Author Martin Puchner talks about the impact of narratives and literature on human behavior toward climate change.
Sanjeev Sanyal (from left), Martin Puchner and C. Raja Mohan at a Jaipur Literature Festival session in February 2023.
Martin Puchner, a professor of drama and of English and comparative literature at Harvard University, believes storytelling deeply affects how we react to world events—like climate change. In his latest books, “Literature for a Changing Planet” and “Culture: The Story of Us,” Puchner investigates how daily narratives shape the way we look at climate change, and how creating the right narratives are essential to pushing humanity forward.
Puchner is a prize-winning author whose books range from philosophy to the arts. His “Norton Anthology of World Literature” remains one of the most trusted compilations on the subject.
SPAN spoke to him on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, where he was a speaker at “The Oceans: The Victims and the Saviors,” a session presented by the U.S. Embassy New Delhi.
Excerpts from the interview.
Storytelling and climate change is your area of expertise. What piqued your interest in these themes?
For me, it was two interests coming together. For the past decade, I had been working on the impact of storytelling on history in my book, “The Written World.” This extremely wide-ranging project included texts that had a measurable impact. At the same time, I have been very concerned about climate change. At some point, I realized that these two interests were related, that there was a connection between the stories we tell about nature and the path we took toward human-made climate change. So, I tried to think through this connection in my book, “Literature for a Changing Planet.”
To what extent do stories have the power to impact human behavior and action in terms of climate change?
There can be no doubt that stories have an impact on human behavior. I don’t mean that everything you read leads to immediate changes in thinking or behavior. I focus on what I call the foundational stories of entire civilizations, that get retold over generations. We may not always realize that some of these foundational stories have implications for climate change. Forty years ago, few people would have thought about the Epic of Gilgamesh or of the Bible in those terms. But now, we’re waking up to the inadvertent effects of these stories on human attitudes toward nature.
While most of us see oceans as victims of climate change, in what ways do you think oceans could help mitigate the impact?
My storytelling approach analyzes the types of stories we tell about nature. When it comes to climate change, we revert to certain figures or roles: villains and victims. Sometimes, identifying villains and victims can be useful, but I have come to feel that we rely too much on them. This is why I liked the session [at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023] and the way it was formulated. It called attention to how quickly we assign roles of victim or savior even to something as vast and complex as the ocean. For me, the key takeaway was that we need to be more careful about how we talk about the ocean. These roles press the ocean into a certain role in a certain type of story, and that story is likely to be too limited and misleading. We need to find a new role for the ocean, one based on actual ocean science.
What role could the United States and India play in safeguarding our oceans and ensuring a sustainable blue economy?
There are lots of things to do that go way beyond my expertise, from marine biology to economics. Both the United States and India are countries with extremely extensive coastlines. And yet, their political mythologies have focused on land: the “heart” of each country is not in port cities such as New York City or Mumbai, but in-land: the heartland. So, what’s required for both countries, I think, is a cultural shift to the ocean. I think both the United States and India can support each other in making that shift.
Any suggestions for aspiring writers on how they can better address issues like climate change?
For me, the main goal is to get away from the old stories of domination, resource extraction and apocalyptic retribution. But that’s easier said than done precisely because those stories have dominated for so long. This is why we need writers very badly right now, people working in fiction, non-fiction, in all art forms and media. I think we need everything from local stories to large-scale stories looking at entire civilizations; we need more comedies than tragedies; we need stories of small changes that made a difference and stories of big culture shifts that actually worked out.
When it comes to climate change, we have the science; we have many engineering solutions. What we now need is a cultural shift. I think that’s the hardest of the three, and yet we’re not tackling it with enough determination, but I feel things are changing bit by bit.
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