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.