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Telling Tales of Climate Collapse: Novelists Weigh In

Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of asking seven novelists who write about climate change and environmental problems—Omar El Akkad, John Lanchester, Lydia Millet, Kim Stanley Robinson, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Madeleine Watts, and Diane Wilson—to tell me more about their work. We discussed what inspired them to write about these matters, what role they see novels playing in public discourse on climate, and whether they see writing about the climate crisis as a kind of activism, among other things.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Maybe better cognitive mapping for their own lives? Or a sense of kinship with the rest of the biosphere. Realization that the biosphere is our extended body, and we are co-extensive with it. The fact that 50 percent of the DNA in your body is not human DNA is the stunning new scientific fact of our time, in this regard. But it seems to be a story that has to be told over and over. Sense of self is very tied to individual consciousness. But it’s bigger than that, so this is a story to tell.

Omar El Akkad: My hope is that I can alter, in even the smallest way, this ruinous attachment to the culture of More. Western society, arguably for centuries but certainly in the post-war age, has revolved around the political and commercial notion that we must constantly have more, consume more, be satisfied only by more. And I suspect if we (and when I say “we,” I mean the dominant culture of capitalism into which almost all of us, willingly or not, are in one way or another conscripted) are to survive the coming century, we will have to make the very painful adjustment to a culture of Less, a culture that cares even in the slightest about those coming generations who will have to pay off our ever-ballooning mortgage of endless consumption and convenience.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad: Our biological lives are, for sure, way more expansive and interconnected than we think, and it’s important that our stories expand beyond the human. The human individual consciousness has been the baseline vantage point of most modern Western literature, and it’s quite limited. I believe this narrow view—what Amitav Ghosh has described in his mirror-breaking book The Great Derangement as the “individual moral adventure”—is an extension of the self-focused, short-sighted mindset that has led to the climate crisis.

It’s all about us—but that “us” cannot be the whole story, because that “us” is mostly the strata of human society that has benefited from centuries of converting lives and habitats to some form of stake in the artificial game of capital accumulation. The resulting ecology of narratives would be a diminished one.

It’s why I feel that there’s an urgent need for more people everywhere to not only see the larger climate story, but also tell it. I hope my novel, among others, can help readers make some connection with a larger view—across cultures, cities, histories, and also species, environments, and modes of existence. I’m trying to expand my own cellular view as I write.Western society, arguably for centuries but certainly in the post-war age, has revolved around the political and commercial notion that we must constantly have more, consume more, be satisfied only by more.

Lydia Millet: Yes! Empathy beyond and among cultures and species. A negative capability that goes beyond us to them and sees them as us. And also not us. And beautifully so. An embrace of the not-us into the us. And a going-forth of the us into the all.

Diane Wilson: I hope that readers will see how the language and cultural framework we bring to understanding the environmental challenges we face also shapes the issue itself. To me, the phrase “climate change,” perpetuates a Western cultural myth of scientific objectivity that is disconnected from spirit, upholding an understanding of the world that is human-centric. To see these issues from an indigenous point of view means understanding our environmental challenges as a failure of relationship, of neglecting or commodifying our relatives. Literature, especially fiction, provides an opportunity for other voices to be recognized. In my novel, the seeds are also one of the characters, reminding humans of the ancient pact, or Original Instructions, in which humans and other beings co-created the world and took care of each other. As Crystal Echo Hawk has said, “Change the future, change the story.”

John Lanchester: As Pitchaya says, Ghosh’s The Great Derangement is a key text here—the project of seeing beyond the individual perspective and the individual story is vital. It’s also, from a story-teller’s point of view, one of the hardest things to do, and therefore the most interesting. The fundamental issues are, as your question suggests, all about connection. Or to put it another way, about resisting the forces and voices which suggest that we aren’t all connected. I love the line of Crystal Echo Hawk’s that Diane quotes, I hadn’t come across it before.

Madeleine Watts: I’m not sure that I have much more to add! I mentioned Ghosh before, and I am more than happy to bring him up again—to fully represent the challenge of climate change we have to dismantle the point of view the realist novel has acclimated us to, that of the individual or the family, on a small scale. Finding ways to represent what Daisy Hildyard calls “the second body” are key—the ways in which our lives are both specific and individual, but interconnected, part of animal systems, microbial systems, fungal systems, and part of broader systems, of electricity production, resource extraction. I find this quote from her particularly helpful: “Climate change creates a new language, in which you have to be all over the place; you are always all over the place. It makes every animal body implicated in the whole world.”

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Did writing about environmental damage and/or climate change alter in any way how you see the world?

Diane Wilson: Writing the novel helped me understand how difficult it is to change the way we understand the world around us, especially when that world view is upheld and reinforced by Western science, schools, etc. But when I broke down the overwhelming scope of the environmental issues into a single seed variety like corn, or the plants in my garden, it became easier to absorb, to understand the patterns, and to deflect the marketing messages that perpetuate the issues. Living in Minnesota, a corn state, we are targeted by industrial seed companies advertising slogans that they are responsible for “feeding the world,” for example.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, I pay more attention to the weather. Also to my garden, the Sierra, the news, etc.

Omar El Akkad: I’m not sure my writing alters how I see the world, but the research that goes into the writing certainly does. It’s impossible, I think, to go visit the sinking land of southern Louisiana, an utterly beautiful place that is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of a football field every half hour, and not feel a profound sense of grief. It’s impossible to visit southern Florida, where king tides now regularly flood the cities and yet real estate hustlers continue to peddle multimillion-dollar mansions designed to float in high water, and not feel a profound sense of rage. You can’t draw the map without studying the territory, and the territory changes you.

