Okay, so I’ve been playing with this whole Frankenstein and climate change thing, right? Well, I might have accidentally outlined more than that:
So in lieu of a detailed post or series on the subject, maybe it’s better if I just outline some of the ideas I’m playing with and trying to coalesce:
- Frankenstein is a story about a creator failing to take full responsibility for his creation. Frankenstein’s creation is, well, monstrous, but not directly harmful if treated with respect. It is Frankenstein’s action of running away from his creation and its consequences that leads to misfortune, not the monster itself.
- Interestingly, our (Western society, note, not trying to make any claims for anything global here, don’t worry) pop culture understanding of the story is very different – the monster itself is terrifying, and the story becomes a warning against tampering with nature/meddling with forces beyond our control.
- This becomes especially true and interesting when looking at science and technology – wherever major changes are on the horizon, the monster looms as well. There are so many references! A whole issue of Science dedicated to the story! Frankenstein is intimately tied to scientific advancement and climate conditions (written in the aftermath of the short-term global climate consequences of Mt. Tambora’s eruption) of the time. This makes it an especially interesting and apt metaphor for these changes in our time.
- But why do we insist on misusing the story for literally everything we aren’t sure of and don’t understand? A few ideas:
- major shifts in science and technology generally require us to explore new territory – territory that often entails blurring cultural categories. Major advancements in science can be like opening Pandora’s box – the monsters come out and don’t want to go back in. For instance, vaccines (categories crossed: dead vs alive, healthy vs unhealthy), CRISPR (natural vs unnatural, nature vs nurture, also brings up issues of ethics and equality), climate change (again, natural vs unnatural, especially manmade vs out of our control, threatens to completely change environmental features we take for granted, etc).
- A really big common theme for the scientific category crisis – we get hung up on what is “natural.” We’ve built this huge division between ourselves and the natural world – setting up “nature” as pristine, beyond our influence, and undeserving of our presence, and “humanity” as somehow unclean, and separate from nature. This causes all kinds of issues, from making it difficult to see our impact on the natural world, discouraging placing value in each other and our own created spaces, and making it nigh impossible to discuss ways to use our influence to make our environment more resilient and better able to support us and other species in times of change. The only good human influence on the natural world, we say, is no influence.
- To make things even more complicated, in the case of climate change, we also have to deal with the uncertainty of what climate change actually means. It’s a really big concept and the numbers are hard to process. And there’s a great deal we just can’t and won’t know until it happens. This is monstrous in and of itself, and makes it even harder to get things done.
- This all boils down to: in the face of climate change, we tend to freeze up and would almost rather do nothing or attempt more than is realistically possible (either way will lead to loss and may leave many vulnerable) rather than really address our culpability and find creative, practical ways to salvage what we can and move forward. We are so afraid of the monster we could create that we’d rather run away. We’re so afraid of ourselves.
- So I guess the question is, how do we navigate complex issues with the ghost of Frankenstein over our shoulder? Step one, I think, is being aware of the conversations we are unwilling to have, and investigating why. Monsters serve a purpose, but you’ve got to acknowledge them, tame them, listen to what they have to say. Or else we’re all just running away.
A few of the many accumulating sources:
- Science issue
- The Trouble with Wilderness
- Taming monsters: The cultural domestication of new technology
- Uncertainty as a monster in the science-policy interface
- seriously, anything that mentions Frankenstein