Narratives of Environmental Risk: Fate, Luck and Fortune

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Classics

Abstract

The proposed network brings together scholars from across different disciplines (arts, humanities, social and physical sciences; see Academic Beneficiaries), creative writers, business strategists and policy makers to investigate the presence and role of concepts of fate, luck and fortune (hereafter FLF) in discussions of environmental risks, to develop a nuanced understanding of the variety of ways in which, in different historical and geographical contexts, concepts of FLF have played a role or roles in perceptions and expressions of risk, and responses to it, and continue to do so.

In modern post-enlightenment western culture, risk tends to be described in terms of quantification. Setting FLF side-by-side with risk may seem incongruous: it has been argued that the idea of risk is what differentiates the modern era; risk management has become an arena of expertise, and specialised education and training. However, it is now widely accepted that people respond less to objective information about risks and take more notice of their own perceptions of danger, shaped by the implicit assumptions of their particular culture, including the role of FLF; nevertheless, these conceptions and the role that they play in shaping decision-making are rarely if ever made explicit and addressed.

This network aims to provide a systematic overview of the ways in which concepts of FLF have been, and continue to be expressed in historical, contemporary and futuristic narratives concerned with environmental risk, for example, from ancient Greek dedications to the goddess tuche ('Chance'), to contemporary climate change fiction. Such an exploration will not only bring insights from other cultures, but also provide new perspectives on contemporary narratives of environmental risk-with the potential to reconsider current approaches to responses to environmental risk.

There are three planned workshops addressing the following themes:
- Historicising the role of FLF, providing scholars who study environmental risks with clarification of the development of these ideas and their use in this context;
- Developing new policy approaches, exploring how a more thorough understanding of the role of FLF in narratives of environmental risk may be used to develop new responses in current policy;
- The popularisation of FLF, exploring the ways in which conceptions of FLF (or personifications of abstract powers) remain powerful in historical and current discourses (visual, written and oral) concerned with environmental risks, and how they shape perceptions of agency.

The project aims to provide insights that that will develop beyond the usual assumptions about environmental risks, gaining new perspectives, developing new questions and approaches to data, working with new evidence and methodologies. This will be achieved by bringing together the heuristic tools of different disciplines across the arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences. The network will also include participants from a broad range of publics and key stakeholders, including those working at the science - policy interface, in business, but also in the creative arts. As well as helping to develop a shared arena of research, the network aims to contribute to relevant public and policy conversations concerning the nature and role of fate luck and fortune in contemporary society, and in attitudes to environmental risks.

Planned Impact

Research into the nature of environmental risk--and responses to it--is becoming increasingly urgent. Scientific communities tend to focus on quantifiable aspects of risks, which inform public policy narratives. But the role played by underlying beliefs concerned with fate, luck and fortune (FLF)--informed by historical developments and cultural norms--is rarely examined; and although the role of public and/or popular narratives is increasingly being recognised as offering insights that can aid risk management and the crafting of public policy, how to integrate them remains a key question.

This project seeks to bring together the findings from across the arts, humanities, social science and science arenas to examine how popular beliefs of FLF have shaped and continue to influence perceptions of agency in contexts of environmental risk. It will draw on the expertise of those creating popular narratives concerned with environmental risks, as well as those working with such narratives in business and government.

1. Public impact: Results will be disseminated across academic disciplines, but also to a wider audience, with the aim of raising awareness of the role of FLF in public and popular narratives concerned with environmental risk. Working with the Nottingham Writers' Studio and professional writers, and using social media, and a public lecture, we hope not only to invite the public to explore, but also to develop, new narratives of environmental risk. We aim to identify ways in which such narratives might be better integrated into the development of appropriate environmental risk communication strategies, and so to shape public and popular debate about responses to environmental risk.

We therefore envisage impacts across four additional key sectors:
2. Creative arts: Alongside its analytical focus, the project's explicit discussion of FLF as a crucial but often implicit aspect of narrative will offer a rich vein of material for artists to integrate into their creative work. Through collaboration with the Nottingham Writers' Studio and invited writers and artists, the project will inspire both immediate creative and artistic outputs and longer-term collaborations; these will also encourage reflection on the role of FLF in shaping responses to environmental risks.

