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Srinivas Aravamudan visits Grinnell as fifth Connelly Lecturer

Srinivas Aravamudan, Professor of English and Dean of the Humanities at Duke University, became the fifth Connelly Lecturer this Fall. He earned his PhD at Cornell University and joined the English Department at Duke in 2000. His specializes in British Literature. Postcolonial Literature, Critical Theory and many more. This past Wednesday he spoke to Grinnellians on climate change and Postcolonial Theory in disaster movies. The S&B’s Victor Hsu ’14 sat down with Aravamudan for an exclusive interview.

 For those who weren’t able to make it to your lecture last night, I was wondering if you could give a brief summary of the main points.

Hopefully you were there so you know (laughs).

The lecture is really about how climate change is a challenge for many things, not just the scientific aspects which we know that it’s posing a great challenge to us, but also in terms of our very conception of what a human is. Because the deep argument around climate change is ultimately a challenge to [the fact that] human history is about everything including the longevity of the species, our sense of the difference between natural history and human history, because what climate change does, especially when you are thinking about anthropogenic or human-induced climate change, you’re talking about how natural history itself is actually partly created by the activities of human beings.

So in that broad context it challenges our conventional notions of history, politics or even what our definition of what is the human? What is our posterity? What is the future? Can one think of a future beyond the existence of the human species? All of these questions come up because the notion of the anthropocene is about almost a post-human geological notion, a geological stratum. In that context I was looking at the stories we tell, especially through contemporary disaster movies, and how some of these movies don’t really explore the deeper questions raised by climate change. They tend to tell familiar mythological kinds of stories about a disaster and human beings triumphing over disaster. I was discussing some of these movies to show how they avoid the question rather than how they answer it, and then towards the end of the lecture I proposed some ways of thinking about the question—how can we think about the question in a more reflective, meditative capacity?

Could you expand more on the role of Postcolonial theory in these climate change/disaster movies?

I’m not so sure if Postcolonial theory had as much of a role in these movies. Obviously there are questions broadly posed by thinking about the world from multiple vantage points, and what post-colonial theory helps one do is to see that there is not necessarily always one universal history of where we are now in human history, that there have been multiple movements and processes, how different parts of the world were colonized or had a different way into the question. Where I came closer to that discussion was Amitav Ghosh’s novel “The Hungry Tide,” because it shows that the question—any type of ecological question—isn’t just a straightforward one partly because of the differential, uneven development of the world as a whole. … I’m not saying the First World has no problems, but there are a host of problems that the developing world has to face—the question is about sustainability, how to maintain current living standards while not being as wasteful, protecting the environment, making sure there’s a future for the next generations and that sort of thing. Whereas for many parts of the developing world, which is most of the world in terms of population, it’s never simply a question of sustainability, although that’s part of it too—that’s everybody’s question—but there’s always still this issue of development. In other words there is still the project of wanting to catch up with the developed world—to make sure that people in India and China and Africa have … infrastructure, healthcare, education, transport, clean water, clean air.

All of these things are jeopardized the world over but in many poor countries, the question of development seems to pose almost a challenge to questions around ecology because they seem to be in a zero-sum game where more development seems to mean less care of the environment, more care of environment seems to mean less development. Of course if you jeopardize the environment, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot, because there would be no world left to inherit. To go back to Postcolonial theory, the question is about the contradictions, rather than making it some simple alternative.

What are some of the issues that you see with the current ethical attitudes towards climate change? What are the contradictions in terms of how we think about the issues?

I think there are multiple ways of thinking about it. As I was saying, there are multiple vantage points. When you are thinking about it in terms of sustainability, where there’s already a certain level of acceptable development, then the ethics is how to not create even more problems, to have a carbon-neutral approach … in the developed countries. There is a more complex argument when it comes to developing countries because then it’s also an argument about historical accountability, which is to say that because of empire and many of these things, some parts of the world developed in an accelerated way, and they also developed in that way partly because they exploited—economically and politically—the colonies. And so in many of these negotiations, there’s often a lot of blaming and finger-pointing because China and India and some of these countries say “well, we don’t have the resources and the money to do all the reduction of pollution stuff and also grow our economies and improve the life prospects of our populations, whereas you—meaning the developed countries—can pay more because you have more resources, you’re wealthier, you’re better off.”

Of course the response from the wealthier countries is “you can’t blame us for the fact that 200 years ago we developed and you didn’t, but now we’re part of the same world, and we all have to contribute.” So in that conversation, you see it’s not about a single ethical approach, there is weighing of multiple and different ethical alternatives. It’s not as if the developed countries are being more or less ethical than the developing countries—they are both being ethical to some extent, but they are also relative in their ethics because are worried more about themselves and the other person. And so is there a global ethics that takes everybody into account? I think that is a challenge. I would say ethics is one thing, because it’s about what is a broad set of values according to which you can proceed, but then it also gets translated into politics, which is much more messy, because it has to do with what’s possible and national and international situations. It’s not just about state actions, it’s about individuals, corporations, NGO’s…there a whole range of activities and bodies that can act are not necessarily coordinated with one another…there’s a whole range of ethical issues—some of them are very long distance, some of them are very local.

Aravamudan addresses his audience in JRC 101. Photograph by Connie Lee
Aravamudan addresses his audience in JRC 101. Photograph by Connie Lee
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