The Art of Paying Attention to Climate Change - Elephants and embracing the squint

May 29, 2023
Erika Dilling

by  Erika Dilling, Global Health and the Environment Honours Major, 3rd year at York University

This week has been sunny and bright, forcing folks across the York campus to squint as they peer at phones and laptops across campus. Perhaps you are in a similarly awkward position squinting at a screen too big for a pocket but too small for your eyes. This optical maneuver has, historically, given me no pause for thought, but Min Hyoung Song’s plenary talk “The Art of Paying Attention to Climate Change” has caused me to reconsider my stance on squints.  

Let’s begin with elephants. I was introduced to Nigel Rothfel’s work, “Why Look at Elephants?” by a professor I admire in the faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, Dr. Leesa Fawcett. Rothfel documents key instances of human contemplation of the elephant form through circus shows and poaching diaries. He goes on to argue that looking at elephants in these contexts gives humans the occasion to engage with the historical and cultural flagposts upholding human-animal relationships. Concluding, “In short, why look at elephants? Because elephants are easy to see.” (p. 182) No squinting required.  

Climate change, like elephants, does not require much squinting to see. The effects of greenhouse gas emissions are centre stage, balancing on one leg and juggling beach balls. The natural sciences, as Min Hyoung Song explains, have taught us a lot about the mechanics of the climate crisis. To continue the metaphor: how the elephant balances, or how it keeps balls spinning in the air. But beyond these pleasures, there lurks ethical dilemmas asking to be addressed. The elephant is obvious, climate change is hard to miss, but these subtle quandaries call for a different kind of looking – a squint.  

Min Hyoung Song argues that the act of studying literature is this crucial, radical squint. It blurs the periphery and sharpens our focus on a few key issues. Studying literature reveals the historical and cultural assumptions underpinning many of the environmental issues we face in the modern era. It allows us to look beyond the bedazzled leotard of mainstage climate debates (e.g. doomerism) to see other pitfalls of Western imaginings – issues of race, kinship, and a lack of hopeful stories. In doing this we ask ourselves: what is being concealed and why?  

Min Hyoung Song invited the attendees to take a moment to reflect on Solmaz Sharif’s poem, Visa – where the concept of the critical squint originates. The poem invokes a sense of powerlessness, uncertainty, and desperate hope, waiting for a loved one to be permitted through airport customs, which recalls waiting for governing institutions to take meaningful climate action. 

Ironically, a lot can be missed when something is easy to see. The study of literature, as Min Hyoung Song emphasises, enables us to fix our gaze on what is less obvious but crucial to re-imaginings of our climate future. Rather than waiting at the railings hoping our governments usher in an equitable and sustainable future, studying literature is in itself an act of challenging systems of power, that encourages us to question real and perceived constraints, and dismantle unproductive (or harmful) ideologies.  

We squint because the future is uncertain. Some truths are apparent – the climate is in crisis, and elephants are wrinkly. But whether or not meaningful action will be taken (and why more hasn’t already been done) remains unanswered. We squint to find out why.