3. Policy: Understanding the implications of beliefs in FLF is essential for the creation of effective policy. Individuals working in or with policy-making within international and national government or in fields or with constituencies affected by environmental risks have agreed to participate in the project. Historical case studies presented at the meetings will not only provide a long-term perspective on the significance of FLF beliefs, but also offer 'neutral territory' for examining contemporary concerns. The aim is to develop understanding of underlying beliefs (among both the public and the policymakers) that continue to influence environmental risk perception.

4. Business: The use of 'scenarios' for strategic planning means that narrative can play a crucial role in business strategy. Through participation in the project of members of corporate strategic teams and strategic consultants, the project will engage with those who shape current business strategies; this will aid exploration of the role of FLF in the formation and audiences of business strategy.

5. Education: education can play an important role in creating an environmental risk-literate society. We aim to reach the educational sector by working directly with schools, as well as through social media. In addition, the Co-I's links with the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers will enable further dissemination of the outcomes of this research; finally, through the participation of representatives of government, the project aims to impact educational policy.

Publications

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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/N006062/1 02/07/2016 31/08/2017 £27,784
AH/N006062/2 Transfer AH/N006062/1 01/09/2017 31/07/2018 £14,031
 
Description A number of themes emerged from the workshops:
The concept of risk: Perceptions of risk are culturally embedded and shaped by worldviews; but there are diachronic and cross-cultural patterns of uniformity as well as variability, and change over time (including the accommodation of social and cultural shifts within sets of beliefs). Concepts of FLF exist in a nexus of relationships between other culturally specific concepts, including opportunity, providence, destiny, regret, blame, free will, vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience. Perceptions of risk and their links to superstitious behaviours may be a result of evolutionary adaptation and/or learning (from prior belief/numbers of experiences), leading to the assignment of causality; it is worth assigning causality, when the probability of benefit appears greater than the cost.
Agency, individual, group, and landscape: The envisioning of multiple possible worlds is pivotal to living with environmental risk, suggesting the possibility of negotiating with FLF. At an individual level, the nature of experience is important: risks that are 'experience-near' prompt agency, whereas 'experience-far' risks (those that are psychologically distant) are more likely to be fatalistically framed; but local agency may co-exist with conceptions of general providence/fate. A sense of control emerges from doing something: what is perceived as extraordinary, requires extraordinary measures, and this action has the effect of 'domesticating' or normalising the extraordinary event. Elements of the landscape may also acquire agency in particular narratives: this may occur when those elements behave in apparently uncontrollable ways. The discourse may take different forms-e.g., monstrous, medicalised (doctor/patient), moralistic-eliciting different emotional responses.
Authority, credibility and responsibility: In negotiating with perceived risks and the powers that cause them, cultures may allocate authority, credibility, and/or responsibility to certain individuals, actions, objects and images as part of their interaction with ideas of risk. These can become the embodiment and personification of hope, salvation, and benevolence. Ideas of FLF often reflect moral values, such that physical and metaphysical become closely related. Conflicts may develop between different views of fate, luck and fortune, the rhetoric of FLF becoming a locus of competition, not only between individuals, but also between individuals and supernatural powers, and/or between individuals and the environment itself.
Narratives, narrators and audiences: How do we approach 'descriptions' of events? Overviews of historical material reveal generic imagery developing both of risk events (rhetorical, emotive, evocative, manipulative), and of FLF concepts. The latter include especially attributes of fortune that communicate her values and the threats she poses: wings; winged feet; standing beside a wheel of fortune; balanced on a ball; sailing in the ship of fortune. Narratives must be considered with regard to the specific context and agenda of the writer, within the larger historical context. Can similar questions be asked about the intended audience to understand how they find and consume narratives. Culturally specific elements, including gender and status, shape the creation and consumption of narratives of environmental risk; in turn, these narratives interact with and shape culture.
Interconnections, calculations and the unexpected: Historically, fate, luck and fortune have provided a language to describe the experience of the unexpected event: if these concepts are now obsolete, what kind of discourse replaces them? But in a world that is globally interconnected, can we eliminate the unexpected: the proliferation of data/modelling systems mean that we can anticipate and plan more effectively, but is it possible to calculate everything, and does this take into account the human aspects-e.g., diverse interpretations or biases, psychological responses such as denial, inaction, etc.? How can narratives about climate change, environmental risk or sustainable development effectively take into account the larger context, recognising the interactions between different externalities (economic, political, social, etc.), and the ways in which global interconnected systems are linked with the local, individual, or personal concerns? How do those narratives convey the experience of the unexpected?
