I'm working on an essay about Chaka, the third novel by Mofolo, which fascinates me because of its depiction of a ruined landscape devoid of humans and its interest in what it means to be human. Although more than a century old, Mofolo's novel offers timely insights about the politics of environmental devastation and the planetary changes we now understand through an Anthropocene lens. In the long term, I'm working on a new book called The Fossil-Fueled Imagination: How (and Why) to Read for Energy, which considers the role of the imagination and our embodied attachments to the worlds that oil has made, with a view toward more just futures after oil.

Q. You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three scholars or academics, dead or alive, do you invite?

A. This question is incredibly difficult, both because of its open-endedness and because I'm a nervous (therefore, infrequent) host! So, here goes, my utterly selfish, fantasy guest list: Barbara Harlow, my dissertation advisor and iconoclastic scholar of Third World literature at the University of Texas, Austin; Patricia Yaeger, pioneering feminist literary critic who helped launch the energy humanities; and Fernando Coronil, a Venezuelan anthropologist with incomparable insights about oil, nature and imperialism. Each of them left an indelible mark on my thinking. The only thing better than the chance to talk with each of them, one more time, would be to bring them all together.