As heavy clouds gathered over Philadelphia yesterday, a group of Penn professors, students, and administrators met in the library of the Philomathean Society to hear Steven Mentz describe his work in Environmental Humanities. Mentz, a professor of English at St. John’s University in New York, is a prominent voice in eco-studies, and we were eager to hear his perspective on issues of urgency not just to those of us working on the relationship between the human community and the non-human environment, but to anyone who has felt first-hand—through their body, home, or family—the precariousness of our place in the world.
With Hurricane Joaquin pushing northward from the Caribbean, our conversation quickly turned to storms, withering shorelines, and floods. We asked how it was possible to make sense of such large-scale catastrophic events, and what our response should look like, both as individuals and as collectives. In his recent work, Steve Mentz has advocated for what he calls a “swimmer’s poetics”—a way of relating to our bodies and our environment that favors surrender over sustainability and that pulls the veil from our fantasies of order and control. “The swimmer’s vulnerability and effort” Mentz argues, “provide a model for how to live in our world today, when landed life increasingly resembles conditions at sea.” In Mentz’s view, we should look to our interactions with the ocean for models of resilience today. In the age of jet travel it is easy to forget that most of our planet is ocean, and most of the goods that sustain our unsustainable way of life come to us from across the waters.
But the word that held our conversation the longest was not “politics” or “catastrophe” or “grief,” but futurity: How do we imagine the future in the midst of climate change? What does it mean to reach for a utopian dream without falling into the trap of nostalgia? Can we inhabit a world that, if not sustainable, is at least predictable? Of course, there are no answers to these questions immediately at hand. But, as Steve Mentz’s writing reminds us, and as our conversation demonstrated, it is in the painstaking and collaborative work of storytelling that some response, however contingent, can be found.