As part of the activities of the UNESCO Chair in Vulnerability Studies held by Professor Pramod K. Nayar at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, an online lecture, titled “Environmental Vulnerability and the Literary Imagination” by Scott Slovic (University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Humanities, U of Idaho) was organised on 24 January. Professor Nayar welcomed the large audience of over 150 people from across India and introduced the speaker.
Professor Slovic began by citing Professor Nayar’s work (Bhopal’s Ecological Gothic and Ecoprecarity) as well as his “Arithmetic of Compassion” project executed in collaboration with his father, the psychologist Paul Slovic, to propose that human beings have a limited amount of sensitivity to mass suffering and death often expressed through data involving large numbers. This phenomenon, termed “psychological numbing”, reveals the limits of human compassion. It can be overcome by introducing images and personalised narratives to supplement the data on ecological vulnerability and destruction. Professor Slovic went on to cite Annie Dillard’s works (such as An American Childhood and “Living Like Weasels”) as examples of this approach of empathetic self-projection. He suggested that by projecting the human into the non-human, Dillard’s texts went as far as to evaporate the self so that after a point, the self identifies with the other, becomes the other. He further posed a question on how to grasp and communicate the vulnerability of non-human phenomena such as the environment. He suggested three ways in which narratives could achieve this purpose: singularity, anthropomorphism, and identification with the victim.
As instances of this moral approach to nonhuman suffering, he cited Amy Donovan’s 2018 essay on whales (“Raw, Dense, and Loud”) and Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall’s 1993 book on chimpanzees titled Visions of Caliban. He concluded by referring to Rob Nixon’s well-known concept of “slow violence” to describe the gradual nature of ecological destruction. He went on to refer to Nixon’s idea of ecological martyrs to explain how an increasing number of climate activists are being killed across the world, especially in countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, which are home to some of the last tropical forests on the planet.
The lecture was followed by several engaging questions and responses from the audience, which included students and scholars from across India. The event concluded with a formal vote of thanks by Professor Nayar.
It may be noted that the recording of the talk will soon be available via the Chair website.
Atul V. Nair, Ph.D. English, and PA, UNESCO Chair