Eco-tipping points and the power of narrative in literature

Posted on August 5, 2014 by



A narrative is a story, a sequence of written or spoken words. It is in many ways the foundation that all literature stands upon, that makes language intelligible and shares understanding, whether it is a fictional or factual event. Thus if narratives of various kinds structure the imagined world, they also structure reality, our social world. Humans recount experiences through storytelling and create fictions with words because narratives can explain what could happen, allowing forms of agency that otherwise would not exist.

In the ancient world myths – themselves transported in narrative form – reduced the alien and threatening complexity of experience to an intelligible meaning shared within a particular community. In our modern world novels can be argued to perform an analogous function. As aesthetic discourse, in the form of fictional and imaginary accounts, novels are able to assimilate into their imagined world other discourses – about religion, war, science, art, technology, even the emergence of human consciousness itself – and so to reflect at a higher level upon those discourses, and novels may ultimately (or possibly) reduce these other discourses to a single intelligible world-view. But literary narrative is not only a way of imagining and explaining the world, it also has the power to intervene, to prompt agency. In the times we live in this could not be more true in regards to how people live with constitutional uncertainty in their daily lives, and must cope with a ‘risk society’ that is as disorientating and perilous as it seems to be exciting.

Nicholas Saul, professor of German literature and intellectual history at Durham’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, is currently researching eco-narratives in German novels, exploring the relationships between understandings of environmental catastrophes in literature within the much wider framework of evolutionary theory and literary evolution, especially the influence of Darwinism.

Saul gave a seminar in IHRR on ‘Making Evolution Visible: Volcanoes and Other Tipping Points in Franz Hohler’s Apocalyptic Eco-Narratives’, that focused on the work of Swiss-German author and cabarettist Franz Hohler, and included views from the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, acclaimed author of World at Risk, and Niklas Luhmann, another renowned German sociologist and founder of sociological systems theory.


Narrative of the Apocalypse

In the eco-narratives of Hohler Saul finds a not unfamiliar narrative that has pervaded human culture at least since the Bible – the narrative of the apocalypse. The use of an apocalyptic narrative about environmental catastrophes like climate change, he notes, is widespread. Yet this turn to the religious or devotional is odd in modern culture, which many people criticise for its unremitting materialism. Ecological theories today are surely by definition scientific and systematic, that is, post-theological and probably materialistic in their assumptions. Thus the narratives of eco-apocalypse, in which a jealous, righteous and vengeful creator God punishes his sinful creatures with the near-extinction of the Great Flood or, ultimately, as in St John, the end of the world, unwittingly carry with them some theological – and mythical – baggage that usually goes unrecognised in popular culture.

‘The apocalypse is a pre-modern form of narrative informed by theological categories that inform the shape of the narrative and its content. It’s interesting the way it is mapped onto a phenomenon, [such as climate change], that has been only understood in modern, scientific terms very recently’.

Ecological entanglement


Forest impacted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine.

While people today live in a far more secular society than, say, the Middle Ages, contemporary society has not been able to dispense completely with the mythical narratives that were once used to make higher forces comprehensible and meaningful. Today our relationship with the environment is thought of in terms of complex systems. Society is ecologically entangled with the natural environment, in a single macro- system, unable to step outside of it. Systems tend to reproduce themselves, heedless of individuals.

Social systems also share so many different relations with the ‘natural’ environment that it is difficult to find where the two separate. Yet the totality of those complex and systematic relationships is not, as Luhmann would say, intelligible to any single observer. As a result individuals seem at once both to understand that they are complicit in the production of incipient eco-disaster and to feel totally divorced from its causes. Those causes lie in someone else’s nuclear (or coal-fired) power station, beyond our understanding or beyond our control. The same applies to the symptoms, which affect someone else’s seashore or the survival chances of the generation after next, but not us (even thoughwe think we know that we ourselves, in our generation, contribute to the causes and feel the effects). In short: we as individuals feel we are exposed to risk developments over which we have no control, even if we end up in some obscureway responsible – just like antique heroes in a mythical tragedy of fate, toyed with for the sport of the gods. We are disconnected from reality in our minds to that extent.

In his work on Hohler, Saul refers to the writer’s strategy in fiction to reconnect the individual with the environment of which s/he is a part. Hohler writes not just about things, but about people (often writers) observing things which they should, but do not question. Thus his focus is not only on the environmental happenings but also on the response of the individual. Hence Saul sees Hohler as a writer ‘who is developing a narrative which brings the events from outside in the world to the inside of the writer’s mind’. ‘Eco-catastrophe happens over hundreds or thousands of years. It’s a development which is simply too big and too hard to encompass in a single conventional explicatory narrative. But Hohler also portrays punctuated equilibrium – sudden revolutionary shifts in the stable balance of the ecosystem – not across the abyss of deep Darwinian time, but over the course of a few years. It’s the figure of the apocalypse, of sudden unforeseen collapse, which humanity has somehow caused and is punished for, which maps onto that swift collapse of the ecosystem’.

So what the apocalyptic narrative does according to Saul is make the real, yet normally invisible threat of ecological catastrophe ‘visible to the imagination’.

‘In this kind of literary form you can after all show the subject and the system as connected. The two fit together and make sense. ‘If you can do that, you can make individuals re-enact agency in their imagination, and enact agency intheir own reality. Hohler’s fiction can be seen as a kind of tipping point experience for the reader – just as St John’s biblical Apocalypse was meant to change the mind of its original reader’. The fact that people became more aware of the complexities of living in the world is also evidenced in literary history, at least if we think of it as a process of cultural evolution, which is also structured by critical tipping points. Saul says literary history is usually (and rightly)divided up into epochs, similar to natural history. In fact, like the history of the natural world, it does not change smoothly and gradually. Often changes in literary history happen suddenly and without previous indication. It is therefore plausible to argue that literature responds to society in crisis as a system responds to its eco-environment in crisis, by adapting in radical and often unpredictable, non-linear ways.

