Sophie's World author turns from philosophy to climate change

Jostein Gaarder is nursing an ambition. The 58-year-old Norwegian is already known internationally as the author of Sophie's World, the near-ubiquitous 1991 novel – check your bookshelf, it's bound to be there – which conquered the world and introduced a generation of teenagers to philosophy. But now he wants to apply his power for fiction-making to the issue that has come to exercise him even more intensely than Plato's Cave or Descartian dualism: man-made climate change, and humanity's quest to ensure its future.

“We’re told by scientists that we’re standing on the edge of the dramatic consequences of human-induced climate change,” says Gaarder. “I’d very much like to write a novel that got teenagers engaged in this issue.

“So the question becomes: how do you deal with this issue in an artistic way, in a way that will engage the reader? This is the next ambition I’d like to fulfil.”

Gaarder has granted this interview ahead of his appearance at the six-day Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which opens at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre tomorrow. Twenty years after he became a best-selling author, the enthusiasm for the world of ideas that fuelled Sophie's World, and propelled him to literary stardom, is still apparent. Gaarder taught high school philosophy for years before turning to fiction.

He wrote three books that were successful in Norway before producing Sophie's World. No one, least of all he, expected that book – which tells the story of a young girl who starts to receive mysterious letters from a philosopher called Alberto Knox – to be the one that brought him international attention:

"When I started to write Sophie's World, I told my wife that I was writing a book that very few people would read, and that would make little money," remembers Gaarder. "She said, 'Well write it quickly, then'."

Even after the "reasonable success" of his previous books, his publisher was reluctant to publish Sophie's World, he says.

The novel has now been translated into 59 languages, and has sold an estimated 40 million copies.

"I think the reason is narrative," says Gaarder. "Our brains are wired to respond to story, and Sophie's World presents philosophical ideas in the form of a story. Most people think that philosophy has to be very difficult to read, and boring. But when you present these ideas in a narrative, they realise that this isn't true. I don't think philosophy should be hidden behind academic barriers."

Twenty years on, Gaarder says that the need for a popular understanding of philosophical thought, and the practical guidance it can provide, has never been greater. That’s because he believes that inhabitants of the 21st century are facing a challenge unlike any other in history: the possible ruin of the planet and the extinction of ­humankind.

“Philosophy plays a crucial role in helping us to face fundamental challenges, and, of course, the most important challenge we currently face is man-made global warming.

“Up until very recently, all the big, fundamental philosophical questions have been very old. Now, we are in a new situation. We are facing the reality that it is possible for us to destroy the conditions that make life possible on our planet. So now there is a new fundamental question: is humankind adaptable enough to change the behaviour that is putting its future at risk, and so survive?

To help meet this challenge, in 1998 Gaarder founded The Sophie’s Prize, which every year since then has made an award – currently US$100,000 (Dh367,000) – to an individual or organisation engaged in outstanding work on the environment. In 2010 the prize went to the Nasa scientist James Hansen for his work in helping to shape understanding of climate change.

“We need a Copernican revolution in our thinking about the future,” says Gaarder. “I think we must admit that our current economic system is at odds with the limits set by nature. We can’t just keep growing. We need to start asking: what is sustainable?

“I think that the UN Charter of Human Rights is one of the major achievements of western thought. But now we need to think not only about universal rights, but also about universal obligations: perhaps we need a UN Charter of Obligations, too.”

He cites the “golden rule” in ethics: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “Now we need to think not just about the horizontal dimension of that, which incorporates the people around us, but the vertical dimension, which incorporates future generations,” he says. “We don’t have the right to live in a way that reduces the choices available to those who come after us.

"Once this huge income from Sophie's World started to come in, I was in the wonderful position of being able to establish the Sophie Foundation in order to promote work that can help bring about this change."

Gaarder talks on the subject of climate change – so often beset by technical language and scientific infighting – with a rare clarity, as those who attend his event in Abu Dhabi can expect to discover. But he is not content only to talk. Gaarder wants to write a book that does for environmental issues what Sophie's World did for philosophy.

"Art and literature can be a great help in awakening people to crucial issues. Back in the 1960s, for example, a British filmmaker called Peter Watkins made a film called The War Game, which helped awaken an entire generation to the danger of nuclear war, and soon people were marching for nuclear disarmament.

“But it’s hard to write a novel that does this for climate change, because many people assume that a book on this subject is going to be politically correct and lecturing. Of course, you want to get the message across. But you need to find a way to deal with these issues artistically, in a way that will engage readers. This is a crucial challenge: art and literature should be the first to defend humanity against its own ­annihilation.”

Meanwhile, though, the international community shows little sign of reaching simple agreement, let alone formulating a plan for meaningful action, on climate change. Isn’t there a danger that we will never orchestrate the huge changes necessary to conquer our addiction to fossil fuels, and save the planet? In short, is Gaarder an optimist, or a pessimist?

“There is a middle position between those two, and that is hope,” he replies. “To be hopeful is to engage with the issue, and play your part in trying to find an answer.

“To be a pessimist is a way of being lazy. Earth may be the only place in the entire universe where there is life that has the kind of universal consciousness that we have. We have a cosmic responsibility to save this planet.”

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair takes place from tomorrow to Sunday at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Jostein Gaarder’s session is on Thursday at 8pm.

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