Madeleine Watts: I started paying attention. To the news, yes, but also nature. I started growing plants, and gardening. I learned the names of plants and trees and flowers and birds and insects I’d previously not even registered. I notice the weather, and write it down each day.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad: One change is my greater awareness of ways stories can be nefariously distorted and weaponized. For me, studying and writing about climate change also means having more exposure to the false narratives around it. The level of deceit is incredible.Empathy beyond and among cultures and species. A negative capability that goes beyond us to them and sees them as us.

Some aren’t so obvious. A lot of people may not be aware that the seemingly well-intended notion of a carbon footprint was propagated by British Petroleum in order to shift responsibility from the fossil fuel industry to everyday consumers. Others are blatant. Just recently, with the widespread power failure in Texas after a likely climate change-induced polar vortex event, market-dominating oil and natural gas interests tried to deflect blame to less ubiquitous wind power. It would almost be comical if so many lives hadn’t suffered or, worse, ended.

I do hope and believe the stream of misinformation and misdirects will eventually fail. Good, truthful storytelling is too powerful for it.

Lydia Millet: Mis- and disinformation. False stories abound. Deflection stories abound.

John Lanchester: Yes, definitely. It moved it from the back of my mind to the front of my mind. Once it’s there, I find, like many people, that barely a day goes by without my noticing something connected to it. My novel imagines a much colder Britain, because the Gulf Stream no longer helps keep the island warm—and lo, this week there was news that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (a big part of the Gulf Stream) is at its weakest in a thousand years.

The other thing I found out only this week was the fact mentioned by Pitchaya, that BP invented the idea of the climate footprint. I think the deliberate manufacturing of ignorance and falsehood around the climate—the manufacturing of nescience—will come to be seen as one of the great generational crimes.

In many parts of the world—and especially in the United States—climate change is a highly politicized topic. As novelists who address it in your fiction, do you see yourselves as taking a political stance? Is your novel(s) a form of activism?

Pitchaya Sudbanthad: As one writes any novel, one is making decisions about point of view, subject, language, and setting—among many other considerations—that are inherently political. So, yes, I’ve taken a stance by having written my novel, and so have writers who have avoided politicized topics like climate change.I started growing plants, and gardening. I learned the names of plants and trees and flowers and birds and insects I’d previously not even registered.

ILULISSAT, GREENLAND – AUGUST 04: In this view from an airplane icebergs float in Disko Bay at sunset on August 04, 2019 near Ilulissat, Greenland. The Sahara heat wave that recently sent temperatures to record levels in parts of Europe has also reached Greenland. Climate change is having a profound effect in Greenland, where over the last several decades summers have become longer and the rate that glaciers and the Greenland ice cap are retreating has accelerated. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Does that mean that climate change-related novels are by nature a form of activism? I think it can be, especially in bringing awareness to climate justice issues and how lives are unequally affected across a connected world, but it’s hard for most authors to expect their novels to have a reliable effect. We don’t usually write outright propaganda with a clear call to mass action. With how quickly the observed anthropocene impact is exceeding scientific forecasts, do we have enough time on the clock to count on climate activism via our novels? Are tens of thousands of words and subtle character arcs our best way to say, “Put out this carbon-spewing fire now?”

I believe that, as writers, we can also play stronger persuasive roles beyond the formal limits of our work. We can join with other writers, editors, booksellers, librarians, science and policy experts, and, most importantly, readers in leading visible, vocal activism that can bring greater attention to the climate crisis and environmental justice. We can influence how fast the publishing industry as a whole moves toward greater sustainability. We can actually yell, “Put out this carbon-spewing fire now!” and expect results.https://ce17f89ee61a484f276b57d6a803edf9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Kim Stanley Robinson: Agree with Pitchaya here, about doing more than just writing novels, to mobilize public opinion and get the word out faster. Also agree with this: all novels are political interventions. Sometimes they pretend not to be, but this just means their politics is status quo. Maybe there is art for art’s sake, but in the novel in particular, not so much. So, best to know that and put that knowledge to use. Subtlety would be nice, but not always.

Diane Wilson: In choosing to write a novel based around indigenous seeds, my hope was to sidestep the overly politicized discussion of GMO seeds, which has become such a heated, divisive argument. Instead, I wanted to provide context for understanding how our relationship with seeds has evolved over time, and what those changes mean for human beings and the planet. Through the characters actions, we gain insight into the criteria they used for making their choices and how those criteria reflect their respective cultural values. I crossed into more direct political activism in a lengthy Afterword that speaks to the current, dire status of seeds globally and includes a call to action and resources for getting involved. When I read and present, the conversation often moves beyond a discussion of the novel’s characters and themes into real world engagement, which is exactly what I hoped the novel would accomplish.

Omar El Akkad: Politics intrudes on my writing, not the other way around. All writers are in one way or another engaged in the work of investigating what it means to be human, and it’s impossible to do that without addressing the systems we’ve designed to order our societies and the people we’ve put in charge of those systems. When politicians—or, in the case of the United States, entire political parties—take a plainly counterfactual position on something as existential as the future of our planet because their corporate benefactors demand it, then my writing on the future of our planet by definition becomes political. I have no say in the matter.

John Lanchester: I’m in full agreement with my colleagues. Personally, I would love it if writing novels was entirely the same thing as activist engagement, but part of the reason I would love it is that it would let me off having to do anything else.Does that mean that climate change-related novels are by nature a form of activism? I think it can be, especially in bringing awareness to climate justice issues and how lives are unequally affected across a connected world.

Madeleine Watts: I agree with what everybody’s said. Everything is political, and so is my book. But writing a book isn’t the same thing as climate activism—that vital work is being done by the people working day and night to halt the construction of coal mines by the Great Barrier Reef, and advocating (and hopefully implementing) policies like the Green New Deal.

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Department of English Language and Literature