This can help to explain some very sudden shifts in literary epoch, such as that at the turn of the nineteenth century from realism (think Dickens) to modernism (think Joyce) over a few short years. In writing literary history, it is hard to see a linear – narrative – development from Dickens’s traditional narrative to Joyce’s reduction of time to space in his ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative. But one can see the shift as an emergent response of literature to grasp the growing complexity of mass urban society and a culture saturated in technology and complex science. And here again Joyce deploys myth; Ulysses, of course. Saul, together with many other scholars today, finds that there are profound, deep-structural interactions between the literary world and society that is evolutionary.

According to Luhmann, you could say that the system of literary production is exposed to perturbations from the social world ‘outside’ of it. In responding to those perturbations the literary system is itself destabilised, and ‘in order for it to continue to perform its role in representing and criticising that world outside it’, it must change. ‘A tipping point is when a new aesthetic emerges. So you can actually begin to develop a new, literary-historical toolbox for re-writing how literature changes in evolutionary ways’.

Moving on to still another level, we could argue that in the pre-modern world the Bible functioned not only as a myth in the sense defined above, but also as the myth, what we call a master narrative, which governs most of our world view and actions. In modernity of course the need for such a myth still obtains, irrespective of complexity and science. Where are we to find a replacement myth, if our adherence to the world of the Bible has been eroded? It could be that Darwin’s theory – a narrative of course – is the answer.

‘… Whereby the previous foundational narrative of Occidental culture – The Bible – and all of its associated discourses […] has been eroded and displaced by the process of secularisation, by a critique of revealed truths through human reason. The agent that makes that happen is Darwin – still today the scientific orthodoxy. Darwin penned the tale of the master narrative that today everyone subscribes to’.

From Darwin to post-human


Charles Darwin 1868.

Contemporary German writers such as the Berlin publicist and novelist Dietmar Dath are often ‘confessing Darwinists’ and extrapolate the evolutionary narrative to its maximum. Thus they write about the post-human, or what it means, or will quickly mean, to live with the capability of genetically engineering our own bodies. This is explored in Dath’s futuristic novel The Abolition of Species, a provocative spin on the title of Charles Darwin’s opus On the Origin of Species. ‘What does it mean asks Dath that we can play with our bodies as with toys, that there’s no difference between experimenting with ourselves as with animals. There may be a tipping point in cultural history there’. And Dath sees his owns books as helping us to negotiate that move to the ‘post-human human’.

Saul himself is now working on an evolutionary cultural history of German literature, ‘not only the history of Darwinism in German literature, but also, ultimately seeing literature itself as an agent in evolutionary change’. This means among other things asking what is the evolutionary function of literature? The question may seem at first overly reductionist and materialistic, but actually understands that literature and the rest of the arts have acquired and perform a distinct function in humanity’s cultural evolution. ‘Like language clearly it’s a kind of evolutionary adaptation. Much better: an ‘exaptation’, a behavioural capacity of pleasing representational communication in this case, which has evolved not necessarily for a use, but for which a use has been found by humans’. So will literature ever move out of neo-apocalyptic mode?


Dietmar Dath

‘There does seem to be a time lag between the development of scientific knowledge and literary forms which make sense of all that. One of the interesting things about eco-literature, up till now, is that it talks about modern crises in old fashioned ways. Somehow it has to have recourse to the theological language and the theoretical narrative of apocalypse. It’s as if somehow our literary language lags behind, in the cultural world, what we know to be the case in science. We need a language of agency and change, otherwise we’re not going to change, and the old myth of the apocalypse, updated to offer us to the possibility of action, seems to be the best myth available’.

This was also discussed at an event organised through the Tipping Points project that screened the independent short film Beyond the Tipping Point? (see review on Tipping Points website for more details: Participants and researchers from the project talked about how in the case of climate change people retreat to notions of the apocalypse in order to engage with its impacts on society and the wider environment. While scientific narratives from research in complex systems may be of greater assistance in really tackling the environmental problems that climate change represents, the event also demonstrated that environmental catastrophes like climate change also are brought into greater perspective when the sciences and arts and humanities are in dialogue. Saul says: ‘the modus operandi of science and the humanities are not so terribly different at least at some levels. Even science cannot in many ways operate without a narrative. How else could Darwin have formulated his theory, if not using this aesthetic form? That’s what the humanities do, we give people narratives, and we know how narratives work. We are the authorities on this for the time being’.


So art, including literature, has a direct role to play in how scientific stories of eco-crisis are taken up by society and spread through popular culture. It could be argued that this is why film also has been so effective at raising awareness about climate change. Narratives that begin with literature often translate well to cinema, and other technologies such as web or mobile interfaces may be bringing these narratives closer to people’s lives. Saul argues that the arts are precisely those ‘instruments of social action’ that Beck calls for in response to the risk society. ‘Humans discovered you could do stuff with art as a kind of technology. You get this recursive circulation between the world of technology and the human; we produce art as an evolutionary technology and that technology in an inevitable, recursive way produces us. In that sense modern evolutionary thinkers would think of humans as in fact always already having been cyborgs. Humans exist with technology, that’s what humans are, homo technologicus’.

nicksaul Professor Nicholas Saul is a Co-Director of IHRR. He is leading a sub-theme project ‘The Experience of Emergence’ at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study part of its 2014-15 theme on Emergence, which includes the ‘Emergency, Tipping Points and Fragility’ sub-theme led by the Tipping Points project. A podcast of his seminar in IHRR is available online: