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from the October 2020 issue

Climate Fiction for Climate Action

Environmental writer Amy Brady considers the role of literature in prompting action against climate change.


In early June of 2020 the Yakutia region of Siberia hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the permafrost to melt and the dry soil beneath to burst into flames. Thick white smoke spread across the country’s green expanse, releasing more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than any other wildfire on Earth in the last two decades.

These fires are a clear sign that the planet is in crisis. It is particularly worrisome that the Arctic is warming at least two and a half times faster than anywhere else on Earth, because melting Arctic sea ice leads to rising seas—and eventually to the flooding of coastal cities and villages, home to tens of millions of people. And yet, despite these dire signs that something has gone terribly wrong, only 69% of Americans are worried about global warming. As for the rest of the world, a recent Pew poll reveals that a median of only 68% of those surveyed in twenty-six nations say that climate change is a threat.

Why do humans have such a hard time accepting the real and present danger of climate change? Much of the blame can be attributed to the fossil fuel industry, which has engaged in an enormous public disinformation campaign for decades. But human psychology also reveals some answers. Many people believe that the planet is inherently just and stable. Climate change poses an uncomfortable challenge to that idea. Others resist the discomfort that comes from having to give up short-term benefits, such as immediate profit, for the long-term advantages of stabilizing the biosphere. But perhaps even more pernicious is the human brain’s tendency to reject things that are psychologically distant (in time and space) from itself. This is a particular problem for people living in the relatively climate-stable United States. At the time of this writing, climate catastrophes are still more likely to happen in the Global South.

That’s why novels—especially those by authors from nations hardest hit by climate change—are invaluable. Through vibrant scenes and deeply moving character arcs, these stories, which are often called “climate fiction,” depict the worst of climate change through the eyes of protagonists experiencing the disasters firsthand. Consider Thai author Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which follows life in Thailand’s capital for over one hundred years. As climate change ravages the low-lying city, streets and buildings become inundated with sea water, changing forever what life in Bangkok looks like. Then there’s Indian author Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island. It follows its lead character Deen from India to Venice and then to Los Angeles, while drawing parallels between Bengali mythology and the strange sights of today’s climate-changed world, sights such as red-and-black wildfires raging toward an art museum, or dozens of dolphins spontaneously beaching themselves.

Climate-fiction writers like Sudbanthad and Ghosh achieve with their novels what so many news reports don’t: they capture the extraordinary happenings of our age, the “signs and wonders” wrought by a warming atmosphere, and connect them directly to humanity’s enormous carbon output. Indeed, these novels drive home the fact that global warming is caused by human activity and that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is not only irrational—it’s deadly.

Sudbanthad and Ghosh’s novels are realist in nature, meaning they take place mostly in the present (though Sudbanthad’s eventually takes readers to the near future) and depict climate change as it is happening now. By doing so, the novels encourage readers to imagine what our climate-changed world looks like. They help readers to see and feel—to truly grasp—the reality of climate change and the degree of havoc it wreaks everywhere and on all living things.

But not all climate novels are written in the realist mode. Climate fiction comes in a range of styles and modes, while still drawing connections between large, systemic phenomenon like climate change, capitalism, and war. Dystopian novels like UK author John Lanchester’s The Wall are particularly prevalent. Set in a future United Kingdom, it connects postapocalyptic climate change to conflict by showing how dwindling resources result in a rise of nationalism. Omar El Akkad’s American War is also dystopian. Its protagonist becomes radicalized after a climate-fueled war breaks out in the United States.

Dystopia isn’t all that climate fiction has to offer, however.  Oil on Water by Nigerian author Helon Habila is a climate-themed thriller, involving two men who traverse the environmentally devastated Nigerian delta to hunt for a British oil executive’s kidnapped wife. Fantasy and science fiction writers have also used their talents to address the crisis. In Tentacle, Dominican author Rita Indiana tells the tale of a young transman’s fantastical journey. With the help of a magical anemone, he travels back in time and witnesses how colonialism and an over-reliance on technology have led to the destruction of oceans—and of humanity. He seeks to change the arc of history before it’s too late. Rajat Chaudhuri, who resides in Calcutta, India, explores a Ballardian near-future in Butterfly Effect, a novel about three diverse characters who seek to reveal the mysteries of Darkland, a nation-state that arose after catastrophic climate change wiped out much of what used to be Asia.

In recent years, climate fiction has expanded beyond novels to include short-story writers. Like novels, short stories invite readers to inhabit the minds and perspectives of characters living through catastrophe. Through their eyes, readers can witness loss and destruction. American writer Terese Svoboda, for example, explores Middle America in her short-story collection, Great American Desert. The stories follow the evolution of the Midwest from a place of fecundity to an uninhabitable wasteland. Svoboda, who is also a translator, once told me that her views on climate change evolved after translating some poetry by writers from the South Sudan, who view people as stewards of the earth: “Their work sees humans as the ants of God,” she said.

Indeed, climate-fiction novelists and short story writers certainly seem to be taking that perspective, but it presents a challenge specific to their genre: their antagonist—climate change—isn’t a typical villain. It can’t be stopped by a single hero with a bullet or magic wand. For many of these writers, then, their narrative arcs are rooted in collective action. Take Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a sci-fi novel set in the titular year after more than fifty feet of sea-level rise. Half of New York City is submerged in water, but life there is much the same—it is still the capitalistic, financial epicenter of the world, and many people are suffering. But once the novel’s protagonists realize that other social structures are possible—structures rooted in eco-socialism and economic equality—they start to organize for real change.

Robinson’s novel is at base a hopeful story. Much of climate fiction is hopeful. But most works in this genre contain an emotional range that feels vital to the crisis at hand. Just as human beings are capable of feeling multiple emotions at once—hope as well as discouragement, courage as well as fear—the best of climate fiction allows for all of these feelings. Whereas many journalists still abide by the fundamental rule to be as objective as possible, fiction writers have the freedom to explore the pathos of climate change. And in doing so, allow readers to feel even their darkest feelings to achieve a sense of catharsis.

These are bold claims, certainly. So just how effective is climate fiction, really, at getting readers to take the crisis more seriously? According to Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, the genre can function as a useful tool in nudging readers “in a slightly more progressive direction.” In a recent empirical study, the researcher surveyed more than 100 U.S.-based readers about their experience reading climate fiction. Many of them reported that stories about the crisis helped them to better imagine “potential climate futures,” meaning they could better visualize what climate change might bring if left unabated. Moreover, the study revealed that some readers of climate fiction were more likely to discuss climate change with friends and family members, even with those whom conversations about the subject had previously proven difficult.

The pieces in this issue may provoke such discussions. Andri Snær Magnason’s Of Time and Water, published to great acclaim in Iceland, surveys the ravages of climate change; the excerpt here, “Farewell to the White Giants,” addresses the shrinking of glaciers. Ariadna Castellarnau follows a rainmaker and his sullen daughter as they try to rescue a village from drought. Duanwad Pimwana reveals one possible result of cavalier attitudes toward accumulation and disposal. And Francisco de la Mora’s graphic fiction depicts the Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer mourning their mutual losses.

Of course, fiction won’t change the world—we need real-life, collective action to do that. But if news reports alone could inspire such action, they would have done so long ago. No single means of communication can be solely effective, because climate change is such a “wicked” problem—it is truly planetary in scale. Therefore, we need not one but many pathways toward understanding the breadth and urgency of the challenge, so that more of us can begin taking necessary action toward change. For some, that path can be found through literature.

© 2020 by Amy Brady. All rights reserved.

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