Leading an interdisciplinary career equips you with multiple lenses by which to view the world and the issues we’re facing. In this Q&A with Matthew Schneider-Mayerson of Yale-NUS College, find out how literature, science fiction, and activism can transform the uncertainties of this dangerous era.
Dr. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson received his Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Minnesota before spending two years as the Cultures of Energy Postdoctoral Fellow at Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Humanities. His first book, "Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture" (University of Chicago Press, 2015), explores the American ‘peak oil’ movement in the context of contemporary responses to environmental crises (such as climate change), fossil fuel dependency and the spread of neoliberal ideals throughout American political culture. He is currently engaged in research projects on climate change fiction; the role of art and literature in the ongoing energy transition; and novel forms of happiness for the age we live in: the Anthropocene, where human activity is now driving planetary processes.
Alaine Johnson: Your journey in higher education began when you were recruited to play soccer at Yale, and now you’re Singapore as an environmental studies professor, Ph.D. in American Studies. Can you tell me a bit about what influenced this journey, and what choices were made to bring you here?
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: All the bad choices, all the places where it went wrong? (Laughs) I’ve been heavily involved in social justice movements since I was in college, starting with anti-sweatshop organizing, and then union organizing, and then globalization movements. I went to grad school in American studies, which is a pretty leftist and politically-engaged field, combining history and politics especially around race, class gender, and sexuality. I read Elizabeth’s Kolbert’s "Field Notes From a Catastrophe" – she’s a writer for The New Yorker – and then I read Tim Flannery’s "The Weathermakers," and I just felt like this was an issue I had to be involved in. All the things I cared about were going to be potentially swept away by climate change. I somehow needed to turn my academic and activist and life interests in that direction, if possible. It was a bit tricky because American studies at that point, and still today, was really not that engaged in environmental issues, especially compared to fields like literature and to some extent history. So I don’t know if my advisors really knew what the hell I was doing! They didn’t quite understand why I was focusing on these weirdos who thought the world was ending because we were running out of oil – the peak oil subculture – or what “anthropogenic” meant. At that point I was working in the field of energy humanities, which is now an emerging field, that didn’t really exist. So it was sort of charting new territory. There’s freedom with doing interdisciplinary work. You can pick what are the most appropriate lenses for any given project.
Q: A lot of your research has fascinating intersections with the humanities, pop culture, and literature. So this buzzword: Anthropocene. Where did you first chance upon it, and what does living in the Anthropocene mean to you?
A: I’m glad that I can’t remember where I first chanced upon it – it would be quite sad if that were one of my really memorable moments in life! I echo others’ criticisms of the term; it is indeed universalizing and flattening. It doesn’t pay enough attention to the way that a very small group of humans is mostly responsible. So in that sense I like “Capitalocene” better, but I think it’s useful as serving as a formal announcement of how we’re living in a fundamentally different world. I think of it as an echo in what Bill McKibben was doing in his 2010 book, "Eaarth," to announce that we’re on a different planet. It’s also useful in making people aware of how we’re shaping the world.
Q: It seems a bit anthropocentric, or anthropogenic – with good cause of course.
A: That’s why some scholars like Donna Haraway says our goal is to make the Anthropocene as short as possible, to the Ecocene or Phronocene, or whatever’s coming next. Environmentalism and environmental scholars need to pay attention to things like branding. So the Anthropocene could be misused, it could be like hey this is our age, so let’s party. But it can also be useful. For terminology there’s the academic critique, the linguistic critique, but what makes most sense is what you can get most out of it.
Q: I know you did a project before about climate fiction. Maybe you could explain briefly about the project and whether you think this literature is useful for envisioning or if it’s mostly just apocalyptic?
A: Environmental literature is a growing area. I’ve written that I think in the near future, all fiction will be climate fiction; if it doesn’t acknowledge climate change, it’s fantasy, essentially. Over the last 25 years, eco-criticism, the study of environmental literature, has become one of the main areas of environmental humanities. People have highlighted climate fiction as one of the ways that the humanities can contribute to responding to climate change. But there has been no methodologically rigorous attention to reception. People have interesting and brilliant analyses of literature and climate fiction: what happens on page 264, what different narrative techniques do – but nobody is really looking at what happens when actual people pick up the book. When it comes to environmental literature in 2017, given the problems that we’re facing and the future that we’re facing, I’m most interested in the cultural and political work that it does. I conducted one survey on Americans who are reading climate fiction, asking them what they make of that reading experience, what actions they’re taking, what kind of emotions they’re feeling in response to the narratives. And I’m doing a quantitative study measuring people’s environmental beliefs, and then having them read a short story and then measuring them again. The idea is to really figure out, what are these narratives doing? Are they helping or are they hurting? How? If you look at these authors like Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote "Flight Behavior," or Nathaniel Rich, who wrote "Odds Against Tomorrow," or Ian McEwan, who wrote "Solar" – in most of their interviews, these authors have an admirable desire to contribute in some way, to help people envision the future by dramatizing the dangers, the worst possibilities. But sometimes it can backfire. If you’re painting a really dystopian picture, maybe that just leads people to wanting to ignore or avoid climate change, because it’s always bringing up these really terrible, anxious emotions.
Q: What did you mostly find from these surveys?
