The Geography of Disaster: Scientific and Fictional Narratives of Collapse

By Katherine Maynard.

Published by The Sustainability Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

One of the ways we may learn about sustainability is through negative examples. By analyzing the negatives, by understanding how failed societies (or individuals) squandered their resources and collapsed, we may gain valuable warnings and lessons that will enable us to avoid future disasters. To study this process in detail, it is possible to analyze Jared Diamond’s Collapse narratives in his science-based book of that title and compare them with literary representations of failing characters in works by a number of American writers--but especially those by the American short story writer and novelist, John Cheever. Both are writers with a keen awareness of geography, i.e. an interest in how people interact in space and with their physical environments and landscapes. Both also have a predilection for writing about places where these interactions break down and where collapses and disasters occur. There is, of course, a difference in scale as well as in perspective. Diamond depicts societies or groups of people and then discusses why they succeed or fail; writers such as Cheever mainly depict the fates of (fictional) individuals, though they also use such characters to imply more general insights about their societies. Considered as examples of social critiques, however, Diamond’s scientific discourse and Cheever’s fictional one share certain common features. Both, for example, imply how traits such as rigidity, elitism, isolation, and a penchant for short term “solutions” cause societies (or individuals) to fail to sustain their lifestyles and to damage their own prospects for survival and/or success. An example of Diamond’s science-based disaster narratives would be his account of the decline and fall of the medieval Norse community in Greenland that starved to death while their Inuit neighbors sustained themselves on fish and seals. Even though the Norse left few reliable written records and rather enigmatic ruins, Diamond is able to use science to reconstruct the reasons for their extinction. An analogous example of collapse narratives by Cheever would be his Shady Hill stories about suburban Americans who succumb to alcoholism, denial, the need “to keep up appearances,” and various forms of folly. Even though such persons in “real life” are adept at concealing their flaws and weaknesses, Cheever had a talent for using narrative to reveal the causes and failings that lead to their downfalls. Therefore, it is possible to make an interdisciplinary comparison of his narratives with Diamond’s to show how they reinforce one another’s insights.

Keywords: Social Critiques, Collapse, Interdisciplinary Comparisons

The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp.51-58. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 506.697KB).

Dr. Katherine Maynard

Professor, English Department, Rider University, Lawrenceville, New Jersey, USA

Professor of English: Dr. Katherine Maynard Professor of English Rider University, USA

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