Narratives of Environmental Risk: Fate, Luck and Fortune

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


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.


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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