Literature offers ways to communicate about complex issues like the current global climate emergency
The African continent is responsible for only 2-3 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources. But it’s alarmingly suffering from the effects of the climate crisis, as reports from the UN and others show. On the positive side, Africa has a huge potential for climate mitigation, especially thanks to its tropical rainforests.
The Congo Basin’s rainforests in central Africa are sometimes called Earth’s second lungs (after the Amazon) because of its ability to store carbon. In addition to the forest trees, the basin has the world’s largest tropical peatlands, discovered in 2017. Scientists estimate that these peatlands store carbon worth about 20 years of the fossil fuel emissions of the US. The Congo Basin is also rich in biodiversity and in minerals.
As long as this strategically important and rich region is not destroyed, Africa can help fight global climate change.
The Congo Basin rainforests and people face serious threats from global climate change and other human factors. Commercial logging, mining, extensive agriculture, infrastructural development, rapid urbanisation, energy consumption and transnational wildlife poaching are among them.
Overlooked role of humanities and social sciences
Academics and policy makers tend to see pure sciences as the only disciplines that can offer solutions for ecological challenges. They sometimes overlook the role of the social sciences and humanities, including arts and literature, in addressing climate change and environmental problems.
But this is changing, through emerging interdisciplinary fields, such as environmental humanities. It uses sources such as literary and artistic texts. The field also borrows methods from disciplines like communications, history, philosophy, political science, sociology and anthropology.
My recent doctoral thesis (of which the original summary has been published in French with the option of a Google translation to English) argues that literary texts and critical studies of these texts have a role to play in saving the Congo Basin.
Their texts depict or condemn climate and environmental concerns such as deforestation, youth climate activism, wildlife poaching, freshwater pollution and unplanned urbanisation.
They also question practices such as environmental injustice and violations of the rights of local and indigenous people. In short, literary texts represent climate and ecological problems in ways that make the problems more palpable and relatable.
I suggest that literature can serve as a call to climate action. It can point out how individuals, communities and institutions contribute to, mitigate or adapt to climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Literary texts are useful for environmental communication and have the capacity to deal with complexity.
The authors whose works I studied were:
Étienne Goyémidé from Central African Republic,
In Koli Jean Bofane from Congo-Kinshasa or the Democratic Republic of Congo and
Nadia Origo from Gabon.
I analysed the ways their texts represent and respond to climate and ecological issues in the Congo Basin.
For instance, the novels Cheval-roi by Effa, Temps de chien by Nganang, and The Buffalo Rider by Nsahlai represent human-animal relations. The novels Congo Inc.: Le Testament de Bismarck by Bofane, Le Silence de la forêt by Goyémidé and Les Marchands du développement durable by Ndinga promote indigenous knowledge systems and practices of the Babinga and Ekonda people.
They challenge the harmful aspects of neoliberal capitalism, globalisation and sustainable development. Plays like Water Na Life by Inyang and Le Mal de terre by Djombo deal with freshwater pollution and disorderly urbanisation respectively.
There are many ways in which literary texts can contribute to addressing these issues. They can raise environmental awareness and drive climate communication on various environmental problems.
One of the environmental problems in the Congo Basin is deforestation and its consequences for both humans and nature. In 2020, escalating rates of primary forest loss were reported in the Congo Basin, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon topping the chart. This issue is explored in plays such as The Hill Barbers by Ekpe Inyang and Le Cri de la forêt by Henri Djombo and Osée Koagne. The plays identify causes and suggest ways to curb deforestation.
Literature can also motivate people to tackle climate change and amplify the work of activists. I argue that Congo Basin writers such as Inyang, Djombo, Koagne and Origo predicted the emergence of global youth climate activism. This activism is exemplified by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Remy Zahiga, among others.
These authors write about young African characters, like the child volunteers in Djombo’s play Les Bénévoles, who are combating climate change and environmental crimes. Therefore, literature provides both inspiration and a means of communication for youth climate activism in the Congo Basin and far beyond.
Celebrating the link between people and nature
Literary texts also remind people of their relationship with the rest of nature, including animals, rivers and land. Novels such as those by Nsahlai, Effa and Nganang illustrate human-animal entanglements. Plays like Water Na Life and Le Mal de terre point out human-water and human-land entanglements. They show how bad governance and ignorance of human-nature connections lead to ecological problems.
Not only do literary texts point out violations of the rights of humans and the rights of nature, they also depict the consequences of such violations.
Literature can also help to uncover wrong assumptions and myths.
One of these is the colonial and racist idea of an Edenic Africa — the false image of an African virgin nature free from any human presence. It’s an idea which fuels green colonialism in Africa.
And it underpins the highly contested fortress conservation model in the Congo Basin. Fortress conservation consists of driving people out of their ancestral forests in the name of nature preservation.
If myths such as the Edenic Africa are identified and eliminated, conservationists can be more inclusive and respectful of local and indigenous people and their knowledge systems. Novels like Congo Inc. by Bofane, Le Silence de la forêt by Goyémidé and Les Marchands du développement durable by Ndinga are helpful here. They foreground the knowledge and practices of the people who have inhabited Congo Basin forests from time immemorial.
The global climate-environmental crisis is not only a crisis of capitalism and industrialisation. It’s also a crisis of culture.
For this reason, cultural metaphors and philosophical ideas such as the separation of humans from nature need to be discarded. Those ideas have long promoted human domination and exploitation of nature and animals.
Through film, music and literature, people have come to construct an image of themselves as different from and superior to the rest of nature. But literature can also celebrate our entanglement with nature and can draw inspiration from cultures such as those of the Congo Basin.
Very significantly, literature offers ways to communicate about complex issues like the current global climate emergency. Along with other academic disciplines and efforts – political, scientific and technological — literature can therefore help in protecting the Congo Basin’s biodiversity and people.
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