Trust, uncertainty and doubt: Modern narratives of risk are often framed as stories of blame/betrayals of trust, requiring an individual or institutional target; these narratives can be seen as claims to alternative authority (the erosion of deference/trust towards some sources of authority may not be a decline of authority, but its multiplication). Without a target (if an event is understood as an 'act of god') then stories of good or bad fortune predominate; or the event is framed as recreancy, a failure of duty, detached from specific targets. To gain trust, an authority must engage, even negotiate, with other authorities and the public, and be seen to do so; the narrative itself may be part of this engagement. Such a narrative can establish a reality 'impervious to fact', and, in turn, shape reality for those involved, even influencing policy. Alternative, competing narratives arise, in part, from narrative ambiguity (a result of individual subjective interpretations). In addition, the introduction of doubt can be a crucial factor in weakening counter-narratives, created by/building on narrative ambiguity. We may seek certainty and control, but, equally, what about the need for, and role of, ambiguity and uncertainty in shaping narratives, and offering alternative meanings?
Information, interpretations and uncomfortable knowledge: Narratives include different kinds of information that connect with audiences in different ways: i) Aesthetic information (defined as the arena of 'feeling') may be more important than the factuality of narrative, especially in developing plausibility. Imagistic language (metaphors, analogies, associations) helps to shape powerful narratives; the inclusion of traditional or mythic story structures/elements can provide a temporal dimension, drawing in a sense of history or even a larger sense of the cosmic. ii) Numerical information: scientific data and statistics can provide a shared language and understanding, and over time we can observe how information and power have related, and how changes in one have prompted changes in another. But what data do we look for when modelling uncertainties (we are limited by our knowledge and imagination about the future): how do complex global systems shape events? How do we interpret the statistics and write about very complex outcomes in accessible narratives? Must these two types of information be regarded as opposed: can they be brought together to create more effective narratives? Finally, iii) Uncomfortable knowledge: Narratives of environmental risk may occupy a space of 'unknown knowns'-ideas of which we are aware, but which we ignore or avoid, because they are difficult or frightening. How do we make these aspects palatable, and develop the will and capacity to engage with them, and take action?
Intangible Stories: In terms of impacts on groups and individuals, there is an ebb and flow to risk awareness, when framings are re-framed by specific risk events (and related media coverage). We need to find a way to reach the intangible dynamics involved in negotiating threat, understanding that individual frames are entangled with socio-cultural contexts and vice versa, and that emotional responses are subtle and nuanced. Psychosocial elements of everyday language need to be analysed more closely (e.g., disavowal narratives where threats are recognised but shrugged off). In contrast, public narratives suggest that we are obsessed with the question of who is to blame for a disaster, and the perceived causes of risks; but this may be because of the blunt language and limited focus of the media (which has very different ideas of news valence than, say, climate change campaigners); even the editorial decisions of specific newspapers are crucial in shaping these public views of risk.
Everyday Stories: The emphases of public narratives (and their imagery) may be distracting us from what matters in thinking about the future; they may not be representative of people's everyday fears; they may limit the expression of ordinary voices. Examining narratives raises questions about methodologies of analysis, and raises the question of how we approach subjectivity. Narrative research allows the examination of the difference between the lived life and told story, to examine temporal and causal ordering as features of sense making; to see how stories interweave personal and cultural meaning frames, and identify contradictory layers of meaning. We can locate modern 'myths': e.g., the myth of the individual's responsibility for climate change and tales of everyday heroism model self-efficacy; but this is just one of many identificatory positions. Language and narrative representations are important, but we also need to ask how things/objects play a role in people's risk narratives.
Futures Stories: Narratives can be powerful vehicles for communicating, for persuading. Narratives need not be complete or whole to be powerful (how complete is any narrative?): people will fill the gaps they perceive with their own cultural frames. But what shapes these (imaginary) narratives will differ; and not all those imagined narratives will be the same. We think of narratives as describing, but what if they prescribe and shape behaviour-how do the stories that we tell influence our expectations about the nature of the world we live in, and its future developments? Fictions may allow us to run through possibilities and tackle 'the dangers of scriptlessness', but alarmist material does not catalyse change: it constructs climate change as beyond human control and paralyses agency. It may be that clifi works as an inoculation against real feeling about possible future events. Do story-tellers have a responsibility to shape public opinion and public feeling? How can challenging stories reach the audiences who don't usually read them, disrupting our 'echo chambers'?
Exploitation Route Reflection on the ways in which perceptions of risk includes accompanying concepts, such as fate, luck, and fortune is useful for communication of risks across a range of sectors. The PI is working with groups involved in education, especially considering the role of risk in education about the environment, as well as in schools and with teachers; with (digital) artists and games designers; with business people and with the royal society (on perceptions of risk and narrative).
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Energy,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL https://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/research/fate-luck-fortune/
 
