Why are writers not weathering the storm?


There’s a lot written about climate change, but only a handful of fictional works put it at the core of the story

It took a hurricane of devastating proportions for the issue of climate change to raise its head in the recent US election. In a political culture where global warming is believed by many American conservatives to be the invention of a conspiracy, the consequences of the threat posed by the Earth’s altered environment remained largely unspoken about until disaster struck.

However, if climate change is the elephant in the room in political culture, it is also curiously under-represented in contemporary literature; the fallout from the ongoing exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources is largely ignored in the present-day fictional landscape.

Is there such a thing as contemporary eco-literature, and who are the writers best examining this most fundamental challenge to human existence? In literary fiction, global warming rarely makes its presence felt. Radically changed weather systems are occasionally evoked as a metaphorical reflection of psychological landscapes (think of the unusual snow that dominates Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz), but they are rarely the central focus of the plot nor, indeed, a theme.

There are a few notable works of literary fiction that place an eco-drama centre stage, but even these ecologically-themed narratives use the subject as a means of exposing human weakness rather than pointing to our culpability in the crisis or offering any potential solution.

One of the main characters in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, for example, is “greener than Greenpeace” eco-warrior Walter Berglund, whose environmental obsession entails the sacrifice not just of his marriage but of his morality; trying to save a rare warbling bird, he evicts hundreds of poor rural farmers from their homes. Walter’s corruption asks an important question about any potential solution to climate change – which is more important, human lives or the ozone layer? – but Franzen fails to impress upon the reader their crucial co-existence.

Although Franzen has written extensively on his concerns about global warming in his personal essays, from the illegal hunting of songbirds to the environmental burden of global overpopulation, in Freedom the crisis of climate change seems just another contemporary political question for him to satirise.

The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Solar, meanwhile, is a middle-aged physicist and solar engineer, Michael Beard. Like Walter, Michael is determined to further the environmental cause through direct action – in this case through scientific means – but his own life and moral deficiencies get in the way.

McEwan partly based the book on a trip he made to the Arctic Circle with a climate-change lobby group. The scenario is detailed and accurate and takes place over a span of nine years but the comic tone undercuts the book’s more serious points; ultimately, the success of Michael’s attempted environmental interventions remains as improbable as his redemption.

McEwan suggests the inevitability of Michael’s deficiency in an interview about Solar: “In the end, self-interest rather than idealism is going to focus our minds.” Despite the centrality of the eco-thrust in Solar, climate change isn’t the real issue.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s recently published Flight Behaviour, the politics of climate change are integrated into the fabric of the story in a much more focused way. Kingsolver is a trained biologist, who brilliantly suffused her scientific background in earlier work such as The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer. Flight Behaviour is set against the backdrop of a bizarre butterfly migration, and Kingsolver uses her naif heroine Dellarobia Turnbull to educate the reader on the consequences of global warming.

The problem with Flight Behaviour, however, is that its politics get in the way of the human drama. Kingsolver bombards us with so much information about the minutiae of the butterflies’ life-cycle and the macrocosmic implications of their fate that, despite her beautiful prose, she fails to persuade us to care about either her characters or the global crisis.

Sci-fi success

If literary fiction fails to integrate its human interests with its environmental politics, the genre of science fiction has explored the impact of climate change much more forcefully. Margaret Atwood has even coined a new name for this eco-focused fantasy: “cli-fi”.

Speculative fiction is more suitable terrain for exploring the consequences of climate change, she has argued, because the true consequences of the man-made disaster have yet to be determined, and ultimately they will render our world unrecognisable.

Indeed, as early as the 1960s, JG Ballard was anticipating the coming crisis of climate change in his novel The Drowned World. Set in 2145, the novel conjures a world where melting ice-caps and rising sea levels have left cities submerged; civilisation as we know it has become a primitive jungle. The story follows scientist Dr Robert Kerans, the manager of a biological testing station, who is charged with monitoring the daily catastrophic shifts in the Earth’s make-up. Although the apocalyptic setting distances the reader from identifying with the narrative too literally, Ballard twins his scientific impulses with a brilliant psychological study of character, as the radically altered physical landscape is matched by a changed psychic space too; man and nature are at one in this new, surreal reality.

TC Boyle is not usually associated with science fiction, but his 2000 novel A Friend of the Earth also effectively uses a futuristic setting to explore the natural consequence of climate change: species dying off one by one, a shrinking gene pool and universal sameness. Deforestation and heavy floods have left humans with nothing more than sake and rice to sustain them but Boyle is more interested in the shifting parameters of human experience. The book flips back and forth between 1990 and 2025, as its protagonist, Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, is gradually transformed from conspicuous consumer into an eco-warrior with criminal tendencies.

Although the outlook is bleak (Tyrone’s brand of eco-terrorism leaves barely a footprint on the fate of the world), Boyle remains ambiguous about our ability to do anything to change it.

“Obviously I am very sympathetic to extreme acts against the destroyers of the environment,” Boyle wrote. “Consider this, however: while many of us may be sympathetic to subverting the law to protect the environment under the excuse that we are obeying a ‘higher law’, what of the right-to-lifers who make the very same argument in support of murdering the nurses, doctors and patients in abortion clinics?”

Atwood herself has provided us with some of the most significant speculative explorations of human manipulation of the natural world throughout her body of work: technology and fertility in The Handmaid’s Tale; genetic engineering in Oryx and Crake.

Her 2009 novel The Year of the Flood sees an eco-cult, God’s Gardeners, fight against the machinations of CorpSEcorps, who have tried to eradicate human emotion in their quest for control over nature. Genetically engineered humans, however, cannot be programmed to take account of chance and are therefore not primed for survival.

In The Year of the Flood, Atwood cannot concede total disaster and the novel’s positive conclusion – we will adapt; that is evolution – is vital for priming us for the important role that eco-literature can play in exciting social and political change.

As the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the US election made clear, it is the effects of climate change on human life that make us care about the larger issues. Ultimately, it is human stories that will provoke change, and literature has an important role to play in allowing us to imagine just how devastating our future may be.

Cli-fi: five of the best

The Year of the Flood,Margaret Atwood, 2009

An eco-cult goes underground after a waterless flood washes away emotion and the world is taken over by robotic GM human beings.

The Drowned World, JG Ballard, 1962

The Earth has been sunk under water in this futuristic novel. How do human beings behave when they have water on the brain?

Watership Down, Richard Adams, 1972 The plight of a warren of rabbits becomes a metaphor for the destruction of the environment.

Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach, 1990 Callenbach strikes a rare note of environmental optimism in Ecotopia, but is there a human price to be paid for energy efficiency?

Galápagos, Kurt Vonnegut, 1985

A rare piece of ‘cli-fi ’ set in the past; Vonnegut imagines humans devolving into seals.

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