Literatures, Languages & Cultures


Telling stories of future fossils

We talk to Royal Society of Literature award-winner, David Farrier, about why it’s important for literature to engage with place, time and the environment and about how students can get involved.

David Farrier at the Royal Society of Literature Awards
David at the Royal Society of Literature Giles St Aubyn Awards

David Farrier, a Senior Lecturer in English Literature, is writing his first commissioned work of non-fiction, ‘Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils’ (4th Estate, 2019), with a £10,000 Giles St Aubyn Award from the Royal Society of Literature (RSL).

The work has been described as “a big visionary book, combining environmental sciences and world literature in a highly original and imaginative way” (Richard Holmes, Chair of the RSL Awards panel) and, by its publisher, as “a dazzling and lyrical meditation on the marks we are making on the planet.”

Commenting on the timeliness of the book, David says: “The oceans are rising and filling with plastic, biodiversity is crashing, extreme weather is becoming more common - all because of human action. There hasn't been a time in the history of the planet when one species has had a greater effect on the world around us than we are having right now.”

“My book looks at the evidence of how we live that will still be around in ten thousand or ten million years’ time, whether that's in the form of nuclear waste buried half a kilometre down in the bedrock of Finland to the fossilized remains of global cities like Shanghai and New York.”

The importance of telling stories

David’s work on future fossils, which has previously appeared in magazines including ‘Aeon’ and ‘The Atlantic’, engages with the idea of the 'Anthropocene'.

He explains: “The Anthropocene is a term used by many scientists and scholars to describe the scale of [environmental] changes, all of which have their origin in how we choose to live our lives.”

“These changes are effectively permanent, at least from a human perspective: plastic can take thousands of years to break down, and in the right geological conditions can even be preserved long enough in the ground to begin to turn back into oil; measured against previous planetary extinction events, it could be ten million years before the earth is as biodiverse as it was in 1950.”

“Literature doesn't provide us with an easy solution to the Anthropocene's wicked problems, but I believe telling stories about what's changing and what will be left behind can help people to engage with issues that otherwise seem too big to grasp.”

Student involvement in Environmental Humanities

In addition to teaching English Literature, David convenes the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, an interdisciplinary research network established in 2013 to address the current environmental crisis.

Commenting on opportunities for student involvement, he says: “There's lots going on at Edinburgh, and the best place to start is with the Network. We host visiting academics from around the world, organise talks and a (semi) regular reading group.”

“In terms of teaching and student-led research, there’s ‘Green Thoughts’, my postgraduate option course in contemporary environmental writing, and a growing community of Environmental Humanities PhD students in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures”.

“Across the University, there are also Environmental Humanities courses on offer in Edinburgh College of Art, and in the Schools of Divinity and Geography”.

This month, the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network (EEHN) hosts seminars by visiting speakers: Dr Saskia Beudel of the University of Canberra (Thursday 19th April); and Dr Hanne Nielsen of the University of Tasmania (Friday 27th April).

Find out more on the EEHN website

Related links

Read about David's award on the Royal Society of Literature website

Find out more about David's current projects