Description The PI is working with the Royal Geographical Society to create a series of podcasts and other educational materials on the perception of (environmental) risk. The PI has worked wih schools in the Bristol area to develop a workshop on old myths vs new myths of landscape. The PI has given workshops on ancient approaches to environmental risk and on the project; and is planning a further event with a digital artist, Rachel Jacobs at Nottingham Contemporary. The PI has been interviewed for R4 on a programme on Luck by David Spiegelhalter. The PI is about to publish, with Claire Craig, a piece in the Conversation on luck and modelling.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Shelby Davies Center for Historical Research Fellowship
Amount $25,000 (USD)
Organisation Princeton University 
Department Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Research
Sector Academic/University
Country United States
Start 02/2018 
End 05/2018
 
Description Article in The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Written by Esther Eidinow (PI) in collaboration with network participant Claire Craig (chief science policy officer of the Royal Society, here acting in a personal capacity). This piece explored parallels between use of oracles and modelling.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://theconversation.com/oracles-and-models-ancient-and-modern-ways-of-telling-the-future-90124
 
Description Fate, Luck and Fortune project Workshop 1: Historical narratives of environmental risk 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This workshop examined the development of concepts of Fate and Luck in narratives from different historical periods, exploring how the characteristics of these concepts (if not these concepts themselves) have emerged in different temporal and spatial contexts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/events/2017/march/historical-narratives-environmental-risk.html
 
Description Fate, Luck and Fortune project Workshop 2: Political narratives of environmental risk 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The second workshop of the network investigated how conceptions of fate, luck and fortune, and related notions of risk and agency, play out in political and organisational discourses.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/events/2017/july/political-narratives-environmental-risk.html
 
Description Fate, Luck and Fortune, workshop 3 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The Fate, Luck and Fortune project's final workshop investigated whether and how conceptualisations of fate, luck and fortune remain powerful in current, as well as historical, popular discourses concerned with environmental risks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/events/2017/september/popular-narratives-environmental-risk.html
 
Description Interview of Esther Eidinow for BBC Radio 4, Archive on 4 'Good Luck Professor Spiegelhalter' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview of Esther Eidinow for BBC R4 for Archive on 4: 'Good Luck Professor Spiegelhalter': Interview on the history of ideas of chance, luck, fate, fortune, in the context of risk by Prof. David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University who looked at at notions of luck in gambling, traces the origins of how we think about fate and fortune, the religious and psychological view of luck and how the emergence of theory of probability changed our view of it. Broadcast January 6th.Chosen as a podcast by Rhianna Dillon (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05tkykr) for 'Seriously'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity Pre-2006,2006,2017
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09kpmys
 
Description Presentation at Performing the Future, workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The presentation was by Esther Eidinow. This was a workshop organised by Rachel Jacobs, who is a digital artist working on ideas and approaches to the future, and was part of her larger project 'Performing the Future', a collaborative project that involves a series of experimental artist-led labs, public labs, research based workshops and a national tour of the extended version of artwork The Prediction Machine, taking place between June 2017 and June 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.performingthefuture.net/about/
 
Description Public Lecture by Jackson Lears 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public Lecture by Professor Jackson Lears, Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and Editor in Chief of Raritan: a Quarterly Review, Rutgers University, on "The Return of Animal Spirits", 7 September 2017, 6.00 PM - 7.30 PM. This was held in the University of Liverpool in London, 33 Finsbury Square, London, EC2A 1AG. It was advertised widely--in print (the London Review of Books) and online (through Twitter).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007,2017
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/events/2017/september/jackson-lears-animal-spirits.html