A: I’ll mention two things. Conservatives don’t read these books. There were only a handful of conservatives and, of those conservatives, only one or two seemed to even take the book seriously. A couple of people said, “It was entertaining, but God said he would never flood the earth, so I’m not worried about it.” Which isn’t terribly surprising, because if you look at the jacket covers or Amazon descriptions of these books, it’s pretty clear that they’re about climate change. So if you think climate change is a hoax, you’re probably not going to read the book. If authors, critics, or activists think these kinds of narratives are going to transform conservatives, it’s probably not going to happen. The other point I would mention is that most of the narratives of the climate futures that people are writing now are pretty apocalyptic, pretty dark. In a book chapter I have coming out soon, I describe them as devastated, depopulated, and denatured worlds. They’re quite dark, and the idea is that they’re going to serve as cautionary tales. But I think it’s worth authors and literary critics looking at the scholarship in environmental communication and environmental psychology. We need a lot more stories of struggle and resilience.
Q: My next question is about teaching climate change. I remember in your course, Energy Humanities, I was moved to think, everything that I care about is affected by this. And every time I would leave class I would feel like my future was a bit darker.
A: You’re welcome.
Q: Yeah, tough semester! It was in that class that I first heard the term climate depression, which is a real thing climate scientists undergo. So what do you think about happiness in the anthropocene? Can you explain a bit about the research project you’re doing now?
A: I’m trying to do some research on what happiness should mean in the time of climate change. Happiness on one hand seems to be the most obvious, natural thing – we feel it in our bodies. We know when we’re happy. But it’s also socially and culturally constructed. Every culture has a slightly different version of happiness, and that’s true across cultures today but also looking back historically. So if happiness is the ultimate goal for most people in life, it should take us somewhere we want to go. My supposition is that the current version of Western happiness, American happiness specifically, is not helping us. It’s comparatively individualistic, materialistic, and hedonistic. It’s obviously not solely responsible for the environmental ills we’re facing, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s contributing to them. So I’m trying to look at what would be a better version of happiness.
Q: Are there any examples you think we can follow?
A: People have pointed to Buddhism as a belief system that seems particularly appropriate to the present moment, in its emphasis on ridding oneself of attachment or clinging, and its acceptance of the inevitability of suffering. That may not be a great sell for some people. There seems to be a commonality among indigenous conceptions of happiness or well-being – a lot of them place emphasis on interconnectedness and social stability, and I think that those are valuable, underrated things. It’s difficult to generalize because you have very different versions of happiness even within a given culture. You have what the happiness books are saying, and then what religious or philosophical texts are saying, and then you have what people call folk happiness, which is what people actually experience and what’s lived by people. But given that happiness is the ultimate goal of life for a lot of people, it’s how you evaluate whether you’ve lived a good life, it’s worth looking at as one potential battlefront for facing climate change and other issues.
Q: What would be your words of wisdom to fresh grads who are interested in getting involved in environmental issues and activism?
A: We’re facing a really dangerous future, and there’s no guarantee that action now will stave off bad things from happening. Those are baked into the future. We need to shift rapidly. People need to be willing to take risks. I was interviewing a 75-year-old man last night who has gotten arrested four times. After retiring, he’s spent the last four years as a climate activist. He’s now retired, relatively comfortable, he has grandkids. But he’s basically dedicated his life to climate activism. He isn’t scared of going to prison. It’s difficult to ask for that level of commitment from anybody, but we’re in that place in the movie where ‘The aliens are coming! The aliens are here!’ It doesn’t get any more dramatic than this. It’s unfortunate that it’s a slow-moving crisis. It’s not as visible as an alien attack. But there’s no question that dramatic action is necessary. There are ways to do that which are more or less effective than others, of course. There are forms of dramatic or direct action that look principled and attract supporters, and there others that could potentially lose support. And no matter what you do, joy and community sustain. The people that I’ve interviewed find a lot of joy in what they do, they feel like they’re in the right place at the right time, and that there isn’t better place for them to be at this moment. There’s a lot of social and cultural pressures that push you away from thinking that way, and that’s why joy and community are so important. Without community, if you’re just acting alone, you’re never going to see it through.
Q: Lastly, what’s the most interesting thing/person/initiative that has stood out to you in this field, and how would you like to see the planet move forward?
A: I love what the folks at Liberate Tate are doing in the U.K., fighting to get museums to divest from fossil fuels. Chipping away at the social license to operate that a lot of fossil fuel companies and other damaging companies have is really important. There are ways to do that which is not just like targeting corporate headquarters. I love the creativity they display. It’s inspirational, it’s culturally specific, so it’s not necessarily something you can imitate, but it’s a model for action so I’m pretty inspired by them. How should the planet move forward… I don’t know – on its axis? Not too close to the sun? The planet is such an interesting concept. In some ways it’s part of the problem, thinking of things in terms of the planetary, because it distances us from the little bit of it that we live on and can legitimately influence. In some ways it’s an annoying academic critique to say the planet will be fine, it’s humans and other animals that are vulnerable. But I think it’s important because ultimately what we’re concerned about is the habitability of the planet for us, and species like us that have been living for the past couple hundred millions of years on a fairly stable weather system. So it’s important to make that point; if you actually care about conserving the status quo, then you should get involved. What would it actually mean if the planet went forward? There’s a wonderful short story by Liu Cixin, “The Wandering Earth,” in which I think the sun is expanding. A global Unity Government installs boosters on one side of Earth, turns the planet into a spaceship, and sends it out of its orbit into a different solar system. The journey takes thousands of years. So that’s really the planet moving forward! Maybe that’s where we’re headed – damn the Milky Way, onto Alpha Centauri.
What Dr. Schneider-Mayerson talks about here rings true for anyone studying in the environmental realm; this is the era of the Anthropocene that we are now driving, and we must understand how to best stay joyful, active, and empowered to move the planet forward and away from the forecasts of apocalyptic speculative fiction.