The Australian environment has long been treated as an enigma by a large portion of the non-Indigenous public. For many Australians residing in cities and suburbs, the natural world exists as an entity entirely separate to the goings-on of the everyday. Rural, sweeping pastures and the ‘barren’ outback are often what come to mind for those who do not or are unable to make a conscious effort to engage with nature. A short but destructive history of mining, agriculture, logging and reef-bleaching has left little of our unique biodiversity intact, and current political trends demonstrate a disinclination to ecologically minded policy.
Our knowledge of the natural world gained through science is immense, and continues to expand. But the primary problem appears to be not a lack of knowledge, but rather of apparent relevance and empathy. More and more people are turning to a collaboration between the arts and sciences to understand the Australian population’s indifference to nature. So can fiction play a role in enhancing our connection to local species and habitats? The expansion and appreciation of less anthropocentric and more ecocentric literary works may well be a silver bullet.
Ecocentric writing and ecophilosophical thought has a more established history in Australia than many would believe. One of the most well-known figures of the field is Val Plumwood, a Sydney local who, in the 1980s and 90s, wrote comprehensively on issues of Australian forestry, the human role in the food web, and the importance of feminist teachings in our perception of ecology. Especially renowned for her work in advancing understandings of the ‘more-than-human world’, notably in her paper ‘The struggle for environmental philosophy in Australia’, Plumwood is largely responsible for developing a less human-centric form of Australian ecophilosophy. The aim of much of her writing was to move humankind towards a diverse perspective of nature through considerations of the places and non-human life that it consists of. Through this, she believed, humans would treat the land as less of a commodity and more of a shared home in which both humans and non-humans could thrive.
Plumwood’s second husband Richard Sylvan was also an outspoken member of the ‘ecosophy’ crowd, while several other Australian academics are known for work in related fields, such as Freya Mathews, Robyn Eckersley and Kate Rigby. Nevertheless, Australia’s ecophilosophy background pales in comparison to that of the US, which has seen a dramatic rise in the number of authors, scholars and institutions engaging with theories of ecology through the humanities. Australia needs to provoke a more public and accessible discussion of the modern environmental crisis, and eco-fiction presents a powerful means of doing so. It is not too late for Australians to embrace ecophilosophy, especially in regard to our own specific environmental concerns. But how can such concerns be translated into fiction?
Recently, singer-songwriter Missy Higgins commented on the impact that apocalyptic climate fiction has had on her own life, referencing in particular James Bradley’s Clade: a world-shaking, cross-generational work of climate fiction that brings to the fore issues of a truly Australian approach to climate change. Characters find themselves splitting from family, escaping to the bush, leaving the country – unsettling reflections of the ways in which our politicians and a proportion of our public choose to treat this horrifying, imminent disaster through escapism and denial. It is also a frighteningly real and heartfelt depiction of the human condition during a period of immense environmental change (something that is not very far away).
Dystopian fiction in particular has arguably played a large role in the development of eco-fiction in the US, but its role within Australian literature is perhaps less obvious. The Australian film industry is not without its dystopian thrillers: Mad Max being the obvious classic, while more recent releases such as These Final Hours and The Rover suggest a slight, although not overpowering revival of Australian dystopias. However, such films often remove us from the context of where most Australians live – in the cities and suburbs. We need works that address how environmental catastrophe affects these places.
The suddenness of ecological crisis is also inaccurate. Realistically, most are faced with drawn-out disaster, which is perhaps what makes it so difficult for people to relate to. Humans are so often inclined to think in the short term. We find it difficult to see the issues that are staring us in the face – climate change, mass species extinction, overexploitation of resources – because our bodies and minds have evolved to prioritise the here and now. How can writers get people to act or, at least, think? Bradley’s Clade achieves this through a depiction of the slow but steady destruction of homes and habitats as a result of climate change – it may not always be explosive, but it is happening.
Another Australian author, Charlotte Wood, does not shy away from ecological themes in her critically acclaimed text The Natural Way of Things. A novel that provokes anger, unease and repulsion, among other mixed emotions, this work of what some would call horror (although not of the supernatural kind) is based strongly in ecophilosophical thought. Her characters become increasingly less human, more animalistic, and more connected to the landscape, Yolanda in particular becoming ‘fully animal’ by the end of the novel. It is through these transitions that we learn of their pain and, in some ways, understand who they really are and what they feel. Evocative of Plumwood’s ecofeminist teachings, Wood looks at the similarities between the treatment of non-human animals and the subjugation of women.
Reminiscent of All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, another award-winning Australian novel, Wood’s depiction of the human as animal is not new, but it is a theme that appears to be emerging more and more within our nation’s literary circles. Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals explores similar themes, although not focused specifically on Australian landscapes and animals.
So the authors and the works exist – they are there and they are winning awards – but Australia requires more of such writing to bring ecological issues into the arts and, subsequently, the minds of the public. Although the examples above also explore the human experience, they demonstrate the overarching, indivisible connections between us and nature – a far cry from what many Australians may currently feel in reality.
The oft-quoted studies of researchers Kidd and Castano reveal that reading literary fiction over genre fiction can increase one’s ability to empathise with the thoughts and feelings of others. Could this also work in encouraging empathy towards non-human creatures or nature as a whole? Additionally, it is clear that the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ is important – we need broader, literary eco-fiction in Australia, and not necessarily works written to fit neatly into the genre of, say, science fiction. Bradley and Wood’s novels provide examples of ways in which ecological themes can be introduced in this literary context.
American academic Ursula K Heise has recently written on the cultural meaning of extinct and endangered species in her book Imagining Extinction. It’s a significant work that recognises the importance of disappearing biodiversity in a world that every day is more dominated by the human. Australia needs authors to recognise the cultural importance of non-human beings in their fictional work so that we can potentially decrease the likelihood that we will lose them.
It is time for our writing and art to focus on the non-human: the increasingly vulnerable, apparently insignificant lives and habitats that make Australia’s natural heritage so special and sublime. Perhaps if more people are reading about the experiences of both the human and non-human, we can approach Australia’s native species and habitats with the empathy and understanding that they deserve.
Image: ‘Washed over’ / flickr