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Time pressure

  • 25 October 2021

English Fellow Professor Jason Scott-Warren’s work has been a catalyst for his environmental activism and an escape from it.

Professor Scott-Warren’s interdisciplinary work, which sees him working across literature, cultural history and anthropology, is embedded in a past which makes it clear to him how precious time is in the face of the climate emergency.

“I’m part of an institution which is 800 years old and I am constantly working in libraries with books and manuscripts that are 400 or 500 years old,” he says.

“That creates a sense of continuity, and in academic life you’re aware of making a contribution to a much bigger project; you have a sense of a very long-term endeavour.

“Compare that to the craziness of a three or four degree temperature rise by 2100. That’s actually pretty close in academic time, so timescales are shrinking.

“It’s imperative we take the climate emergency seriously.”

Professor Scott-Warren works on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature which often is interesting because of loss. He identified the poet John Milton’s handwriting on a copy of the Shakespeare First Folio in Philadelphia in September 2019, prompting many further questions.

“My work is constantly confronting the fact of loss. A particular manuscript may be interesting because it’s the only example that’s left of something which would once have been commonplace,” he adds.

“A lot of Renaissance literature went up in smoke in the Great Fire of London. People were living through Civil War, plague and fire and that’s made a material difference to the things you can draw on to reconstruct the period.”

Professor Scott-Warren fears the coming environmental “catastrophe” and campaigns for political and societal change.

He is a member of the University of Cambridge Council, which recently voted for fossil fuel divestment, and the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee, which is tasked with achieving the net zero goals and decarbonising over time. The University’s stated aim is to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2038.

“There’s some really hard work to be done on reducing emissions across the University. It’s very difficult,” Professor Scott-Warren adds, “and there are a lot of great scientific minds at work on it.”

But Professor Scott-Warren thinks we need a more radical reassessment of how the University operates, believing that changes forced upon society by the Covid-19 pandemic show that behaviours can be altered quickly if the appetite is there.

“We are stuck in a groove, but what’s been interesting about living through the pandemic is that our attitudes had to change very rapidly. Clearly that needs to happen in relation to climate too, but it’s not happening quickly enough,” he says.

He sees civil disobedience as a crucial way of hastening change. He is active in Extinction Rebellion and was convicted of a public order offence for his involvement in the April 2019 protests in London, as has been more widely reported.

Professor Scott-Warren has been making moves to align his academic work with his activism. His most recent book, Shakespeare’s First Reader, uses a sixteenth-century account book to explore the human relationship with the material world.

He is also engaged in a project exploring the idea of the distributed self, and the ways in which human agency spreads out beyond the body, whether through photos and portraits, cast-off possessions and body-parts, or writings.

“At this moment in time, it’s vital to understand that we all have an influence, and – contrary to expectations – that it can carry on growing as it spreads out into the world.”

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