The Importance of Being Earnest: Using Literature to Combat Climate Change NOW
When I think of why literature is so important I think about the fact that literature has the ability to impact us mentally, behaviorally, and spiritually. Any time I am asked to give an example of a truly transformative work of fiction I cite Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. This novel so greatly impacted my fundamental belief system that I began a journey of self-reflection and personal responsibility. I believe that this ability for literature to promote deep learning can and should be applied to our young adults in school today to combat climate change and deal with the effects thereof. Our children are the ones who will have to deal with climate change and the loss of natural resources as global populations skyrocket, and changing minds early is crucial in the development of new behaviour patterns.
The story of Ishmael is one with a strange premise but if you can overcome any discomfort at the delivery, the lessons gleaned are immeasurable. Ishmael himself is a gorilla who has gained the ability to communicate with humans telepathically, and seeks a pupil or disciple to teach how to “save the world”. Greatly condensed, his message is that humankind was the first species to go against the natural law of the world: to take only what you need and leave the rest. Instead, humans have enslaved the earth and all other species for their sole benefit, therefore he labels most of us “takers” and those in hunter/gatherer societies as well as all other animals as “leavers”. Ishmael’s arguments related to why humans have created this “taker” society is the backbone of his philosophy.
Central to his argument is the idea that human ego is a result of religion, because we have been told for countless generations that not only Earth but in fact the entire universe was made by God for mankind. His opinion is that such religious belief has led to the attitude that “If the world was made for us, then it BELONGS to us and we can do what we damn well please with it.” (Quinn) It is this one concept which has stayed with me since I read it, and flipped my ego on its head. Not only had the extent and dysfunction of human selfishness never occurred to me, but the inevitable problems that would result hadn't either.
High among that list is climate change and over population. An example of how Ishmael presents a new way of thinking on over population is:
At present there are five and a half billion of you here, and, though millions of you are starving, you’re producing enough food to feed six billion. And because you’re producing enough food for six billion, it’s a biological certainty that in three or four years there will be six billion of you. By that time, however (even though millions of you will still be starving), you’ll be producing enough food for six and a half billion—which means that in another three or four years there will be six and a half billion. But by that time you’ll be producing enough food for seven billion (even though millions of you will still be starving), which again means that in another three or four years there will be seven billion of you. In order to halt this process, you must face the fact that increasing food production doesn’t feed your hungry, it only fuels your population explosion.
This shows Ishmael looking at a problem on a global scale, in terms anyone can understand, and from a direction which many people would not think to look at it. Feeding those who are starving seems like the logical and humane thing to do but is producing more food the way to do it? I believe this ability to demonstrate a new way of viewing a problem is integral to deep learning and to affecting change.
I have internalized these ideas and many more from Quinn's novel in part because of the concept of deep learning. Deep learning happens when an idea surpasses our superficial memory and is connected to neurons in the brain associated with core values and beliefs, or with our more primitive emotions. For example you might learn quite a bit about a friend who acted in violation of your core values, you would certainly remember said action, and you yourself would act accordingly in your dealings with that person in the future. Or in the case of primitive emotion, any fear inducing trauma often stays with a person and shapes behaviour for life from nearly drowning to a bug flying into your face.
Quinn’s novel focuses so much on Christianity and other religions because they and the associated texts have shaped humanity more than anything else. More people have died, more wars have been waged, more history effected by religion than from any other cause in human history. And indeed the Bible addresses population and tells us that God created this world for us when he says "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:27) The internalization of this message led to a prevailing zeitgeist through the ages that resources are infinite. Understanding this belief is essential in understanding what makes something an ideal candidate for deep learning. The first is that it is a belief and not a statement of fact, which creates emotional connections, and emotions always evoke more reaction and remembrance than quantitative thought. But equaly important are the facts behind the belief being empirical and capable of swaying a mind logically as well.
In order to encourage our students to learn deeply or internalize the facts about climate change, it is necessary that we also engage their minds with belief, and in a form they find most pleasing. It is not enough that we provide data, though there is plenty of scholarly literature on the topic. It is obvious that when it comes to climate change there is a deeply held belief on the part of naysayers that mankind is not accelerating it, despite the majority of scientists agreeing that we are. This is because of both the religious narrative we have accepted for millennia, and human nature being inherently indulgent and full of procrastination. Entertainment may be the best way then to impact the largest amount of young people in a way which can convince them to change behavior that prioritises convenience over sustainability.
I hope to expand my research further into the concept of deep learning, honestly the sources I found were so confusing to me because they were clearly written by people much smarter than myself but also many of them dealt with machines and technology so I would like to elaborate with more facts and detail in the deep learning paragraph as I can find sources that relate to the mind exclusively. Also want some data on which genres are most popular among young adults and would still like to find a good example of a novel which fits all my ideal criteria. Possibly parable? Quotes from Ishmael that might be relevant are also attached below works cited.
Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael: and Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bantam, 1995.
THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW STANDARD VERSION. Bible. Oxf. U.P.