When Karen E. Pinkus, Romance Studies and Italian and Comparative Literature, first heard about climate change—how it is impacted by human activity—she said to herself, “I need to be working on this. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Pinkus, however, is no scientist. She is a humanities scholar through and through. Her background is in Italian literature and film. Pinkus is working on a book tentatively titled Autonomia/Automata: Machines for Writing, Laboring and Thinking in 1960s Italy in which she examines Italian art, literature, film, and politics of the decade to explore the relationship between labor and automation.
At the same time, Pinkus is deeply concerned about the environment and believes that the humanities can bring a critical research component to solving the problems of climate change. She has now spent a decade dedicated to working on the relationship between the humanities and climate change. She has completed the book Fuel, which examines different types of fuel from the everyday fossil and renewable fuels to fantastical fuels. Pinkus uses tools from the humanities, such as critical theory, philosophy, and literary analysis, to separate fuel from energy and examine our relationship with fuel itself.
“The book’s aim is to scramble our brains,” says Pinkus. “It is so easy for us to imagine a world in which we keep everything the same—all of our social structures, all of our cultural structures—and plug in a nonfossil-based fuel and think it will all be okay. This book argues that our relationship with all kinds of fuels, and the distinction that we need to make between fuel and energy, is much more profound than just plugging in a different fuel that’s greener.”
The book is structured as a dictionary of fuels, including familiar ones like sun and wind, as well as less typical ones, such as fleece, gold, magnets, and Zoline, a powder fuel proposed in a letter to Henry Ford. Pinkus spent time at the Ford archives in Dearborn, Michigan where she read many letters from people as young as teenagers, saying they’ve invented a new fuel. “These fantasies around fuels are very old. They’re nothing new,” says Pinkus.
Literary Texts That Anticipated Climate Change
In addition to archival research, Pinkus writes about literary works, from Homer’s The Odyssey to Jules Verne’s nineteenth century science fiction books to Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 novel Petrolio (a copy sits on the desk next to Pinkus’ computer). Though she acknowledges the growing body of contemporary literary work that explicitly addresses climate change, Pinkus says that she is more interested in studying texts before the term climate change came into circulation.
Pinkus is deeply concerned with the environment and believes that the humanities can bring a critical research component to solving the problems of climate change.
“I look at texts that somehow anticipate climate change or have such a complex and chaotic narrative structure that they become more commensurate with the chaotic temporality of the geological period that we are in,” Pinkus says.
Her book, however, is not a guide to thinking about climate change, nor does it offer a dogmatic approach to the problems. Instead, it explores climate change philosophically and lays out the possibility that fuels are materials that have “very complex relationships with our own thought structures, fantasies, narratives, or ways of being in the world.” If there is any direct message in the book, it is that we can’t toss one fuel out for another. Rather, we need to think more deeply about what fuel is, what it does and how deeply it is intertwined with human life itself.
Pinkus’ next project is a digital publication titled Terranes of Climate Change: Subsurface, Surface, Atmosphere. Terranes is a term from geology that allows her to think about spaces in multiple dimensions—vertical, horizontal, historical. The project, between geology and cultural geography, also applies literary and visual texts to thinking about how humans may attempt to control chaotic changes by unifying these three realms. Pinkus wants to undo this kind of mastery and allow difference and contradiction to exist, underlining how unfathomably wicked climate change is.
The Humanist’s Role in the Climate Change Discussion
Thoughtfulness is what the humanities can bring to scientific endeavors in climate change. At Cornell, Pinkus is especially grateful for the stimulation of the Society for the Humanities, which brings scholars from all over the world to Ithaca; it sponsored a workshop that Pinkus organized on critical theory, design, and climate change. The Society also supports a sustainability initiative.
Pinkus says that she is interested in how humanities research can move beyond passive reflection and become actively engaged in solving specific problems. She is in the planning stages of collaborating with scientists and hopes to engage with research projects as a co-principal investigator. One example for collaboration is with a group of scientists and engineers involved in carbon sequestration. This is a problem for engineers, but Pinkus thinks that it’s also a problem where a humanist would be essential. “The humanities could bring the cultural dimension to it; they could help to think about how this would work in terms of the built environment and the cultural and historical dimensions, as well as provide a critical framework for thinking about the implications,” she says.
Collaborating with Scientists: Inspired by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future
Pinkus’ goal is to develop a truly interdisciplinary relationship between humanists and scientists in which both parties bring their strengths to the problems of climate change. Pinkus says that she has already engaged in conversations with colleagues across campus, thanks to being a part of the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.
“The Atkinson Center has inspired me to talk to scientists and work with them in a way that I never would have before,” says Pinkus. “It’s opened up all kinds of new ways of thinking to me. Cornell is the ideal place to do this type of research because of the incredibly rich community of scholars we have here working on environmental issues.”
Traditional humanities research involves many solitary hours with books. “We sit in the library or at our desk, and we very rarely interact with people. We certainly very rarely interview subjects,” says Pinkus. After many years of such work, Pinkus says that she wants to rethink humanities research much like her latest book asks us to rethink our relationship to fuel.